Karen Tei Yamashita is always full of the most interesting Nisei history, and when she told me that a Nisei woman ran a famous cafe in North Beach in the 60s and invented the mud pid dessert, I just had to find out who it was. Unfortunately, I discovered who this charming woman was too late, as she passed away in November, 2004. However, I believe her husband is still living and might be worth tracking down for Shig related memories.
But what a thrill, to find this utterly unique Nisei in the thick of the North Beach bohemian scene. The story just gets lusher and more fantastic by the day.
From the San Francisco Chronicle obituary:
Joanna Chiyo Nakamura Droeger, who is said to have invented Mud Pie at her once-famous San Francisco restaurant that was popular with writers and other notables, died Thursday at age 76.
She died at home in Cupertino from natural causes following prolonged health problems, said her son, Michael Droeger of San Francisco.
Part of San Francisco's bohemian artists community, Ms. Droeger and her husband, John Droeger, were married in 1957 and the same year opened the Brighton Express restaurant adjacent to the Old Spaghetti Factory.
The restaurant soon relocated on Pacific Street and became a hangout for writers and performers, both famous and soon-to-be-famous. Among the regulars were authors Christopher Isherwood and Herbert Gold and budding impresario Bill Graham "at a time when all he owned was a motorcycle," said John Droeger, now of Patagonia, Ariz.
Semiregulars and guests included William Saroyan, Janis Joplin, Lenny Bruce, the Smothers Brothers, Imogene Cunningham, Gus Hall and Woody Allen in company with Herb Caen.
Joanna Droeger was "jolly, laughing, funny, accepting," recalled Gold. "Where she walked, she dragged good vibes along with her."
A Chronicle "Night Life" column by Grover Sales paid tribute in 1962:
"Among North Beach restaurateurs, Joanna is regarded as a gifted and highly creative cook; in ready agreement are the inhabitants of the Brighton Express, an eatery in the old International Settlement on Pacific near Kearny that is truly beyond category.
"Owned and most feverishly operated by egg-shaped Joanna and her 6-foot-6 husband John Droeger, the Brighton Express serves as dining room, orphanage and social clinic for a strictly non-tourist clientele of entertainers, artists, writers and unclassifiables who subsist on Joanna's Daily Special, topped off with one of her unbelievable hand-crafted desserts -- usually a rhapsodic coffee ice cream and fudge delicacy misleadingly titled 'Mud Pie.' "
Her son Michael traced the origin of the dessert in a biographical sketch:
"Perhaps my mother's biggest claim to fame is as the inventor of the dessert Mud Pie in 1957," he wrote. "Her original concoction of an Oreo cookie crust, coffee ice cream and homemade fudge topping has been often imitated."
She got the idea from "an article my mother read about the then-newly married Barbra Streisand and Elliot Gould," he said. "They apparently kept a freezer under their bed so they could eat coffee ice cream without leaving the bedroom. My mother thought that that was such a decadent and wonderful thing that she went about looking to create a coffee ice cream dessert.
"The name came quite innocently enough when someone saw her making the pies (pressing the ice cream into the crust by hand) and asked what she was doing. 'Oh, just making mud pies,' she replied. The name stuck."
Born in Los Angeles as a sansei, or third-generation Japanese American, Ms. Droeger spent her early years with her older sister living in a convent. She was interned with other Japanese Americans during World War II at four detention camps: Tanforan, Tule Lake, Topaz and Amache. She began her final year of high school in a camp and graduated from Lowell High School in San Francisco.
In addition to her husband and son, she is survived by a daughter, Gillian Droeger of San Francisco; and two sisters, Natalie Katayanagi of Richmond and Diane Sasaki of Detroit.
She refused to have a formal funeral, her son said, so a "festive service honoring her memory" will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Sundayat the Kimochi Center, 1840 Sutter St., San Francisco.
The family requests that donations in her memory be given to Project Open Hand, 730 Polk St., San Francisco, CA 94109.
