Artwork of Empathy & Resistance
Autobiographical Art Statement
"I consider myself more social critic than painter and look at what happens today as an extension of a past that is buried by denial and covered by myths and lies. Unless we are honest and admit to what we've done and are doing, the problems of society will forever resurface. And to be honest we have to admit that history didn't or doesn't just happen--individuals, groups and institutions, especilly those in positions of power, govern the process.
"The problem of ethnicity has more or less been the context of my life. Internally, however, I was brought up, like many Asians, to believe in social harmony and therefore to be deferential to circumstances and the social order. With World War II and the civil rights and anti-war movements of the sixties my upbringing changed. The realities of American policy and politics, both domestic and foreign, obliterated that deference."
-- Yoshiro Sanbonmatsu, "A Gallery of Social/Political Art: An Essay," in Torry D. Dickinsoned., Community and the World: Participating in Social Change (2003).
April 24, 1924 - October 22, 2017
Yoshiro Sanbonmatsu (or Yosh, as he was known) was born in 1924 and grew up in Holtville, California, in the Imperial Valley, an agricultural region close to the Mexican border. Yosh's parents, Teru Tsuchiya (mother) and Yoshimitsu Sanbonmatsu (father), immigrated to the United States from Japan in the early 1900s, where they established a successful produce farming enterprise (still extant as "Sanbon Inc.").
In 1942, the Sanbonmatsu family fell victim to anti-Japanese racism and war hysteria after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, when more than 100,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans were interned by the U.S. government. (One of Yosh’s most powerful and personal paintings, “From Isseis and Niseis to Sanseis and Kibeis,” depicts his family’s experience in the camp.) Yosh left the Poston camp to become a student at Swarthmore College, then joined the US Army and served in Europe and the Phillipines in 1944-45.
After working at the Doubleday bookstore in New York after the war, and after briefly retiring to Paris with a young man's aim of writing the Great American Novel, Yosh finally
settled upon a career as an English teacher. His first appointments
were at the Cherry Lawn School in Connecticut, then at Oakwood Friends School in New York. In 1963, Yosh joined the English Department at Plymouth-Carver Regional High School, in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Yosh remained at PCHS for 28 years, playing a key role in developing the high school English curriculum and offering path-breaking--and, at the time, controversial--classes in visual culture, filmmaking, and Black Culture, in addition to American Literature.
A fierce advocate of freedom of thought, Yosh once publicly defended the teaching of J.D. Salinger's book, Catcher in the Rye, against would-be school censors. He was a widely respected and admired teacher who sought to educate his students about the human condition in all its complexities and contradictions. Former students speak of the enormous impact he had on their lives.
Throughout his life, Yosh was a passionate advocate for social justice who identified with the most vulnerable in society. He taught inmates at a local prison and was an active supporter of Native American causes. He was one of the figures involved in the Parting Ways archaeological project in Plymouth, to preserve and publicize traces of one of the earliest African-American communities of freed slaves, dating back to early colonial times (see James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life). A patriot in the mold of Mark Twain (whom he admired and whose work he taught in the classroom), Yosh loved his country but resisted its war-making.
After retiring from the Plymouth schools, Yosh became a full-time artist, concentrating on political and social themes. He received a Masters in Fine Art from Bridgewater State College and studied at the Massachusetts College of Art. He was involved in promoting political art in the New England region for fifteen years. In the 1990s, Yosh was one of the co-organizers of Dave's Art Gallery, a political art gallery in Cambridge, and founder of the Gallery of Social & Political Art at the Community Church of Boston. In 2004, a retrospective of Yosh's ouevre was held at the Church, encompassing some 60 individual pieces.
Yosh maintained an extensive personal library of thousands of books. Among the writers and thinkers he felt a particularly strong affinity with were the Transcendentalists (Emerson and Thoreau) satirist Mark Twain, oral historian Studs Terkel, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, among many others.
Yosh put family above all else. He was happiest when biking or kayaking with his partner, or camping or going to the beach with family. He was a loving and unusually involved and devoted father and grandfather, never too busy to help his children with their math homework, to read their poetry, or to create sand sculptures for them at the beach (including life-sized cars they could sit in). He hand-crafted dollhouses for each of his daughters, replete with wall-papered rooms, carved banisters, and a working doorbell.
Yosh is remembered by all who knew him as a legendary teacher, impassioned artist, a loving father, grandfather, husband, and helpmate, and as a man of great dignity and moral seriousness who nonetheless retained his sense of playfulness, good humor, compassion, and humility to the last of his days. He was a modest man of more than modest accomplishments.
Yoshiro Sanbonmatsu died in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on the evening of October 22, 2017. He is survived by his partner, three children and a step-son, four grandchildren, and his former wife.