Speaking Through Art: Deaf-initely Different Artists of Okinawa

“Painters must speak through paint, not through words.”

~Hans Hofmann (March 21, 1880 – February 17, 1966), a German-born American abstract expressionist painter

Speaking Through Paint

Speaking Through Paint

A few weeks ago I was coming home from grocery shopping, first bringing up to our 5th floor condo as many bags as I could before I returned to my vehicle to load up our handcart with the remainder.  During this first trip, I caught a glimpse through the elevator door windows as it climbed through the other floors of an older gentlemen, certainly not American, and with that same tube slung across one shoulder.  Could it possibly be him?  What are the odds?  Stranger things have happened (see Kishikaisei: Long Odds & Unlikely Connections)….

Okinawa’s Most Famous Deaf Painter

Gusukuma's Portrait of the Sacred Beast Baize

Gusukuma’s Portrait of the Sacred Beast Baize

Gusukuma Seihō (城間 清豊, 1614- 1644) was an official court painter at the royal court of the Ryūkyū Kingdom, located in present day Okinawa, also known as Ji Ryō (自了) and by the Chinese-style name Qin Kesheng (欽可聖, Kin Kasei).  He was born to an aristocratic family in Shuri where his father was a musician.  However, Gusukuma was born a deaf mute and thus focused his energies in a different direction from that of his father, teaching himself instead to paint being heavily influenced by Chinese culture and paintings of the period.

Hearing of the young painter, King Shō Hō in Shuri called him to his court and bestowed upon him the name Ji Ryō.  It is said that the Chinese investiture envoys in Okinawa at the time who witnessed his paintings compared him to some of the top painters in China, and that Kanō Yasunobu, court painter for the Tokugawa Shogunate in mainland Japan, similarly praised the artist when one of Gusukuma’s works was brought to Edo in 1634.

Most of Gusukuma’s works were destroyed in the 1945 battle of Okinawa, with only one extant work bearing a Seal (rakan) confirming it to have been painted by Gusukuma.  Depicting a fantastic creature known as bai ze in Chinese and hakutaku in Japanese, it is held by the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and has been designated an Okinawa Prefectural Important Cultural Property.

Present-Day Artistic Connections

Back in 2005 I was in my apartment within a block off the Sunabe Seawall when there was a knock at the door.  At the time I was separated from my now ex-wife, and was quite alone, and even dare I say lonely.  There are few reasons anyone would knock on your door while living off-base in Japan.  This time involved an old Chinese man, with a large tube and sash slung over his shoulder.  He smiled wide with his whole lover face, and even more brightly using his bright and lively eyes while handing me a card stating that he was deaf-mute and that he was traveling door-to-door selling his paintings.  Perhaps wanting the company, but certainly because of the changes I was going through at the time, I eagerly invited this artist into my home and asked him to show me his work.  He did, and what ensued for the next hour was the most interesting exchange of conversation, culture, and yes, negotiations for a painting I fell in love with.

We concluded our business with payment and offers of refreshments, and when we were done, I wished him well, knowing that I helped make a difference in this man’s life, while gaining an original, colorful and emotional remembrance of that most difficult time for me in the Far East.  The painting is framed and has been displayed in my home back in Pensacola; we are currently awaiting its arrival here in Okinawa where it will continue to be proudly displayed.

The 2005 Painting at Far Right

The 2005 Painting at Far Right

Signing "Art"

Signing “Art”

However, in the almost present day, on my second trip up with an even fuller load of groceries, I stopped the elevator at each floor and checked the building’s corridors looking for this man.  I had to know:  was it him?  I felt the universe prodding me on, and certainly its calling to buy another piece of Far Eastern art.  He was found on the third floor, all the way at the far north western end of one of the breezeway, where he was pausing on his journey of chores to enjoy the view of the East China Sea.  I attempted to gain his attention by calling out to him, first in a loud voice, but then again in a commanding plea.  That is until it dawned on me that, of course, he was most certainly deaf!  I could see that the tube did indeed hold a number of canvases rolled together.  Could it really be him?  I was flabbergasted at the notion.  I grew even more eager to re-establish what I thought was once-in-a-lifetime tie to the Far East, and to entertain and be entertained by this engaging personality yet again.