Recently, the San Francisco Center for the Book asked me to be one of 15 artists to illustrate and carve a 12" x 12" linoleum block on the theme of the Mexican game loteria. This is actually a riff off of a (surprise) Los Angeles project headed up by Aardvark Press. In this impressive and ambitious printing project, a group of truly gifted Los Angeles artists were asked to create loteria "cards", each corresponding to a number and theme in the loteria game, and that also reflected LA in some way.
The San Francisco version was designed pretty much the same way- 15 artists, choosing a number and a theme based on loteria, with imagery that somehow references San Francisco. Not being a San Franciscan (I'm an Oaklander, ahem) I had to get into a yoga position and really dig deep for this one. However, once I had a theme in my grasp (I chose #1, El Gallo, the rooster) it all came together. San Francisco. Hot chicks with tattoos on bikes, riding in the fog. Get it?
Since June 1st, I have had the terrific honor of being an artist-in-residency at the esteemed Espy Literary Foundation, located in pictureque Oysterville, Washington. I applied for this award some two odd years ago, was told a year later that they Foundation was suffering financial difficulties and promptly forgot all about it.
Now that my life has been radically changed with the new job, new city, new engagement, I hadn't really been putting the necessary "umph" back into the Shigeyoshi Murao book that it really deserved, and deep in my dark dark soul- I knew it. So when the Espy Foundation President, Polly Freidlander, called in early May while I was at work...I could scarcely make out her words and comprehend that I was being offered a month away to write. I managed to eke out that novelist Shawn Wong was on the literary committee this year and had in fact, selected my application amongst a host of many others as something worth investing in. Cripes!
So with the incredible grace of my boss(es) at JANM I was able to pack a tiny bag, exactly two books (I chose Louis Fiset's newly released book on Camp Harmony and James McNaughton's Army published book on Nisei Linguists) and some wet weather gear and headed to the peninsula.
One week into the residency, I can say that chapter one is in fairly solid shape, and chapter two (pre-war Seattle leading up from the immigration of Murao's parents from Chinran, Japan to Seattle all the way up to the outbreak of war in 1941) is finally emerging. There are eleven chapters outlined all together, some more distant clouds on the horizon than others. But I'm pretty thrilled that I can actually SEE the book now- its bold strokes and feathering highlights and textures.
In between marathon reading/writing sessions, if there is ever a break in the rain of course, I am on my bicycle exploring the cranberry bogs, the rhododendron forests wet with young ferns and the husks of emptied oysters. Along the path I've already met a black bear ambling straight down the road, a two day old fawn nursing on her mother, and an entire flotilla of beavers leaving filagreed silvery currents in their wake.
Until I can get my claws on a usb cord to download photos, I'm borrowing these excellent shots by local photographer, John Granen.
For a charming little description of historic Oysterville and illustrations of the gingerbread houses painted wedgewood blue and firetruck red that line the main street feast here. The houses on this particular street each have a historic, handpainted sign telling you who the original owner was and when the house was built. Cuuuute! Clambakes and crossword puzzles in my pedal pushers.
ABOUT THE ESPY FOUNDATION:
Created in 1998, the Espy Foundation is a non-profit organization based in Oysterville, Washington and dedicated to advancing and encouraging the literary and visual arts. The Foundation was named for Oysterville native Willard R. Espy, a wordsmith and memoirist, whose prolific career celebrated language, word play, light verse, and what Henry James once called the “visible past”: the events in the history of a time and place that can be recovered and preserved by the reach of a long memory and a gifted imagination. Serving the needs of emerging as well as established writers and artists, the Foundation’s main focus is our residency program.
Since the Program’s inaugural year in 1999, residencies have become the centerpiece of the Foundation’s service to writers and artists. The Foundation’s goal is to provide an environment in which residents can pursue their work without interruption. Writers and artists live and work in the serenely beautiful village of Oysterville–a national historic district–located near the northern tip of the Long Beach Peninsula, on the southwest coast of Washington State.
Not one, but TWO fantastic exhibitions are opening this June/July in the San Francisco Bay Area, and unlucky me, I'm living in Los Angeles. At least I still lived in Oakland and was able to catch multiple programs at the Asian/American/Modern exhibition at the DeYoung Museum, which tragically, was unable to tour.
