February 20, 2015
I drove to the Hayner Library today to pick up some DVDs I had reserved, most notably “A Most Wanted Man,” the last film of Philip Seymour Hoffman, perhaps the greatest American film actor of the last twenty years.
I got my selections and was talking to my pal, librarian Penny Noble, when I saw an elderly Asian man walk in the door. He carried a blue plastic grocery bag and shuffled across the room and exchanged his returned DVDs for some new ones, the collected works of “Jeeves and Wooster,” the long running PBS English comedy hit based on the satirical books of the irascible P.G. Wodehouse.
Then the gentleman got a newspaper off the rack and sat at a table and read. Sudden recognition hit me. I asked the checkout clerk: Is that man named Towata? Yes, the clerk said, he comes in nearly every day. Someone bought him a DVD player, and he’s always picking up his limit.
And since the clerk was a young woman, I asked if she knew who Arthur Towata was. She thought he was an artist. A world class artist, I told her.
Arthur Towata is a ceramicist and sculptor and painter. He is quite old. His pieces grace museums around the world. As a young artist, his peers encouraged him to go to New York and be part of the art scene. On his way to the Big Apple, he stopped in Alton . . . a small apple orchard perhaps, and he never left.
Towata and his mother and siblings lived in a Japanese internment camp in World War II. His father was taken to a different camp and Arthur was never to see him again. The father was shot to death under mysterious circumstances. Arthur remembered the structures of the camp, the houses covered in black tarpaper and dreadfully hot, the dust, the hot winds, the barbed wire fences
He might have been a bitter man. But Mr. Towata was gentle by nature. Ask the thousands of Alton High School students with whom he worked. Ask the Monticello College girls or his university students across the Mississippi, in St. Louis. Arthur Towata was a great mentor. He loved kids.
His art reflects his experiences in the internment camp. His large canvases build on a background of black, like the tarpaper shacks. They have unmistakable lineage to Japan, with sweeping, serene brush strokes. They are simple yet complex, objects and canvases upon which to meditate, to dream, to reflect. This is genius art rendered by the humblest of men, content to live in a backwater river town, perhaps influenced by the river itself and the bluffs.
I walked over to the great man’s table. Excuse me, I said. I am Eugene Baldwin, Class of 1966. Arthur gestured me to sit down. We shook hands and talked. The roof of his studio had collapsed, so he couldn’t work. Besides, the studio didn’t have heat. He decided to see what he had been missing all these years; he watched a lot of DVDs. He loves English comedies.
What do you do, Mr. Towata asked. I told him I was a writer. I was uncomfortable talking about that, as I was sitting with a great artist. You expect an orchestra to strike up and play, cue the flashbacks. Arthur always looked older, always had a long, white beard, always had bushy white eyebrows, always shuffled from place to place, always had arty girls fall in love with him.
A few library patrons strolled and perused books. A few people toiled at computers. They saw the old Asian man shabbily dressed with a blue plastic grocery sack holding his belongings—if they saw anything, in the smart phone era—and had I stood and announced that a great man was in the house they would have pretended not to hear.
Your work, I told him, is stunning, beyond words. You are a remarkable artist. He put his hands on my hand and smiled.
America, Red Scare mongers of the ’40s, antecedents of the traitor Cheney, and Bush and Rice, the liars and scare mongers of today: gaze upon Arthur Towata, son of the camps. You murdered his father. You scarred him. He made inspiration out of horror. He turned trauma into art with paint of tears and sweat.
The old man shuffled downtown, avoiding snow and ice patches, his blue plastic bag stuffed with DVDs, his coat open to the bitter wind. New York would have eaten this egoless man alive.
Alton was home.