My grandfather, my mother’s father, Kohei Shimozawa, was one of five children of ancestral landowners from the farming village of Nishioi, north of Odawara City in Kanagawa-ken, Japan. In 1925, when he was 20, in an effort to break away from the limitations of the role of a second-born son in a Japanese family, he followed his brother and cousin to Canada. There, Kohei worked on a strawberry farm and at a cedar mill in Hammond, B.C., and followed other seasonal Japanese workers to the salmon run on the Skeena River, where he worked in a cannery and slept in a Japanese bunkhouse.
After five years, Kohei returned to Japan and met Kimie Mizuno, the cousin of the family who had sponsored him on their strawberry farm in Canada. Kimie was the second daughter of seven children of land owning rice farmers from the neighbouring village of Iizumi. In school, where she excelled, Kimie had been given the nickname, “Medaka” — a tiny Japanese rice fish with large, round, high-set eyes. Though she graduated at the top of her class and longed to attend university, as a girl, Kimie was sent to teacher’s college and married Kohei on April 1st of that year. It was 1931. Without a travel permit for his bride, who was by then pregnant, Kohei returned to Canada, alone. After one last season at the cannery, he got off the boat at Ocean Falls, B.C. and took a full-time job as a jitney driver at the paper mill, loading rolls, along with his brother, onto the ships at the dock. Kohei wrote to Kimie and their baby daughter Atsuko in Iizumi, where she lived with her parents and commuted to nearby Odawara to teach high school.
By 1937, Atsuko was starting school and Kimie was implored by her parents to reunite with Kohei in Canada. Kohei’s plan was to return to Japan once he’d saved enough money to establish an independent and comfortable home for them there. At the train station, a member of Kimie’s family asked five year-old Atsuko if she would like to go to a nearby shop to choose a present for herself. When they returned to the platform, Kimie had boarded the train and it had departed for Yokohama.
Kohei and Kimie settled into life in the Japanese community in Ocean Falls, with Kimie teaching at the Japanese language school and Kohei working at the cedar mill. On March 30, 1940, my Mum, Carol Noriko was born in Ocean Falls. Nine days before Canada declared war on Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, Kimie gave birth to David Tetsuo. Japanese were assembled, their property, bank accounts and fishing boats confiscated, and they were removed from the coast and relocated to inland internment camps. Kohei and Kimie, my Mum and her infant brother, David were forced to leave Ocean Falls on March 17, 1942 and sent to the small, french speaking farming village of Letelier, Manitoba. In the summer, Kohei worked in the sugar beet fields, threshing grain, digging and moving outhouses and digging and planting gardens for the town people and farmers. In the winter, he cut ice from the Red River and transported it by horse-drawn sleigh. At night, he walked the long road home backwards, turned against the winter wind. They fetched water from a nearby pond and strained it through a cloth before boiling it to drink. In 1943, Kimie gave birth to their fourth child, Betty Fumiko.
When the war ended in 1945, Japanese families in rural Manitoba were permitted to relocate to Winnipeg. Kohei went ahead and found work at Dominion Wheel and Foundry where he poured molten iron. He found, after much resistance from landlords around town, a three-room suite in a four-suite tenement house in the north end, with one shared toilet and sink and no running hot water. Kimie boiled water on the stove for baths and cooking. When Noriko, Tetsuo and Fumiko were enrolled in Sunday School at the Japanese United Church, they were asked to choose their own names for baptism. And so, my mother became “Carol,” after a girl in school who she thought was nice. Kohei worked the night shift at the foundry, riding his bicycle there at 2am. Kimie found work as a housemaid for a German family and a Jewish family who, perhaps because of their own families’ experiences with persecution in Europe, were the only families to hire her. By 1948, the Shimozawas had saved enough money to buy the house of the German Menonite family Kimie had been working for. They moved across the river to East Kildonan, into a three-bedroom Craftsman with a proper bathroom with tub and running hot water. Soon, Kimie began sewing piecework for fine leather gloves at the Perfectfit Glove Company, and immersed herself in volunteering and holding meetings as part of the Japanese United Church. She read the entire newspaper, plus the Bunjei Shunju magazines Atsuko would send her, and discussed current events with Kohei. She packed canned goods and parcels and sent money to Atsuko in Japan, all the while relentlessly seeking permission for her to join her family in Canada. Japanese Nationals were not on the list of allowed immigrants. Kimie hosted university students, welcomed families into their home at holidays, and offered her guests a proper Japanese — if a bit Canadian-style — bath, in her bathtub.
