Artful legacy

  • Updated: January 22, 2009 - 5:04 PM

The 40-year career of Japanese-born artist and teacher Kinji Akagawa is celebrated in a show at Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

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Kinji Akagawa tours the installation of " Paradigm Shift," a show at MCAD by alumni and friends honoring him.

Photo: Tom Sweeney, Star Tribune

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No ivory tower for Kinji Akagawa. Nor pedestals either. Affable and self-effacing, the Japanese-born sculptor has always made art for public consumption by ordinary people. Around Minnesota he's fashioned benches for Nicollet Mall and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, a sundial at Tettegouche State Park, a "peace bridge" near Lake Harriet and a "green roof" sculpture garden at General Mills headquarters in Golden Valley.

But even such visible evidence of his creativity is not, he insists, his true legacy. That would be his students, the hundreds of painters, printmakers, graphic designers, furniture makers and other creative types who have been influenced by his ideas and philosophy during more than 40 years at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. There Akagawa has taught pretty much everything from beginning courses to advanced printmaking, mixed media, conceptual and installation art.

When MCAD wanted to honor him this month with a retrospective to mark the end of his long teaching career, Akagawa declined. He didn't want to see his own work enshrined in the college's capacious gallery. He wanted to see art by the myriad students he's taught. A call went out and in it came: more than 150 paintings, drawings, sculptures, photos and quirky objects crafted by artists young and old who were in some way touched by Akagawa's sage advice and expansive personality. Some of them had never even taken a class from him, but still they sent things, so many things that the show -- which is up till Feb. 22 -- has spilled out of the gallery, run down a hall and filled two lobbies.

Former students' tributes poured in for the exhibition catalog, too. "He taught us to be artists, not just as a career choice but also as a way of life," wrote Brandis Conroy, a 2006 grad. Earlier in his career "coffee would drip from the spindly ends of his cat's-whisker moustache" as he talked, recalled Martha Chomitz-Slater, a 1976 graduate. "Every sentence (and I often had no idea what he was talking about) would end with his hands open to the sky, voice pointing up, revealing another marvelosity."

Paradigm shift

That Akagawa settled in Minnesota is something of a marvel in itself. Born in suburban Tokyo in 1940, he remembers evacuating to northern Japan to live with relatives during World War II. When his family returned to the city, everything was gone -- bombs had destroyed their home and the barbershop where his parents worked. After high school he earned a certificate from a modernist design college in Tokyo and then moved to the United States to study, first at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine and then at the Cranbrook Academy of Art outside Detroit. It was at Cranbrook that politics intruded on his notion of art, starting him on a radically different course of life and work.

"I remember seeing coverage of the Kennedy assassination on television at Cranbrook in 1963," he said during a recent interview. "I was 22 and that was the biggest event in my consciousness. That was the turning point from abstract expressionism to more politically oriented art."

Perched on the steps of MCAD's gallery, he grew animated, his thickly accented voice booming and falling into a laughing rumble as he recalled the heady debates and paradigm shifts that ripped through American art schools, colleges and universities in the 1960s. Eastern and Western cultures collided, happenings erupted, painting was declared dead, philosophers and counter-cultural shamans such as Joseph Beuys and Alan Watts pontificated, and students were left to puzzle the meaning of it all. "We had to do self-criticism and learn to be artists again, to make American-based rather than European-based art, and to foster democracy," Akagawa said. "There's a negative side to our culture, but we have a responsibility to make things positive and to relate the intellectual and the political and the aesthetic."

A series of fortuitous encounters led him to the Minneapolis School of Art, as MCAD was then called. Hired to teach printmaking, he also completed his BFA degree at the school and then earned an MFA at the University of Minnesota. His own teaching soon expanded to encompass artforms that were then gaining acceptance -- video, photography, installation and conceptual art. His work changed too, moving off the gallery walls and into the streets, parks and even corporate settings.

"Kinji is a great guy," said Don McNeil, the corporate curator at General Mills. He hired Akagawa last spring to help solve a problem at the company's Golden Valley headquarters where some roofs and patios needed replacement. Akagawa designed a "green" roof-garden punctuated by granite silhouettes arranged in a minimalist grid that echoes the buildings' modernist architecture. Half covered now in drifted snow, the stones cast shadows that are dramatic in all seasons.

"Having lived here for so long, Kinji knows that when you design something here it's got to work year round," McNeil said. "A lot of artists don't understand that because they just visit in June when it's nice. Kinji was an ideal designer because he was practical, fast, economical, and the piece looks spectacular."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

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  • " Paradigm Shift" by Janet Morgan

  • Artist / teacher Kinji Akagawa

  • PARADIGM SHIFT

    What: Sculpture, drawings, photos and mystery constructions by more than 150 Minneapolis College of Art and Design alumni honoring Kinji Akagawa, sculptor and long-time MCAD professor.

    When: Through Feb. 22. 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun. Free.

    Where: Minneapolis College of Art and Design gallery, 2501 Stevens Av., Mpls.

    Tickets: Free. 612-874-3667 or www.mcad.edu.

    Event: Performance tribute by Michael Mercil and Ann Hamilton, 6-10 p.m. Feb. 7, $100. Mill City Museum, 704 2nd St. S., Mpls. 612-874-3790 or doug_nathan@mcad.edu.

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