Dewitt Chang is an art critic, someone whose writing I'm most familiar with from his regular reviews in the East Bay Express, one of my most beloved local rags. He is curating what sounds like a vibrant and exciting exhibition of paintings called GOLD STANDARD: Nine Asian American Modernist Artists from the 1970s, at the Togonon Gallery in San Francisco, opening on June 10th.
A few weeks later, an exhibition curated by the celebrated artist Carlos Villa entitled REHISTORICIZING THE TIME AROUND ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM IN THE BAY AREA is will open at the Luggage Gallery on Market Street. The goal of REHISTORICIZING is to complete the digital and written gathering of exclusively “first voice” biographical material of 23 Women Artists and Artists of Color active in the San Francisco Bay Area from the 1950’s to the late 1960’s, when their histories were undervalued because of public and personal hegemonic social and aesthetic scrutiny. The archive will be housed at the Anne Bremer Memorial Library, San Francisco Art Institute.
Mr. Villa did the world an amazing service by not only curating the work and getting it up in a terrifically accessible space, he also conducted a series of priceless interviews with many of the artists in the exhibit, contextualizing them with his own experience as an artist of color in the 1950s-1960s and the spirit of authenticity and the world of bohemia that existed at that time.
My personal connection to this subject is the galaxy of curators, writers, cultural fanatics and artists themselves who have gently guided me through memory and history to the lives and accomplishments of these artists of color who persevered to create astonishing bodies of work. This includes working with Karin Higa, Kristine Kim, and Emily Anderson of the Japanese American National Museum (where I now work as a curator of history) on biographies of nisei artists Hisako Hibi, Hideo Date, and Henry Sugimoto. I've collaborated with Kimi Kodani Hill on her book chronicling her grandfather, Chiura Obata, and with historian Mark Dean Johnson on a catalog of Labor Art of California and most recently, a book on Prison/Culture as seen through contemporary artists and poets both in and outside the prison system.
I urge everyone who ever gave a damn about living truthfully to visit both galleries and telling me all about it here.
We're in our 9th week of living in Los Angeles, and it seems like an appropriate time to review what our user's poll on the likes/dislikes. Shall we?
Being greeted by mariachi his and hers every single morning
Pastrami sandwiches from Langer's, Daikokuya ramen, that evil stickyrice banana Thai dessert from Bhan Kanom Thai Corp., the night farmer's market in So. Pasadena, carnitas plate from Northgate Market in Norwalk, daily surprise in the JANM volunteer break room (aka grandma's latest baked goods)
Little Tokyo public library
Chinatown dragon gate actually breathes out puffs of mist
Metro Gold Line
Grandma's magical avocado tree
Hammer Museum bookstore
We're literally surrounded by every freeway in the city, but its peaceful here in Boyle Heights. At least from this vantage point, when I have to jump on a freeway that part is self-explanatory.
Variety of tropical, delicious flowering trees not yet identified.
Driving. LA freeways. Being 20 minutes late to Mary Gaitskill's reading at the Hammer even though we left an hour early from Little Tokyo.
Hollywood, and the stranglehold it has on the city. The fawning over television and film shoots people go through is enough to make me want to blow my brains out.
Primo target for megaton strikes (OK that one my fiance came up with, but I'll concede to it)
Distance, even on bike or train or foot. One simply cannot get from point A to point B without a lot of time to spare. Its a real drag.
Lack of a really vibrant letterpress community.
As of yet, no equivalent to Oaklandish, Laughing Squid, or other community unifiers that help me navigate this big city.
No bike paths!
In the passing silence of January and February, I can at least report that I've been busy behind the green scrim, and if you were to jerk back the curtain and see what's happening backstage- I'd say you'd be pretty amazed yourself.
First of all, the impossible has actually been realized as possible: I have left my beloved city of Oakland and moved nearly 300 lbs of books and an additional 1000 lbs of lead type, linoleum block archives and my c&p pilot press to the balmy climes of Los Angeles. Yes, my dear readers- I closed my eyes and walked right off the deep end into the abyss, all for the temptation that comes with a thrilling new job. So many possibilities, I mused...as I packed the eight bookshelves and a snake.
