Kinji Akagawa has worked on multiple projects on the Minneapolis public art landscape, including the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden. Akagawa has also earned numerous awards; he was the winner of the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award in 2007 and contributes to Minneapolis’s art education mainly at MCAD where he’s also been honored for his notable career.
Photos and interview by Kelsey Johnston
Secrets of the City: Where are you from?
Kinji Akagawa: So many places. (laughs) Usually that means birthplace so, I was born in Tokyo, Japan. I was in Japan until age 22 and I went to a typical schools and art school and I applied study in the United States at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Detroit. I came to Detroit and Detroit was one of my first introductions to American culture so, I’m from Detroit also. I then went to study in Los Angels so, I’m from Los Angeles.
After that I studied in Haystack Mountain School of Crafts and then MCAD and the U of M. My promise to my parents and my sponsor was to be only two years in the United States so, study as much as you can and come home. That was my idea but, ended up getting married and having two children — a girl, Alexis, and a boy, Gaberial, and staying in Minnesota. I liked the Midwest; I didn’t mean to settle anywhere I was just trying to be an artist, Nomad is more like it. So, where am I from? My origin is so many places. Birthplace is usually it but, my intellectual life as well as my typical American life, and my Japanese life. I’m from all over the place.
Secrets: Tell me about getting into your career, the transition from student to professional artist.
Kinji: When I was in Jr. High who moved me the most was a poet. They seemed to teach me what life is all about the struggle, joy, care, all that. I glued on to poets writings. They moved me like crazy and I wanted to be alone, I don’t know why but, I didn’t like much of the group activities. So, poetry pulled me into a beautiful world of solitude. During the war I moved with my mother and all that so, it maybe came from my background with destruction, remembering all that stuff, and loosing a few people, all these things. I lost my younger sister right after the war. So, struggle was the typical and that’s why maybe I clinged to these poets and they represented me or I found myself within their heart. In high school I was in art class and had wonderful teachers.
After high school I wanted to become an artist or a poet and I went to art school after that as you know. Yet, “What are you going to be?” my parents and friends would ask and I’d say “I want to become a poet” they’d say “Are you kidding me? You’ll never make a living.” How much you make is what people always think about not what you want to be. So, economically I figured maybe I’d study some architecture or design but, basically Fine Arts was my major. When I went from school to school I studied sculpture, painting, printmaking, drawing and everything else. I never focused on any specific thing but, the printmaking was it since I came to the United States and had an opportunity to pretty deep on that. By the time I graduated from all the studies I started to teach and teaching gave me the direction of public art or American art because I loved teaching foundations classes. I didn’t want to teach just printmaking or all that. I didn’t know I was going to become a teacher either so, it’s not something intended to become this or that. I love the role in artists in culture because they don’t specialize in anything, it’s maybe a cultural critic. Whatever moves you.
Secrets: What’s your approach to design?
Kinji: I don’t have a specific approach. Open approach.
Secrets: You were recently in Japan teaching a workshop, any inspirations?
Kinji: Yes, of course. I get inspiration from Northern Minnesota when I go there. Or just being here and the different seasons. At my age a lot of things inspire me. Japan is just wonderful, the students inspire me their “can” spirit. It’s not just the physical environment or the visual world; it’s caring and the loving and the critics and the pissed off and all that! It inspires me.
Secrets: The drama.
Kinji: That’s right, the drama over everybody’s life inspired me. (laughs)
Secrets: What’s the most important thing to you about the process?
Kinji: Democratic process. Simply that.
Secrets: What’s your favorite part of teaching?
Kinji: Everybody teaches everybody. Everybody learns from everybody. No longer is authority the case. That’s what I like the most.
Secrets: What is your favorite part about Minneapolis?
Kinji: I have been in Minneapolis the longest of anywhere in my life. So, where am I from? Maybe Minneapolis. I love the kind of political tradition to Hubert H. Humphrey he was an incredible civil rights person. I love Walter Mondale and the democratic tradition. Minneapolis has been changing but, what they’ve cherished in terms of American democratic tradition. I think especially in support of the arts in Minneapolis, we are second to New York and a lot of people have definitely paid attention to the development of the aesthetic life of the working hard Midwestern. I like the four seasons of aesthetic Minneapolis life.
Secrets: What is your favorite establishment?
Secrets: Childhood dream career.
Kinji: I had so many different dreams. (laughs) Mostly, I had a fortune of wonderful teachers. When people ask me what kind of dreams I had I tell them I have two fathers and they gave me the dreams and influenced me and I welcome their tradition. The person who gave me the life is not only my birth father but, my intellectual father. He was an American Episcopalian father in Tokyo, he taught at 3 or 4 different university’s but, when I was in high school he took me under his care. He always gave me a chance to think bigger, dream bigger, and he has been the biggest influence in my entire life and he gave me the chance to explore. Dream is to explore. So, father is my intellectual father and then a father I just lost a few years ago but, he was over 90 years old and I saw him on his last day in Japan in a care home and I said goodbye. He was a university professor as well as a priest and took care of children. He was what the Japanese call Ryokan-san one who cares for children and he was and American Ryokan-san. He was an enlightened teacher. Physically he is gone but, his teaching and his caring for so many of us I have the deepest respect for his life and if I can be somewhere around him as an artist, teacher, and human being that indeed would be it.
For more on Akagawa’s work, check out MNOriginal’s interview with him in the Sculpture Garden.