In 1954, with the help of a Canadian Senator who was also a member of the United Church, Atsuko was finally permitted to enter Canada as an immigrant. She was 22. Atsuko lived for a year with her family, learning to drive, working in her chosen field of study as a dressmaker, and becoming close to her parents before returning to Japan to marry her betrothed. She became a fashion designer in Tokyo, had a beautiful and accomplished family, and visited ours regularly to ski at Whistler and to see her parents, who would eventually return to B.C. to retire. All of us have visited Atsuko on numerous occasions in Japan. David Tetsuo studied engineering, attended graduate school and became an engineer and Betty Fumiko, like Kimie, became a teacher. Both also raised remarkable families.
After high school, my Mum, Carol, accepted a job as a cabin attendant for Canadian Pacific Air Lines in 1959, and at age 19 was living independently in Vancouver and flying to Japan. She travelled the world and visited Atsuko, who told her she was too modern and westernized to make a good wife to a Japanese man. In 1962, while living in the West End, a friend who knew she was interested in art offered to introduce my Mum to a fledgling painter. She was 22. Bob was boarding with a landlady who prepared his meals, while he kept a studio on Pender Street. He was burning a lot of stuff in the back dumpster at that time. When Carol appeared, my Dad suddenly understood that the world was a big and wondrous place and if one was loved by the right person, life could open up with possibilities of purpose, adventure, stability, tenderness and family love. “She made me pull up my socks and gave me a reason and the confidence to really go for it — to try to be an artist,” he told me. In August, 1964, Bob and Carol were married in a friend’s garden and honeymooned for two years in Europe, where she traded her glamorous life as a ’60s flight attendant for a Volkswagen Westfalia they bought upon landing in Amsterdam. With his handful of beans — an advance for future paintings from his dealer in Vancouver — Bob bought Carol a bathtub and strapped it to the roof of the van.
Because my Mum’s childhood had been one where her parents were most often working, she, with the exuberant support of my Dad, stayed home. My brothers, David and James and I grew up in a house where my Dad worked in his studio from 5am until 8pm with a snooze at 5:40 and dinner at 6. My Mum did everything else. After assessing our particular proclivities early on, she enrolled us in music lessons and then drove us to every one, even taking up classical guitar, herself. She volunteered at our schools, stood in the rain for soccer, and carpooled for dance and choir and gymnastics. She also sewed all of my clothes, dance costumes and Halloween costumes and baked our birthday cakes and the cookies we took in our lunch boxes. In her elegance, I didn’t wear a pair of jeans until a friend’s mother offered to buy me some. When my Dad had an idea to paint a girl in a blue-and-white-striped dress, he described it to my Mum, and she made it. When he asked for one with polka dots, she made that, too. She reupholstered the furniture and planted strawberries in an old barrel. She loved music and movies. She mowed the lawn. She collected ceramics.
When my grandparents finally returned to B.C., my Mum worked with my grandfather in the gully behind our home until it was completely terraced and planted with hybrid stone fruit trees, and an apple-pear. She plopped us on the floor of the public library while she filled up with her own passions; Lawrence, Atwood, Ondaatje, Monro, le Carré. Then we’d go home and strike up The Genn Family Ensemble — our family band — mostly Beatles covers. I remember the comfort of hearing her prepare dinner in the next room every evening while I practised Debussy, Bach, Khachaturian and Schumann. She attended every recital, was a Beaver den mother, and camp chaperone. She constructed and sewed my school mascot costume including a giant papier-mâché tiger head. Her tiger has only recently been retired. She sat through countless swimming lessons, sailing and synchro and tennis. When I played volleyball in junior high, she applied to the city of Surrey to have a net installed at the point, on the beach where we lived, so everyone could enjoy the sport. Her net is still there.
