Yasuo Kuniyoshi as Teacher

Yasuo Kuniyoshi teaching at the Art Students League, 1950. Alfred Puhn, photographer. Alfred Puhn photographs, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

This is the second in a series of guest blog posts by the Archives of American Art's Mary Savig and Jason Stieber focused on the life of the artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi. The exhibition Artist Teacher Organizer: Yasuo Kuniyoshi in the Archives of American Art is on view in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery, and is organized in conjunction with The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

I always tell students: when you play golf you don't just go out and hit the ball. You have to face the program, you have an attitude, you have a stance, and that's the only way you can hit the ball.

      —Yasuo Kuniyoshi, lecture at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture

When Yasuo Kuniyoshi began studying in New York City at the Art Students League in 1916 he tried and failed to get into George Bellows' popular painting class. Instead, he studied with Kenneth Hayes Miller, who proved to be a valuable influence on Kuniyoshi's artistic trajectory. Soon after assuming the role of teacher himself in 1933, also at the Art Students League, Kuniyoshi's own classes became difficult to get into. He was immensely popular with his charges. In the classroom, he engaged students with questions about process and subject matter, not just technique, encouraging them to develop a curiosity about how to represent their unique experiences of the world. This method mirrored his own approach to painting.

Kuniyoshi also traveled the country at the invitation of university art departments. In the 1940s, for example, he taught in San Francisco, California; Oberlin, Ohio; and Duluth, Minnesota; among other locations. In a lecture presented at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, Kuniyoshi outlined his teaching process, "When a new student comes, I always ask how old, where did you study, who did you study with. I get the history. I say please bring things that you painted... Try to find out where he is himself so that I can try to destroy other parts and nourish this thing. Encourage it. Sometimes they do something wrong but I say it is wonderful you see. Sometimes they do good things and I just step on it. So with that psychological reacting slowly you push this down and lift it up, maybe lift it up a long way, but in the long run he is encouraged."

To see more photographs of Kuniyoshi with his students and explore his writings on teaching, visit Artist Teacher Organizer: Yasuo Kuniyoshi in the Archives of American Art. You can explore his artworks in the online gallery, The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi.

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