Yoko Oji Kikuchi (daughter) and Helen Shizuko Oji (mother)
Mom says Grandma Mitzi is a frog in the painting because when she was alive she collected frog things. Little ones, made of ceramic or wood or whatever else people make frogs out of. When I proposed the idea for collaborating on a submission for this zine, my mom, Helen, decided to make a portrait of the three of us represented by animals.
Generational Animal Spirits
Helen Shizuko Oji 16.5 x 12” acrylic on khadi paper
Mom’s note: It feels spontaneous and gestural. It feels like we are on a journey through the world with freedom.
Grandma passed away in 2016, one day after her 96th birthday. She was born in 1920 to Japanese immigrants living in Southern California, interned at Gila River by the American government in her early twenties, married a few years later, became a mother at 27, a widow at 55. She lived alone for 41 years in a house (that she designed and built with her late husband) outside of Yuba City, California. She had two daughters, Jane and Helen, and they just had daughters as well. I am the youngest of the three women of my generation.
When we cleaned out her house, the majority of her belongings were clothing, VHS tapes (bought and pirated!), kitchen-related bric-a-brac, and frogs.
As far back as I can remember, the tradition was: frogs for Grandma and pigs for Auntie Janie. Janie was born in the year of the pig. She has almost as many pigs as Grandma had frogs. My mom never had an animal until about five years ago. She worked as a fashion designer in New York City. One day she designed a skirt that had a giant pocket. Her coworkers joked about the size. “That pocket is so big, a squirrel could live in it!” And then the squirrels came. Week after week or so, a squirrel image or squirrel object would appear on her desk. She started loving the critters. It’s good, because she has as many as Grandma’s frogs and Janie’s pigs at this point. She even paints them herself, some on paper, some on canvases taller than herself. She tells me that the aspect she relates to most is their curiosity.
Our Animal Spirits
Helen Shizuko Oji 16.5 x 12” acrylic on khadi paper
Mom’s note:I was thinking about nurturing qualities – I like the sense of caring and gesture.
The Virginia opossum (known colloquially as the possum) has been an inhabitant of North America for tens of millions of years. They are marsupials (related to kangaroos, koalas and wombats). They prey on venomous snakes and very rarely carry rabies. I moved from New York City to the Bay in 2011. For eight years I lived in a basement in West Oakland and had an open cat door, through which possums would come in and walk around and sometimes sleep and sometimes die (perhaps due to poisoning by someone who wanted to poison rats). I became accustomed to them, just like the spiders and the ants. Sometimes one would walk into my room, with an awkward and slow gait, and we would silently regard each other with what I interpreted as mutual respect. In hindsight there was probably a bit of suspicion, but nothing worth running away over. Sometimes neither of us would move for what felt like an hour. When my mom asked me what animal I wanted to be represented by in the painting, I chose the opossum because I feel a kinship to these strange and misunderstood creatures.
Fun fact: a possum has thirteen nipples arranged in a circle with one in the center! (I do not.)
A year ago after an almost-20-year hiatus from artmaking, at age 37, I started making a drawing per day. Since then I have felt the connection between my mom and I grow stronger and into a more grounded relationship. This is our first collaboration. Looking at her paintings of these animals and knowing her intention makes me feel a deep love for her and for my grandma. Also I think they’re incredibly fun and cute, just look at them! I think my grandma’s froggy good fortune has returned to us in a big way.
HELEN OJI was highlighted in the early 1980s New York City art scene as an artist with a distinctive vision. She has exhibited her paintings, works on paper and prints in numerous exhibitions in New York, nationally and Europe. In addition to her artwork, she collaborated with a range of performers/writers in creating set designs that were presented in New York City, London, and across the US. Her paintings and works on paper are in notable public collections including the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, The New Museum, Art Museum of South Texas – Corpus Christi, Jacksonville Art Museum, The Museum of Fine Arts – Houston, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Princeton University Art Museum, High Museum of Art, Barnard Collage Library, and in various corporate and private collections. Awards and honors include: Creative Artists Public Service Program, Ariana Foundation for the Arts, Inc., The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum Commission, Brandywine Workshop – Visiting Artist Fellowship. Helen was born in Sacramento, CA. After earning her MA degree in Art (Painting) from California State University, Sacramento, she made her way to New York City in 1976 where she currently lives and works.
YOKO OJI KIKUCHI is a fourth-generation American artist, singer/songwriter and video- maker of Japanese and Filipino descent. Born and raised in NYC to parents involved in the visual arts, she grew up drawing and making art. Never one to follow a direct path, she went to a math and science high school… where she focused on art-making and drawing. Then at art school in New England she quit drawing and became a conceptual artist, yet got a BFA in photography. Soon after graduation, she quit art altogether and focused on music, moving back to New York and becoming very involved in show-organizing and forming a bunch of bands, the most notable of which was Dream Bitches. In 2011 she moved to Oakland, CA where she continued to play in bands and found work in coffeehouses and nightclubs. In late 2018 she began the process of drawing once a day and sharing the drawings on Instagram. Since then she has drawn over 440 drawings, had five exhibitions and continues to make and sell work. She also recently released an eight-minute documentary called Adobe Books to Prisoners: An Interview with Nancy Frank.