Arts feature: 'Generations of Art'

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive
April and Chris Sunami with John Sunami

The historical record of dancer/choreographer Martha Graham's work begins with an immigrant from Japan named Soichi Sunami. Starting in the late 1920s, when Graham and others, including the Denishawn Dance Company and, later, Agnes de Mille, were laying the foundations of what was becoming known as modern dance, Sunami was photographing the dancers and dances.

Sunami's long-underappreciated work is the centerpiece of “Generations of Art: The Sunami Family,” an exhibition opening this Friday at the Cultural Arts Center. Also featured will be work from John Sunami, Soichi's son and popular Columbus sculptor and painter, plus John's children: Jennifer Sunami, a digital and graphic artist living in Seattle, and Christopher Sunami, Columbus musician, writer and arts advocate, along with Christopher's wife, well-known Columbus mixed-media artist April Sunami, and April and Christopher's son, River Sunami.

“I've been working on getting my father's work better known,” John Sunami said in a recent phone interview, adding that he's also doing extensive restoration and archiving. “The more I work with his photographs, the more I appreciate the skill and the artistic sensibility he had, that he was able to capture the essence of these dancers. Not only the skill, but, when he [photographed] Martha Graham, she was just starting her career, and he was able to recognize her importance.”

Soichi Sunami immigrated to the United States from Japan at the age of 20 in 1907, arriving just in time to avoid being excluded from entry under the Gentlemen's Agreement between the U.S. and Japan. He lived and studied art in Seattle before moving to New York City. In addition to photographing dancers, he was also taking pictures of his friends' artwork, which came to the attention of the Museum of Modern Art. Sunami did contract photography for MOMA for more than 30 years, taking more than 20,000 publicity and catalog images of artwork and exhibitions.

John Sunami recalls art being omnipresent in his youth as a result.

“I grew up surrounded by art. My father's studio was our apartment. I grew up in Greenwich Village and Chelsea, and half of the apartment was my father's studio,” he said. “Every once in a while I would go through the museum with him. He would sneak me in to see the exhibits.”

This not only planted the seed for John Sunami's future as an artist, but also subsequent generations of the family. “It was a part of our lives with Jennifer and Chris,” John Sunami said.

“We did Suzuki violin when we were young, and we were often going to openings at, especially, the William H. Thomas Gallery,” Christopher Sunami said. “But I also remember my dad's love for art. He worked for a long time on getting public art in the city, and then in more recent years, he has a lot of public pieces around Columbus now.”

John Sunami's contribution to the exhibition includes a 17-foot-long scroll that documents the family history.

“I thought it was important to have the American family's scroll because of just the climate of the time now, to show a new American family can be many things,” he said.

In addition to the collection of visual art, the exhibition opening will feature a performance of original compositions by Christopher Sunami by an ensemble of musicians from the Columbus Symphony and a performance by Columbus Modern Dance Company of Martha Graham's “Heretic,” an early work which was captured in photographs by Soichi Sunami.

“I think Columbus is a great community for the arts.I do feel like, as a family, collectively we've had a significant impact on the arts community, and I'd like to see that recognized,” Christopher Sunami said. “Especially for my grandfather's work – he was really a great artist and I'm excited for there to be a chance for that to be seen.”

Cultural Arts Center

6-9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30

139 W. Main St., Downtown

"Generations of Art: The Sunami Family"