Artist Profile: Devon Tsuno

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Devon Tsuno; Image courtesy of the artist

Tracing Family History in Floral Color

Written by Genie Davis
Devon Tsuno uses the flora of the Los Angeles landscape to reflect his own family’s history. Vibrant and lovely, his work honors and expresses his own heritage and that of many Japanese Americans in Southern California.

“My current solo exhibition at Residency Gallery in Inglewood focuses on the Topaz American concentration camp, stories written by incarcerated teenagers in the camp, and post-war influences that Japanese American gardeners have had on the Los Angeles landscape. This new body of work retraces my own family history and its strong connections to specific non-native flora planted in the LA landscape.”

He describes his new paintings as focusing on the origin of his interest in diverse plants throughout Los Angeles, as well as “their connections to the cultural diversity in my home city that I have been painting. In this project, it was also the first time I used photography in the artist’s books and wall paper installation.”

The exhibition, Shikata Ga Nai, is currently on view online. It’s an extension of his three-month residency, Sunday Studio, at the Museum of Contemporary Art. A gallery walk through and a conversation with Yonsei (4th generation) Japanese Americans, will take place on Zoom, with the latter organized and moderated by curator/writer Ana Iwataki.

His color palette is vivid, intensely heightened in its brightness, but his execution is both delicate and flawless. According to Tsuno, “A beautiful violet azalea flower planted in a front yard in Beverly Hills requires a lot of water.  It requires someone who can afford that water…disappearing with the Nisei generation who planted them. My decisions about color always seem to reflect the ambiguity of my thoughts on things like this.”

In short, there is a fascinating dichotomy in his approach – fierce color, exquisite detail, which when combined, is almost hypnotically graceful.

Tsuno currently creates using matte acrylic paint and spray paint. He’s developed different techniques to build the paint up on canvas to create the illusion of collaged washi paper. “People often think my work is paper cut-outs, but it is all paint, applied directly to the surface of the canvas. The process is long and labor intensive, so I actually spend a large majority of my time behind my camera.”

While he has an extensive volume of photographic work, he has not exhibited this area of his art extensively until this year. “I plan on continuing to expand that aspect of my work, further connecting it to the spaces I make.

He says he is always considering “The beauty and tension that often comes with truths around me. I also think about color as a way to preserve its cultural connections to my own identity. I will paint a plant bright purple and orange to hold on to the Okinawan colors found in traditional clothing close to me, while thinking about my grandfather who planted it. I might paint a delicate thin brush in the desert [as] bright florescent orange, thinking about the uncomfortable feeling of it brushing up against the skin, the intense heat, and my uncle clearing it from the grounds of the camp he was incarcerated at to plant a vegetable garden. Or when I create abstractions of water from the LA River I paint them with the colors from the graffiti that is no longer there.”

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Devon Tsuno; Image courtesy of the artist

Tsuno describes his work as exhibiting “curiosity about the familiar,” which keeps his art interesting in the studio. He says the images he creates represent both how he thinks and the way in which he lives in the city.

“For me, when I fly-fish at the LA River, visit my grandmother’s house, or teach art to young people who grew up in LA, I get ideas about how to experience the city differently.”

His family was a presence in the mid-city and Crenshaw areas since the 1920s, and his home has changed a great deal over the years. That change clearly resonates deeply with him, as he describes “carefully obsessive documenting of Los Angeles changing; the native and non-native plants, reclaimed urban bodies of water, and portraits of my elders.”

The biggest change in the city’s fabric at present, is due to the global pandemic. The situation has also created some major changes in the way Tsuno creates his art, and the projects he devotes his time to create.

“My research process usually involves collaborating with others, face-to-face conversations, exploring the areas of the city I paint when fly-fishing and cycling.” Today, he is working at home, connecting more remotely with his collaborators, through texts, emails, and Zoom.

Additionally, it’s been challenging to make art while he home-schools his son through 3rd grade, since schools closed. Tsuno’s wife is an RN, whom he describes as working heroically hard in a hospital. Both are dealing daily with fear and stress, deeply concerned about the possibility of bringing the virus home.

“Although the narrative in the media is shifting, the numbers of Covid-19 patients and deaths increases everyday she goes to work, and the lack of PPE is still greatly impacting our healthcare workers locally,” he asserts.

Tsuno’s long-time friend Ed Giardina helped him set up a small 3D-printing factory in his studio to produce face shields to protect healthcare staff and other essential workers from Covid-19.

“In the past 3 days, we have printed hundreds of masks and distributed them to hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stores and clinics from Bakersfield to Tijuana, Mexico,” he explains, proud of the support that he and Giardina have received in “generous donations from mainly the art community in Los Angeles. We have expanded our team from 2 to 20 artists from Cypress College and CSUDH (PRAXIS/DHAC) Art Department, and shortly will have the capacity to print over 2000 face shields a week to donate to over a 100 hospitals and essential businesses in the Greater LA and OC areas.”

Donations for Tsuno’s 3D PPE materials can be sent by Venmo: @Edward-Giardina.

Along with this vital work, Tsuno also recently contributed to HUMANIDAD CON COLOR – Border Kindness Libro De Colorear, a coloring book published by the charitable organization Border Kindness. “The coloring book is being sent to shelters caring for asylum-seeking children, with work by myself, Patrick Martinez, Aaron De La Cruz, Daniel Gibson, February James, Gabriella Sanchez, and Jaime Munoz.”

Upcoming for the artist is a group exhibition in August at UCCS GOCA at Ent Center for the Arts in Colorado, curated by Donald Fodness, Daisy McGowan and Geoffrey Shamos.

Tsuno adds “Sitting here staring at my 3D printers making face shields, I can also imagine that it won’t be long until I am 3D-printing ‘wood blocks’ to print patterns and abstractions.”

Whatever his direction, his work will undoubtedly carry compelling elements of memory and evocations of the past to today’s viewers.

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