First year graduate painting students, Syracuse University, 1967

Roger Shimomura, first row, second from right. Wayne Miller, second row, second from right.

IN A WESTERN MIRROR is a series of paintings about a forty year friendship I’ve had with the

artist Roger Shimomura. They are about war, race, censorship, imprisonment, youth, age, practical joking, the importance of art and a bad day on Broadway among other things. Some are experiences we’ve shared and others are Roger’s alone. The Western Mirror title refers to the way we see

ourselves as Americans and the way America looks back at us. That reflection has been very

different for Roger than for it has been for me.

I first met Roger Shimomura in 1967 at the Continental Can Company in Syracuse, New York. At that time the old Can Company building was home to the graduate painting and sculpture studios at Syracuse University. My studio is shown at left in the picture above. Roger’s was two spaces down past the trash can.

This was the first studio I’d ever had. Roger, on the other hand, who was five years older and married, had not only had his own studio in Seattle, he’d been an army artillery officer in Korea and had attended several art schools.  Within days of his arrival in Syracuse he set up a painting and silk screen studio at the Can Company, and by year’s end he’d exhibited his work at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York. His work ethic was relentless and I was very much impressed.

Each day I’d pass Roger’s studio on the way to my own and each day there’d be something new to see and consider. At Mass Art in Boston, where I’d earned an undergraduate degree, we were painters who stretched our canvases with tacks and sized them with rabbit skin glue. But in Shimomura’s studio at the Can Company magazine photos were soaking in toxic brine, waiting to be transferred to paper or silkscreened onto canvas where they would be altered with charcoal sticks or florescent spray paint or whatever medium seemed appropriate to the image. Art which applied directly and immediately to our lives was a new idea to me. So was the idea of recording everything we did with a 35mm camera and a reel to reel tape recorder. Much of the time the subject of Roger’s work was faces, but at the time I didn’t understand why.

In those days Roger had a habit of working in square or nearly square compositional formats. I tried it and got hooked. To this day the first thing I do when jotting down an idea for a painting is to draw a square. When the Western Mirror series was nearly completed I went through the house looking at the Shimomura artworks on display. All but one were square-based compositions. Back in the studio I looked at the Western Mirror paintings. All but two were variations on a square. It’s no longer a conscious decision.

Screen prints drying in Roger’s studio at the Can Company

Graduate painting studios, Syracuse University, 1967

The Can Company experience was short-lived. The Viet Nam war had escalated and my student draft deferment ended. By summer 1968 I was an Airman training in Texas and by 1969 I was working in a medical evacuation unit in Da Nang. Later, when I got back to Syracuse University, the Can Company was a thing of the past. Painting studios had relocated to B4 Collendale, a collection of WWII barracks buildings at the opposite end of town. Roger had graduated and taken a teaching job in Kansas. After Collendale I took a teaching job at the State University of New York before moving to New York City.

Aside from a two-person exhibition at the Morgan Gallery in 1980 Roger and I never exhibited work together after Syracuse University. We’ve followed each other’s careers through letters, exhibition mailers and over drinks when we happen to be in the same city at the same time, and now we have the Internet. Through Roger’s work I learned of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, his childhood in the detention camp at Minidoka, Idaho and the continuing problems of race that are a daily part of Asian American lives. These experiences, plus a lifelong respect for American comics, have fueled Roger’s work for nearly forty years. His work has in turn informed mine. 

Reflections of a Friend is the subtitle of the Western Mirror paintings. It’s a play on the meaning of the word reflection as both a visual image and a memory, and it comes from a conversation Roger and I had at the Can Company four decades ago. While talking about John Coltrane’s music I told Roger that all I really liked about Coltrane’s performances were the piano solos between saxophone explorations. Assuming I knew something about jazz he asked why I didn’t just listen to McCoy Tyner.  Later that day I went downtown to a record shop and bought the first of many McCoy Tyner albums I would own over the years. The album was Echoes of a Friend, Tyner’s homage to his mentor John Coltrane. Reflections of a Friend is both a reference to that music and a way of thanking Roger for a forty year friendship.

REFLECTIONS OF A FRIEND

Roger Shimomura and Wayne Miller 

    Truro, Massachusetts  2006

Poster by New England Repro Graphics, Yarmouth, Massachusetts

© Syracuse University group photo copyright Roger Shimomura

© “Girl from Life” 1968 screen print copyright Roger Shimomura

both images used by permission of the artist

Truro photographs by Jim Peters

© Poster and all other photographs copyright Wayne Miller

IN A WESTERN MIRROR

For information about the art of Roger Shimomura

go to the LINKs page.