On February 2nd, I became the new curator of history at the Japanese American National Museum, located in Lil' Tokyo, First and Alameda. All is well here, despite a sense of befuddlement and lack of routine- one loses oneself with disturbing ease in Los Angeles clamor. Luckily, I found a place just off of a train line close to Little Tokyo (a neighborhood known as Boyle Heights, once a melting pot of Jews, Japanese, Mexicans and Blacks. Now 98% Mexican, but hey! we have the best selection of paleteria and taco trucks). There's a lot of wandering discovery, sans car, thanks to this Gold Line train. It goes all the way to Pasadena, and stops through Chinatown, Union Station, Little Tokyo, through the eastern neighborhoods of LA.
The Japanese American National Museum, not to my surprise, is all so familiar. And familial. There is an army of grandparents (something in the order of 250 volunteer docents who work here at least once a week. Many have been doing this forever (20 years and counting?) surrounding us with coffeecakes and questions about our health and children and which camp our parents were in. Sort of dizzying, but mostly pleasant and dare I say, a comfort? These docents also inform a good deal of the programming and exhibitions since they constitute a fair chunk of our audience, though they are rapidly aging and every week brings a report of someone else in recovery or at home for an ailment. Busloads of children also come daily, for their first exposure to the JA story and camps....
My main duty as Curator of History in the coming months and years will be exhibitions; in particular I am in charge of re-envisioning our core exhibition on the history of Japanese Americans and rebuilding it, from our collections of 80,000 + artifacts and documents. For those of you who haven't visited the Japanese American National Museum, I assure you that there is nothing quite like it in the country. I encourage each of you to come and experience both the temporary and permanent exhibits, which are both profound with pathos and beautiful for their design and content. The museum is right in the middle of Lil' Tokyo, full of yumyums and awesome old Japanese hardware stores full of saws and tomato seedlings. There is a Kinokuniya bookstore and a restaurant dedicated to japanese curries.
So in coming weeks I hope to get the press and studio back into working order, esp since I have another special announcement I'd like to illustrate and print. More soon, my darklings, more soon.
My first big project of 2010 was to do fifty customized book jackets for my dear friend, writer extraordinare Claire Light. Her first collection of stories, "Slightly Behind and to the Left" has just been released by Aqueduct Press, a daring small press dedicated to publishing challenging, feminist science fiction. Although Claire was thrilled with the creation of the book, she wanted a little more autonomy and something "special" to celebrate the covers, and thus, came up with the idea of making limited edition book jackets to wrapped around the book.
The concept for the cover image was to depict a seventeen year old Japanese American farmer boy in the strawberry fields of his home, circa 1940. The trick was to evoke alien abduction, the title of the main story in the book.
Here is the initial sketches for the cover image:
Which then led to the inking stage:
Once Claire signed off on the finished drawing, I did a little bit of Photoshop cleaning using my new Wacom drawing tablet (digital! gasp!), laid out the cover design text, and had polymerplates made by my goodly friends at Logos Design. From there, I had to rely upon the gracious generosity of my friend Maia de Raat of DandyLion Press to utilize her Vandercook Press at the last minute, since the job didn't fit well onto my C&P pilot.
And then we were on! It took about five hours total to crank out the whole run. But I think they are great....printed on recycled brown paper bags for that extra tactile, vintage agrarian look.
Claire is celebrating with a gonzo birthday party/book release event:
SLIGHTLY BEHIND AND TO THE LEFT book launch party!
Date: Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Time: 7:00pm – 10:00pm
Location: Socha Cafe
Street: 3235 Mission Street
Our collaborative letterpress project was also recently featured on Logos' blog! Check it out right here.
I introduced Sam and Angie to the gocco last night in Berkeley, to stunning results. We printed cards and most importantly the 2010 Year of the Tiger new year's postcards. I just need to carve out the kanji for tiger on an eraser and stamp each of them and then they are ready to be addressed and set free in the mail.
