Keisho Okayama was born April 23, 1934 in Fujiidera-shi, Osaka, Japan, the middle son of Reverend Zenkai Okayama, a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist priest, and Tatsuko (Hattori) Okayama. In 1936, at the request of the Buddhist sect’s abbot, the elder Okayama, accompanied by his wife and two sons – Haksho and Keisho – traveled to the United States to serve a congregation in Watsonville on the central coast of California. A third son, Kosho, was born in Watsonville.
In 1939, Reverend Okayama was offered the high position of Executive Secretary of the Buddhist Church Headquarters in San Francisco. By the end of 1941, the family was packed and prepared to return to Japan. Their plans were abruptly shattered by the outbreak of World War II and the ensuing events.
By the Presidential Executive Order 9066 dated February 19, 1942, all persons of Japanese ancestry, both citizens and aliens, were forcibly moved from their West Coast homes to concentration camps – referred to as “relocation centers” – in remote sites around the country. In May of that year, the Okayama family was first evacuated to Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, on the San Francisco Peninsula. Tanforan had been repurposed as a so-called assembly center for Japanese people living in the Bay Area. Families were permitted to take with them only what they could carry.
In September 1942, Okayama and his family were transported to the Topaz War Relocation Center (also known as the Central Utah Relocation Center), an internment camp in central Utah. The population of Topaz, which housed 9,000 internees and staff, was equivalent to the fifth-largest city in Utah at that time. After spending three years confined at Topaz, the family returned to California in August 1945, settling for a time in San Francisco. At the request of the War Relocation Office, Okayama’s father supervised a hostel service at the San Francisco Buddhist Temple to temporarily house families as they were released from the camps.
The experience at the internment camps had a deep and enduring effect on Okayama that resonated throughout his life. Prejudice against Japanese Americans remained strong for many years after the end of WWII. The Okayama family encountered personal incidents of discrimination after leaving the internment camp and returning to San Francisco. This was also the case in Portland – where the family moved after San Francisco and Okayama attended high school. Because of these circumstances, he felt alienated from the country of his birth, and had a lot of confusion and guilt about his sense of obligation to its culture. His split identity as a Japanese American created enormous psychic stress. Art was one way that Okayama dealt with some of his feelings of insecurity and anxiety:
“If my paintings are truthful, they should give evidence of my conflicting dualities, but hopefully resolved in a matrix of intimacy.”
–Keisho Okayama, 1991
After Okayama graduated from high school in Portland in 1952, he enrolled at UCLA, where he spent the next three years studying philosophy. In 1956, at twenty-two, Okayama became a U.S. citizen. He volunteered for military service and was stationed in Germany for two years. Following an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, he returned to UCLA, now majoring in art. Initially his interest was in design, but he also began taking life drawing and painting classes. His growing interest in these disciplines set the course for his lifelong work as an artist. He received a B.A. in Art in 1962.
Early on, as Okayama was developing as an artist, he came across Max Raphael’s The Demands of Art, published in 1968. Raphael’s writings were important to Okayama as he formulated his own ideas about the significance of art. Another person who influenced Okayama’s perspective on art was Mary Homes, an art historian and artist, who taught at UCLA and later at UCSC. Professor Holmes strongly valued the expression of inner life and believed art was a spiritual process. Clearly these ideas resonated with Okayama. He maintained a connection to Ms. Holmes for many years after she left UCLA in 1965.
From the time he began to focus on art, Okayama was interested in drawing from the figure. It is important to note that he always drew from the model, even when his paintings were abstract. After graduating from UCLA, Okayama signed up for a life-drawing class at Los Angeles City College, for the access to models that the course offered. He was not seeking instruction – he just wanted to draw. However, the adjunct professor, M. P. Mack, made it clear that if Okayama was going to take his class, he had to take instruction. Mack proved to be an important art instructor for Okayama, helping the young artist develop his own eye and voice in art. He was forever indebted to Professor Mack for that encouragement and counsel.
Okayama worked part time as a monitor for art classes at the UCLA Extension in Westwood Village from I963-69. The position afforded additional opportunities to work from models, as well as the chance to meet and interact with other working artists, several of whom became lifelong colleagues and friends. He worked in pencil at this time, which he used until the early 2000s. He also did a series of charcoal drawings between 1962-66.
Around 1964, Okayama moved to a studio near what is now the Staples Center, and began making large stretched-canvas acrylic paintings. He did several color field paintings, the largest at 6 x 12 feet, each of which displayed his subtle sensitivity to color.
Okayama met Lauren Fisher in 1967, when she modeled for an art class. At the time she was an art student at UCLA and modeled for part-time income. In 1968 they moved into a large storefront studio together, a mile east of USC in Los Angeles. Okayama built a living area for them in a portion of the 2,500 square foot space and used the rest as a studio and shop. She began working in the field of early childhood education, which ultimately became her professional career. They were married in 1969.
Okayama started to paint from the figure in this studio, with Lauren as a live-in model for the first paintings. He completed several figurative paintings over the next 5 years, working for 6 months to a year on each one. The backgrounds of the first two of these paintings show a direct connection to his color field pieces. In the next few paintings, marks of color began to appear in the backgrounds that connect these works to his later, more abstract paintings. Toward the end of this period, he worked on a painting with multiple figures and some wild imaginative elements – which pointed to paintings he did years later. The last paintings he did during these years were completely abstract, with no figures in them.
