Kurt Vonnegut takes a rather dim view of abstract art in his 1987 novel, Bluebeard. The novel is a fictionalized autobiography written by Rabo Karabekian, a once-successful abstract expressionist painter whose essentially meaningless Yves Klein-style monochrome paintings have begun falling apart on the walls of museums and galleries, their cheap, consumer-grade paint peeling in one piece from the canvas. Karabekian redeems himself with one final painting — a giant photo-realistic mural depicting 5,219 prisoners of war, soldiers and gypsies abandoned in a valley by German soldiers following WWII. It's his only painting with soul; the only which draws upon his skill as a craftsman; the only which addresses the traumas of his life and the injustices of the 20th century.
By contrast, Jimmy Mirikitani, a Japanese-American painter and the subject of the documentary The Cats of Mirikitani (screening Friday at the Athenaeum), has spent his life painting with soul, using the raw materials of his traumatic life. Born in Sacramento and raised in Hiroshima, he moved back to the States just in time to be interned for more than three years during WWII. Paintings of Tule Lake (the internment camp where he spent his early adulthood), Hiroshima devastated by the atomic bomb and the World Trade Center under attack co-exist in his work with peaceful paintings of cats, flowers and tigers, rendered in a recognizably Japanese style.
This Vonnegut and Mirikitani comparison isn't completely out of left field: The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library will feature work by and about Mirikitani through the close of the year. Friday's screening of the The Cats of Mirikitani will mark its Indianapolis premiere, and work by Mirikitani will be on view at the library beginning this weekend.
When KVML executive director Julia Whitehead first saw Cats, released in 2006, earlier this year, she was inspired enough by both its subject and its director, Linda Hattendorf, to conspire to bring it to Indy. Hattendorf turned out to be a Vonnegut fan, though she didn't know the library existed at the time.
Hattendorf is a central character to Cats: The film opens with her discovery of a talented artist, Mirikitani, living on the streets of New York City near her apartment. She brings him food and supplies for weeks, then takes him into her apartment on Sept. 11, 2001, when a noxious cloud descending downwind from the tower wreckage had made it dangerous to stay outdoors.
During the months before Hattendorf finds Mirikitani a permanent living space in an assisted living center, she reunites him with his family (a sister in Seattle; a poet writing about the internment camps in San Francisco), clarifies his citizenship status (though Mirkitani was coerced to renounce his citizenship while in the camps, the renunciation was rendered void in the late '50s, though the letter announcing the news never reached him), and gleans bits and pieces of his back story (including the time he cooked for Jackson Pollock). And, through the course of the film, Mirikitani paints, as he has through the course of his life, regardless of the situation — sometimes two paintings a day, from landscapes of Mt. Fuji to drawings of Hattendorf's cat.
Whitehead sees similarities between Vonnegut and Mirikitani's work: “Both were held as prisoners during WWII, and it seemed like a good fit mostly because Vonnegut talked so much about trying to correct injustices against humanity.” Hattendorf echoes those thoughts: “The lives of both Vonnegut and Mirikitani were altered irrevocably by war, and their work reflects this. And yet both manage to find humanity and humor in life despite deep traumas.”
Hattendorf's documentary is unobtrusive, diaristic and warm-hearted; her camera gets close to Mirikitani's wizened face in a sympathetic way, and we get involved with his life as she does, frustrated for a minute with his anxieties, perhaps, but ultimately uplifted by his overcoming of innumerable tragedies. Her background prepared her to film her story as she experienced it: She's worked for big-name documentarians Barbara Kopple and Ken Burns, and she helped film William Greaves' must-see experimental film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, Take 2 (an experience she calls “zany,” noting that Greaves helped her break into the industry).
The Cats of Mirikitani screens Nov. 25 at 8 p.m. at the Athenaeum Theatre; a discussion will follow the film, and a reception with Hattendorf will precede it at 7 p.m. The reception costs $24 (including the film and food from The Rathskeller); the film alone runs $12.
I spoke with Hattendorf via e-mail last week; here's are a few more Q&A's from our conversation.
NUVO: What's Jimmy Mirikitani up to these days?
Linda Hattendorf: Jimmy is 91 now. He is still making art daily, and enjoys watching samurai movies with his cat, Miko. Last year the film was screened at the Smithsonian in conjunction with an exhibition that included one of his paintings, so he traveled to Washington, D.C., to be honored there. That exhibit is now at the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois.
Jimmy is very proud of all the attention and awards the film has received. He continues to receive fan mail daily from people who have just discovered the film, and visitors from all over the world come to meet him. Fans come from Japan regularly, where he has become quite a cult figure. One man travelled from Sweden to New York to surprise his newlywed bride with a visit to Jimmy on their honeymoon!
NUVO: Have you been surprised by reaction to the film, particularly with respect to the popularity of Mirikitani's work in art galleries?
Hattendorf: No, it’s not surprising. I’ve always loved his artwork. When he was homeless and making art on the streets, it was the art that first caught my eye and most intrigued me. I have a large collection. It started with the cats — I love cats and every one of his cat drawings is different, from the sweet mother and baby cat to the huge tigers in bamboo. Then I realized the significance of the other things he was drawing — the images of the internment camp where he was imprisoned for over three years during WWII, and the destruction of Hiroshima where he lost most of his mother's side of the family. It turned out that most of the images of beauty that he drew — flowers, and butterflies, persimmons and fish and birds — were all images of his memories of the beauty of Hiroshima before the war. That made the work even more powerful for me.
NUVO: While your film doesn't underscore anything in a maudlin or over-dramatic way, might we take inspiration from the indomitability of Jimmy's spirit and his commitment to his creative work, despite all?
Hattendorf: I think Jimmy has something inside that no one could take away. No matter what the external circumstances of his life were, that core of his spirit survived intact. When he was living on the streets, he’d be out there at midnight in the freezing cold, completely focused on making art. I’d look at him and think: I have nothing to complain about. If he can do it, so can I! He was really an inspiration to me as an artist.
NUVO: What are you working on now?
Hattendorf: I’m in development on a project tentatively called Picturing Peace. Audiences I’ve met are so hungry for a little good news, they are looking for some positive stories in the media. If you watch history programs on television, all you ever seem to see is the history of war, and that’s dangerous because we begin to think this is what history is. I want to show the other side. What else happened — cultures of peace in the past and present. If we want to work toward a culture of peace, we need to know what peace looks like; we need to hear the language of peace and hear from people who have successfully resolved conflict in a non-violent way. I’m currently raising funds for a trip to Costa Rica in January. Costa Rica eliminated their army in 1948. All the money that was previously used for weapons went into education. They teach their children methods for resolving conflict non-violently. It can be done.