My Mum started a small business with a friend, arranging dried flowers. They exhibited at the prestigious Circle Craft Market. She made colloids, collages and serigraphs with my Dad. Early on, when he bought her a loom, however, she said, “I will do my own thing.” Instead, she hopped into her ‘66 Austin Healey Sprite and drove to the community tennis court — where she would build, over the next 50 years, some of her longest and most intimate friendships. When she slipped and tore her knee when I was in elementary school, my Mum switched to golf, and most of her friends would take it up, too. A little over a month ago, I was finally invited to join them — 16 women, each as mellow, kind and joy-ready as a polished river stone — on their annual, week-long golf trip, a day’s drive from home, in a nearby holiday resort. My mum’s grace, her humour, her intelligence, thoughtfulness and her willingness to participate in life and friendship was, as always, embodied by her daily example. I let it shine into me.
For five decades, my Mum watched my brothers and me plod through the bogs, thickets, plateaus and high ridges of a life in art. Just as she escorted my Dad in the same devotion, she nudged us, ached for us and quietly applauded our hardscrabble. She was a believer in personal responsibility, integrity, in bucking up, in planning, and in dreaming. She was always thinking of others. She didn’t take short cuts. Hers was a style of low-key, steadfast constancy; of intimate understanding and witnessing, and tough but magic realism. It turns out, like many things she dedicated herself to, she was good at it. She was good at making artists. Over the last few years, when it seemed my triumphs might be outnumbering my setbacks, my Mum’s pep talks began to refine into only gentle words of praise: “You are on your way.” “You have done the work.” “You have paid your dues.” “It is all yours.” James, a director, and Dave, a composer, arranger, producer and rock-n-roll Hall-of-Famer, are in the same boat. It’s been many, many years since The Genn Family Ensemble has had to be prompted to practise. All of it, only possible, because of Carol, and her first artist, Bob.
PS: “Whenever someone asks me what I mix my paint with, I usually answer ‘love.’ If you can put a little love into it you can’t go wrong, and during this period of my life love was in plentiful supply. I would work in my studio on Pender Street during the week, come home for dinner, go to plays or concerts in the evening and spend a lot of time with Carol. Kahlil Gibran said, ‘Work is love made visible.’ This seemed true at the time, and it has an even deeper meaning for me now.” (Robert Genn)
Esoterica: When my Dad passed away in 2014, I told my Mum that whatever she wanted the rest of her life to look like, I would be there, do it with her, and that she would have my unconditional support. We packed it in — travelling, being together, keeping our family close, visiting her grandchildren and nurturing, daily, her lifelong friendships through her passions. We visited James, who was directing a television series in Budapest; she accompanied Dave and his band, 54 40, in Mexico; we toured the galleries of Melbourne, Sydney and New York with Peter; she took long holidays with us and saw my studios in New York and California and attended even more openings than she had already racked up over her 49 years with my Dad. This spring, my Mum found a lump in her armpit and was told she may have two years. Early Saturday morning, I held her in my arms, in her bed at home, as she peacefully slipped away. “You are the light of my life,” she’d whispered to me. “You are my purpose and meaning,” I wept into her, stroking her delicate hands. “I’m going to miss you so much.” At her highest expression of the grace, practicality, beauty and elegance that she lived every day of her life, her eyes replied, “You can do it.”
“The temple bell stops
But the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers” (Matsuo Bashō)
My sincerest gratitude to my Uncle, David T. Shimozawa for his contribution of the Shimozawa family history to the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre’s Archives, here, here, and here.
Join Ellie Harold for “Intuitive Painting: Permission to Paint Expressively,” designed especially for mature women artists of all skill levels who wish to explore this medium for soulful exploration. The retreat provides attractive accommodations (your own room!) along with lightly structured activities for centering, relaxation and low stress art-making. You’ll have plenty of free time to muse, paint, write and reflect while enjoying the colors, textures and flavors of San Miguel. This Retreat has the potential to transform not only your art but your life! You’ll return home with a specific art “care plan” to assure support for further creating. Details at www.EllieHarold.com.
Robert’s technique includes a tradition of strong design with patterns of color and form, with a pervasive sense of personal style. Grand themes are transposed onto small panels and larger canvases in a manner similar to members of the Group of Seven. Most of Robert’s work is in acrylic. He has also done considerable work in oils, watercolour, and silk screen printing.