I got his attention as he spun around to go down the stairwell, and motioned for him to follow me.  He did, with a large grin and bright, smiley eyes.  I was certain this was the same man, and I could only think that I had caught that glimpse for a reason, for us to reacquaint ourselves with each other and with his admired work.

paint trayHe followed me into my place, helping me maneuver my loaded cart of groceries.  He wanted to give me his “I’m a deaf-mute card…” but I refused with a smile of my own, waving it away already knowing while inviting him into our living room.  I mimed that I was going to put away groceries, and he took my cue right away; he cleared an area on our rug near the dining room table and started to unroll his paintings, pulling over a chair for me to sit in and view each piece has he displayed them in turn one at a time.

Okinawa Oct 2013, Painter's Art displaying his craft

Okinawa Oct 2013, deaf-mute conversations 1I settled relatively quickly on three finalists.  As I viewed the work they struck me as quite different from the set I viewed back in 2005.  Most of these present-day works were much too graphically simple; however, three really did catch my eye.  We briefly discussed price; I knew I was going to haggle, but only to maintain both our honors.  Art that is original and beloved is extremely hard to price.  Oil paintings of the size and quality he offered at the prices requested were certainly reasonable.  I took him into our bedroom and showed him our drapes and window treatments; he immediately understood that I wanted to make sure they matched our current décor and scheme.  He brought the finalists in and laid them on our bed, where we continued to discuss the paintings and pricing a bit more, but ultimately I told him that my wife had to agree and make the final decision.  I invited him back in 45 minutes when I knew that Jody would be home and have some time to review the paintings.  He agreed, and left the works there for us to contemplate.

Conversational Snippets

Conversational Snippets

Now, keep in mind that these “conversations” were all executed via a small notepad and pen.  He was more than literate in English; he could read and write exceedingly well, and also was able to pick up on some nuances of humor and slang of our language!  It was really a pleasure to be able to communicate so well with someone who couldn’t communicate in the more common fashion in which we all fail much too often.

My First Painting from 2005 at Far Right

My First Painting from 2005 at Far Right

However, in these discussions I mentioned that I bought a painting from him in 2005.  He said yes, and was so very excited to find a repeat customer!  I’m sure he too was thinking, “What long odds!”  However, when I pulled up a picture of this previous painting and displayed it on our computer he immediately recognized it as a friend’s work, and mimed that this other artist had died and departed this realm.  He was very sad, and wrote me his name; they both were of Chinese origin, and knew each other through their works and particular “membership” in the deaf-mute artistic segment of society in Okinawa.  He missed his friend, and no doubt this all was a vivid reminder of our shared but limited time on this planet.

Jody and Our Artist Proudly Display Our Newest Far Eastern Painting

Jody and Our Artist Proudly Display Our Newest Far Eastern Painting

It’s hard to image that seeing that fleeting glimpse of a man’s back would lead to such circular connections.  And it’s hard to leave this to chance.  I am honored to have met these two men, and am proud to display their work in our home.  The degrees of separation between us are always far fewer than we ever care to count.  And seeing what others endure and overcome always helps to put our own problems in much clearer, more reasonable perspective.  It is during times like these that perhaps I feel the most human, knowing that such karmic connections can and do happen, and that life is meant to be lived, captured, and happily displayed in as many forms as we can imagine.

Okinawa’s “Rubella Children”

Okinawa has an interesting if not tragic connection to the deaf community.  The Okinawa Prefecture Kitashiro School for the Deaf established in 1978 was the only school for the Deaf which combined junior and high school programs spanning the last six years of primary education in Japan.  It was specially established in order to meet the need of the great number of children born in 1964 through 1965 who lost hearing due to a massive outbreak of German measles (rubella) on Okinawa.

Vaccine Squashes Measles

Vaccine Squashes Measles – but only after the outbreak of the early 1960s

Starting in 1963, there had been an outbreak of rubella in the United States, and this was most likely transmitted to the Okinawa Island through America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.  At the time, that war was significantly increasing in violence and bloodshed, and Okinawa more and more began to serve as a major staging area for B-52 bombers entering the conflict.  Troop levels and rotations massively increased, while Americans mingled freely with the Okinawans.

Okinawa's Deaf-Mute Baseball Team

Kitashiro’s Deaf-Mute Baseball Team

Over 500 “rubella children” (fushinji) were born in this time period in Okinawa Prefectures, most with severe or multiple disabilities, with almost all deaf or hard of hearing.  Although these deaf students were initially mainstreamed in local schools, they quickly ended up falling significantly behind their hearing peers academically.  The Prefectural school board thus made a decision to build a special school that would be ready in time to capture this student pool as they entered middle school, and which could more properly provide educational services throughout high school along with vocational training.  In 1984, with all the affected students having matriculated, the school officially closed.  However, Okinawa’s reputation as a place of compassion and refuge for people with such challenges lives on.