At various times between 1971-1995, Okayama was an adjunct professor at the College of Creative Studies at UCSB, East Los Angeles Community College and UCLA. He was a sensitive and charismatic teacher who maintained friendships with many former students.
For over 20 years, beginning in the early 1970s, Okayama was involved with the Senshin Buddhist Temple Kinnara Gagaku group. Gagaku is an ancient music that has been performed and preserved by the Imperial Court of Japan since the seventh century, and in some temples and shrines. Kinnara was formed by priests of the Senshin Temple in 1969 in an effort to reestablish the practice and performance of traditional Japanese performing arts in the United States. Okayama learned to play one of the gagaku instruments, the hichiriki, with this group, and performed countless times with them. Okayama also made masks for the dances – called Bukagu – of this ancient music, which were used in performances. He also made a few hichiriki and became the only craftsperson to make this instrument in the United States. In addition, Okayama designed and crafted the cases for the hichiriki and another instrument called the sho, as well as cases for the Bugaku masks.
In 1973, Okayama and his wife purchased a home in the area of Los Angeles now known as Koreatown. Because of this move, he did not have a studio as large as the one he had had for the previous five years. He used one room as a makeshift work area. He began painting somewhat abstract figures in acrylic on large sheets of paper pinned to the walls, often gluing several sheets together to form an even larger surface. Many of these images were influenced by the Buddhist cave paintings along the Silk Road in China. Some of the figures in the paintings began with drawings done in life drawing sessions. Other figures came from his imagination. The backgrounds to these paintings were close to the later stretched-canvas figure paintings. At this time, he drew at model sessions in the studios of friends, working in pencil, but also doing an extended series of small watercolor portraits of models. He showed his special sensitivity to and understanding of color in these pieces, especially in the skin tones of the models.
Around 1980, Okayama built a large, free-standing studio in back of the house. He returned to painting on canvas. Instead of using stretcher bars, he pinned the canvas to the wall, as he had done with the acrylic on paper pieces. This became the chosen format for the rest of his life. He preferred painting on canvas that was not framed or stretched because he felt the material itself, and the way it draped on the wall, was an important element of the overall feeling.
At this time his work became more abstract, with some figurative elements such as heads or faces, large eyes and figures. The figurative elements gave way to geometric forms and eventually the works done in the last decade of his life were purely abstract – sheets of luminous hues suspended in space. A certain sense of color and space was consistent in all his work, and these last works distilled and concentrated it, creating a kind of mystical light.
“My primary concern has always been to establish a condition of feeling with forms in space that felt to me to be true. The images must feel real to me.”
–Keisho Okayama, 1991
After several years of considering the possibility of living somewhere other than Los Angeles, Okayama and his wife bought a farm house with a barn on 5 acres in Bellingham, Washington in 1992. Okayama used the $20,000 reparation money given to Internment Camp internees from the U.S. government. Since the move was sudden and they weren’t sure whether they wanted to leave LA for good, they rented out their LA home. Okayama found the Bellingham house in June and they moved in that September. He had to use a small room for his studio, which prompted a series of works – called Composite Mediums – utilizing pencil, sumi ink, oil pastels, chalk and acrylic paint. He often repurposed old drawings from the model in these pieces, and worked from his imagination. Because the property needed excessive repairs and Okayama did not have a working studio, as well as the lack of an art community in the area, they decided to return to LA in 1994, with a reinforced commitment to the city.
Because of his continued interest in drawing from the figure, in the early 2000s Okayama began going to life drawing sessions at Barnsdall Park. Initially he went to long-pose sessions. When he later changed to short-pose sessions, he switched from pencil to sumi ink. The spontaneous nature of a mark then became a more prominent aspect of his work from the model.
Okayama preferred working in natural light. He designed his studio to have good north light on the wall where he painted. He didn’t work every day – there could be months between the periods when he painted. Even when he wasn’t painting, he drew from the figure at life model sessions. Okayama usually went into the studio in the morning after some coffee and a light breakfast. He worked on one image at a time. He didn’t feel the work was finished until he spent time, often a few days, looking at the painting to make sure that it was complete – that every aspect of the painting worked together. Often he hung one or two most recent images alongside the new canvas he was working on so he could look at the paintings in relation to each other.
His artistic sensibility extended beyond the work he did in his studio. Together with his wife, Okayama made extensive renovations to their home, which was built in 1901. Thanks to his experience helping to maintain the old apartment buildings his father owned, he had taught himself a variety of construction skills, including carpentry, electrical work and plumbing. Employing an organic conceptual approach to renovation and design, he often used found or recycled materials, both for the construction and for details in his construction. The house became yet another expression of his artistic sensibility.
In 2016, Okayama underwent two major surgeries that had an effect on his health. He never really regained his strength after these procedures and consequently did little art work the last year of his life. He had to have another major surgery at the end of March, 2018. About ten days after the surgery, Okayama died on April 4, 2018.