The big deal is...this is the first time ever that I didn't do the nengajo illustrations myself. Sam took the lead on working on a tiger graphic and we just rolled with it. How's that for wasabi teambuilding? Sam has been doing the lion's share of digital design work on the past three projects we've done together and it has been awesome. awesome. awesome.
Unbelievable but true....the calendar (edition of 50) is already totally sold out. My first year of real success with Etsy sales (Paypal, yes) which involved fulfilling orders from Santa Fe, New Mexico where Sam and I were assisting in fulltime art classes for two weeks.
Just before we left from Santa Fe we were covered in elbow grease, cranking the calendars out in the makeshift studio space in Oakland. *sweat*!
Here's some glimpses of the production of the calendar in process, printing took place over five hectic days in Oakland.
MUSEUM OF LOST ANIMALS
a calendar dedicated to extinction
The past five hundred million years of the earth's history have been rife with the extinction of countless species and entire ecosystems. Evidence suggests that with every appearance of human habitation, animal extinctions rise dramatically. A dreadful syncopation links the sudden and devastating loss of 74 to 86 percent of species, especially very large mammals such as Woolly Mammoths, Giant Ground Sloths, and Giant Short-faced Bears, with ancient human migration throughout North and South America and Australia, nearly 20,000 years ago.
Some believe that we are witnessing the onset of a sixth major extinction event. This one differs historically in three ways: the rapidity with which species are being lost; the diversity of taxa being affected; and the cause—modern human activities.
Artwork and lino carvings by Patricia Wakida
Calendar design by Sam Arbizo
Letterpress and inkjet printed in Oakland, California
Noodle the dog was seriously depressed about hanging around the printing studio all day. He had romantic notions of all day hikes in the hills, and now...this. Sigh.
My friend Jimmy braved the chill and a headcold to cut some pieces of wood for mounting linoleum onto not only once, but twice. He was duly rewarded with brownies and tangerines.
Say, a Remington built of balsa wood, its parts glued together like a boyhood model; delicate, graceful, submissive, as ready to soar as an ace. Better, a carved typewriter, hewn from single block of sacred cypress; decorated with mineral pigments, berry juice, and mud; its keys living mushrooms, its ribbon the long iridescent tongue of a lizard. An animal typewriter, silent until touched, then filling the page with growls and squeals and squawks, yowls and bleats and snorts, brayings and chatterings and dry rattlings from the underbrush.” — Tom Robbins
My great new friend, Joel, has invited me to use the C&P platen, his drawers of type and all the furniture, letting and slugs I need. Luckily, I'm more focused on carving these days and haven't actually jumped onto the big press just yet, but its so beautiful, and such great fun out at his shop that I wanted to share. These are my Taos friends.
Henrietta the chicken and Cole.
Lucky Seven the spotted pony and Georgie his girlfriend.
Lilith and Whiskey in the shop.
The letterpress shop is a magical place- even Lily agrees that she just loves it there. I'm gonna teach her how to set her name and print some posters up for her. Plus, they have grapes! And sunflowers! And broad skies facing the craggy, majestic Sangre de Cristo mountains, with soggy creeks to wade in and watch the Russian olives and cattails turn to fall.
Since I've been so terrible at posting, I might as well throw in this series of drawing to finished printed poster, which was commissioned for the T-10 Video Festival in Oakland, before I left for New Mexico in late July. Two colors (plum and good-n-plenty pink) on salvaged cream colored papers from the Center for Creative ReUse. Many thanks to Sam for setting all of the wood and metal type and for help on the Vandercooks. Who knew he'd be a total natural at this?
But then, my dear friend and writer, Susan Ito, wrote to tell me that she was interested in putting together chapbooks (one for fiction, one for essays) and that got me all hot and bothered too. Continuing on the theme of manual typewriters, I've come up with two more. The image of the paper cranes has a rather dull title right now "Fiction" (please help inspire me to the land of more appropriate names).
If all goes well, we can work on putting these chapbooks together for release by this winter, don'tcha think?
