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Show Is Brush With Painter's Past

Retrospective will reveal many facets of Ventura artist Hiroko Yoshimoto, who has also explored set design and calligraphy.

November 25, 2002|Josef Woodard | Special to The Times

As an art professor at Ventura College, Hiroko Yoshimoto has left her mark on generations of students.

As an artist, the Japan-born, Southern California-bred Yoshimoto has also made her mark -- so much so that she will soon have her first retrospective at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art.

In preparation, the 59-year-old Yoshimoto has been retracing her career with the curator of the show. And in the process, she has come to an important realization: "Things do connect, from one to another to another," she said.

Yoshimoto works in a variety of media -- from oil to calligraphy to set design -- and styles. She also tends to produce a body of work in a series, patiently working through a concept before retreating to the drawing board until another inspiration strikes.

Her retrospective, which opens Dec. 10, is called "Visions of Intangibles: The Art of Hiroko Yoshimoto, 1983-2002." It will cover work from four series: "Slice of Life," "Four Seasons," "Lines and Signs: Instruments That Convey Abstract Thoughts" and "Face to Face."

A visit to Yoshimoto's house recently revealed a living workplace in flux. Artworks were strewn around the living room, and other pieces were being restored in her downstairs studio.

The wraparound windows offer a panoramic view of downtown Ventura and the ocean beyond, an inspiring spot for an artist.

But her house with a view and her interests haven't necessarily led her into landscape or urbanscape paintings. Yoshimoto seems happiest to remain open to possibilities, perhaps partly due to her profession as a teacher.

Sitting at her kitchen table and showing work from a catalog in progress, Yoshimoto admitted, "I haven't been too active in marketing my art. For one thing, I've had a full career in teaching, so that provided me with paying the rent and so on .... That was good, in a way, because I could experiment a lot. It freed me from having to do things that would have to sell."

She discovered an affinity for teaching when she took on her first class at Ventura College in 1970.

"I never planned to become a teacher," she said. "I am just lucky that I love teaching. That was luck. Being in art and teaching, it is very time-consuming and energy-draining. But [this way] you are always involved in art."

Lee Hodges, gallery director of the Buenaventura Gallery, is both a colleague and a former student of Yoshimoto. The two also cross paths in community arts efforts, such as the Municipal Art Acquisition Committee for the city of Ventura.

In the mentor-student relationship, Hodges said, Yoshimoto is "a very gifted critiquer. I've never seen anyone [else] who could critique your artwork and get into your head. She knows how to improve what you're doing but stay within what you're doing, not make it hers and not change it. She really just crawls inside your brain and tells you what it needs."

Sometimes, teaching sparks ideas for Yoshimoto the artist. In one recent classroom project, students worked on portraits of each other, round-robin style. The resulting mosaic of portraits gave Yoshimoto the idea for her current "Face to Face" series.

Born in Kobe, Japan, in 1943, Yoshimoto had an early nudge in the direction of art from her father, a businessman who taught her calligraphy after school.

Yoshimoto was a teenager when her family moved to Pasadena. She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in art at UCLA, then worked for a few years outside of fine art, including a stint for IBM in Tokyo in the late '60s.

When she returned, she committed herself to a life of teaching and art-making. Married in 1977, she divorced in 1989 and has no children, devoting her energies to art.

She has shown in numerous Ventura County galleries and in such Los Angeles art spaces as Judy Chicago's Women's Space, L.A. Artcore and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Sales and Rental Gallery. She has also shown at galleries in Japan.

Along the way, Yoshimoto has channeled her interest in other media, including music and opera, into occasional work as a set designer.

Most recently, she supplied the spare, effective designs for a version of Igor Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale" at the San Buenaventura Mission. The event was part of the 1999 Musics Alive! festival of the New West Symphony.

Her biggest such project to date, though, was her 1990 endeavor designing sets and costumes for a Ventura College production of the Mozart opera "The Magic Flute." She worked on the project for two years, even doing research on Mozart in Vienna and tracking down bolts of white silk in the Los Angeles garment district.

"That's when I learned the difference between performing artists and fine artists," she said. "After the show was struck, everything was tossed away. I first thought, 'Oh my gosh, all that work and it's just gone.'

"But I learned the beauty in that. It's just wonderful to have that one moment of your whole engaged performance and work, and that's it. After that, it's gone. That's the nature of it."

She added, laughing, that "visual artists are more archival, thinking 'How long will this last?' "

Yoshimoto's art seems like the proverbial journey of self-discovery, one she reflects on while it's in progress.

"I like things in clear simplicity, not overly dense or complex," she said. "I like to simplify things, to clarify and crystallize in terms of thinking and what I want to say."

But that doesn't mean she always goes for realism over abstract art.

"Representational images can describe things much more clearly," she said. "However, abstract color, shape and images can go directly to your heart or soul, and give you an emotional impact."

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