Columbus Makes Art Presents: John Sunami and Generations of Art
John Sunami has been a Columbus resident since 1976. A pioneer of digital art, he was the winner of one of the first ever digital art competitions, as sponsored by MacWorld Magazine in the early 1980s. His public art and sculptures are now found across town, at the COTA headquarters, at the corner of Livingston and Nelson (the first of the Livingston Streetcar Sculpture series), at the McConnell Art Center in Worthington and on the side of the All People Fresh Market on Parsons. His work is included in Generations of Art: The Sunami Family which features the work of four generations of artists beginning with John’s father, Soichi, and including his daughter Jennifer Sunami, his son Christopher Sunami, his daughter-in-law April Sunami and his grandson River Sunami.
Nancy Colvin with Columbus Recreation and Parks Department talked with John about his creative process and the arts in Columbus.
Nancy: Columbus is a smart, open city. What originally drew you to it?
John: We originally came to Columbus because of family. Mari’s father was a Major in the Army, and was the commander in charge of shutting down Ft. Hayes as a military post. That is how her family ended up in Columbus, though they have Southern Ohio roots in Gallipolis. After meeting in the Peace Corps, Mari and I were living in Chelsea in New York City, which is my original home town. Our son Christopher had just been born, and Columbus had more room and opportunity. Mari was afraid it would be the sleepy town she had left, but we have found it to be the perfect place to raise a family.
Nancy: Creativity is a hallmark of your family. How has that been passed on and nurtured from one generation to the next?
John: I think our family is tolerant and supportive. All the various branches have been open to change and exploration. We also take personal accomplishments seriously, and know that skills and insights are not limited by age. We try to be supportive of efforts, and not belittle what is different. We respect what has been done and encourage what we try to do.
Nancy: Your father captured what have become iconic moments in modern dance. How did he become a photographer and what drew him to dance?
John: My father came from Japan in 1907 because he was interested in Western Art. He studied in Seattle and apprenticed in photography at the Ella McBride studio. Seattle had an active arts community, and dance being promoted at the Cornish School of Art. Dancers such as Anna Pavlova visited the city and were photographed at the McBride studio. Soichi also had connections with the Denishawn troupe of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, where Martha Graham and Agnes DeMille were students. He continued to photograph them in New York after he moved there in 1922 to study art under John Sloan at the Art Students League.
Nancy: Your own art has evolved over time. What drives you to continue exploring and pushing boundaries?
John: When making art is an integral part of your life, it changes as you change. One of the major benefits of creating Art is that it expands your perceptions and understandings. You see and notice new relationships, and get a deeper knowledge of the emotive and intellectual interaction of people, nature and objects. Also, new techniques and disciplines require different approaches, which give new insights.
Nancy: Your family is a beautiful blend of cultures, how does that inform your work?
John: The richness of diversity provides a wealth of experiences that opens up the world. If you limit yourself to routines that are comfortable and are afraid to explore what is different, you leave yourself vulnerable to ignorance and prejudice. When you experience different cultures you learn that the basic fundamentals of humanity are the same – we share the same hopes, aspirations, fears and emotions – and it is the different ways we express these fundamentals that makes the world so fascinating. In my work I am interested in exploring the depiction of these fundamentals, from different viewpoints.
Nancy: Can you share a little about the inspiration for your upcoming Generations of Art: The Sunami Family exhibition at the Columbus Cultural Arts Center?
John: I have always been attracted to the gallery at the Cultural Arts Center. The generous spaces and historical atmosphere makes it an ideal exhibition area. I have felt for a long time that my father’s work deserved more recognition and have wanted to show it to more people. I have also thought that having a show of my own work would be a good discipline for me – forcing me to rethink and re-view my own artistic vision. I realized, as part of this rethinking, that what might be of greatest interest, was the interaction of generations of members of the family. In addition, in these divisive times, when differences and the unexpected are being ridiculed and brought into suspicion, I thought it is important to showcase the achievement, decency and relationships of my own extended family, and how these things are not just present occurrences, but have a basis in the past, and can extend to the future.
Nancy: Your 10-year-old grandson River has a piece in Generations. What do you imagine the future looks like for artists in Columbus?
John: Columbus seems to have a moral core that makes it tolerant of differences, accepting of conflicting opinions and open to change. It also seems to want to explore and express these things in many areas, including the arts. Columbus has very strong cultural institutions, with both government and private support for the arts. I think the future looks very good for both art and artists in Columbus.
The Columbus Cultural Arts Center (CAC) invites you to attend the opening of Generations of Art: The Sunami Family, Friday, Nov. 30, 6-9 p.m. at the Center, 139 W. Main St., Columbus, OH 43215. The exhibition is on view Nov. 30, 2018,-Jan. 5, 2019. For more information, visit culturalartscenteronline.org.
Columbus Makes Art Presents is a bi-weekly column brought to you by the Greater Columbus Arts Council – supporting art and advancing culture in Columbus. The column is a project of the Art Makes Columbus campaign, telling the inspiring stories of the people and organizations who create Columbus art and sharing information about exhibitions, performances, concerts and more at ColumbusMakesArt.com. Each column will be written by a different local arts organization to give you an insiders look at how #artmakescbus.