Another remarkable Nisei has passed on. I conducted two interviews with Arthur last summer as part of my research on Shigeyoshi Murao. While Arthur did not know Shig beyond a nodding acquaintance, he was just bursting with a vitality and playfulness about the world, the risks we take in living, and in seeing beauty. One of my favorite memories of Arthur was encountering him a wild party in honor of the wandering poet, Nanao Sakaki (who also passed recently). Butoh dancers clanged pots, people chanted and waved basil, and Arthur showed us how to make ten people walk through a crisp dollar bill. I will always recall the gorgeous backdrop banner he painted for the annual "Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival" and his appearance in the film, "Farewell to Manzanar" as 'artist'.
postage stamp portrait of Arthur Okamura by Stu Art, photo by Bill Braasch
Arthur Okamura, Bolinas artist and teacher, dies at 77
Posted: 07/11/2009 12:33:59 PM PDT
Arthur Okamura, a renowned painter and art teacher who enlivened the social and cultural life of Bolinas for 50 years, died unexpectedly on Friday of an apparent heart attack while walking his dog near his home. He was 77.
Mr. Okamura, a prolific painter who also worked in screen printing and drawing, rose to prominence with the San Francisco Renaissance movement in the 1950s.
An abstract expressionist, his work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Whitney Museum in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Mr. Okamura taught at the California College of the Arts in Oakland for 31 years, retiring in 1997 as professor emeritus.
"He was a master teacher," said Ron Garrigues of Bolinas, a fellow artist and friend. "He knew more about painting than anyone I've ever met."
Three days before he died, Mr. Okamura taught his weekly art class at the New School at Commonweal, a health and environmental research institute in Bolinas.
Involved in Commonweal since its inception in 1976, he served on its board of directors for more than a decade, and had several exhibits of his work in the Commonweal gallery.
"Arthur was an absolute central figure in the Bolinas community for 50 years," said Michael Lerner, Commonweal's co-founder and president. "He was universally respected and admired. He was an extraordinary artist and a beloved man."
Born in Long Beach, Ca., in 1932, Mr. Okamura was 10 years old when he was interned with his Japanese American family during World War II in relocation camps in Southern California and Colorado.
After the war, the Okamura family settled in Chicago. After graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. Okamura studied painting on a fellowship in Mallorca, where he became friends with writer Robert Creeley, one of the originators of the "Black Mountain School" of poetry in the '50s.
The Wheel of Analytic Meditation (Sems kyi dpyod pa rnams par sbyong ba so sor brtag pa' i dpyad sgom 'khor lo) and Instructions on Vision in the Middle Way(dBu ma'i lta khrid zab mo) by Lama Mipham. Published by Dharma Pubishing, 1973. Cover and frontispiece illustration by Arthur Okamura
In 1971, he created the pastel drawings for "The People," a television movie directed by West Marin's John Korty.
"Arthur was so multifaceted," Lerner said. "If he came to a party, he would spend his time making things and doing tricks of all kinds. He would create rings out of dollar bills or balance forks on toothpicks. He was constantly inventing and creating. It was at the heart of his being."
Mr. Okamura was represented by the Braunstein/Quay Gallery in San Francisco and had numerous solo and group exhibits since his first show in Chicago in 1953. Known for his tireless creativity, he had completed a series of 30 new paintings in the past six months, friends said.
"He was very well respected and totally dedicated to his art," said Ruth Braunstein, Mr. Okamura's dealer. "After he retired from teaching, he kept on working and was always looking for new ideas. He worked right up to the last moment."
Mr. Okamura is survived by his wife, Kitty Okamura, sons Jonathan Okamura of Petaluma and Ethan Okamura of Bolinas; daughters Beth Okamura of London, England, Jane Okamura of San Rafael and Stephanie Coupe of Oakland. He also leaves his former wife, Elizabeth Tuomi of Bolinas, and eight grandchildren.
Memorial contributions may be made to Commonweal, 451 Mesa Rd., Bolinas, 94924. A celebration of Mr. Okamura's life is being planned for later in the summer.