The Art of Elder Arthur Towata Featured at the Jacoby Arts Center | Lifestyles
The art of late alumnus Arthur Towata is now on display at the Jacoby Arts Center in Alton after a delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Jacoby Arts Center brought in interns from SIUE’s Department of Anthropology for the exhibit. Three students were chosen to help: Emma Pritchard, a junior, and Wren Merz and Kaia Cosgriff, who are both seniors.
Pritchard said that since Towata was a SIUE alumnus, it was nice to share that connection with the artist and the art itself.
“He was one of the first promotions of the SIUE. He got his masters here,” Pritchard said. “It’s been fascinating to see how much I’ve learned about him since joining the project. He had a crazy life.”
Towata’s art was best known for his ceramics, but he also worked in many other mediums including collages, watercolors, masks, drawings and more. A common image in his work was that of a dragonfly, which is a motif found in much of his art.
The art was given to Jacoby for the show of Amy Osawa, Towata’s niece and executor of his estate. Osawa said she was grateful to be able to showcase her uncle’s art, though she wishes it were under better circumstances.
“He’s known for dragonflies, or watercolors, or ceramics,” Osawa said. “A lot of people haven’t seen it all and don’t know his full range. I think people didn’t realize he was creating ash pots or figurines.
CyRhen Smith, the exhibition coordinator for the Jacoby Arts Center, also said Towata was a big part of the Alton and Metro East art scene. Smith said she remembers meeting Towata when she was 15, before she knew who he was.
“I work with jewelry, and [while selling art at a market] this man came and asked about my process. After talking for a few minutes, he noticed that he was also doing art, mostly with ceramics, and that there was more in common between our processes than he had originally anticipated,” said said Smith. “But then, a bit later, while I was working here, they pulled out a picture of Arthur and they said we were going to do an exhibition of his stuff, and my jaw dropped, and I said, ‘ I met him. ”
Towata’s connection to the arts in the area goes even deeper than that, according to Jacoby Arts Center executive director Rachel Lappin. She said Towata helped start the arts center himself.
“Towata was instrumental in getting Jacoby started and he was very involved in the city’s arts community. He was a very big part of Jacoby during his life. He had done a few shows here before,” Lappin said. “And when he passed away, we were asked by the arts community if there were any memorials coming up. At that time, we had started working with his family and his estate.
Smith said Jacoby was grateful for the opportunity to show Towata’s art in memory of his life. He died in 2019 at the age of 86.
“When he died, it was only natural that someone [would] show his work. His family was looking somewhere and he had put his art here many times before,” Smith said.
Prior to helping found Jacoby, Osawa said Towata had a studio he lived in that he used as his own gallery, which he also rented out to area artists to showcase their art.
“He opened his own gallery in the ’70s so other artists could have shows,” Osawa said. “The city arts center didn’t exist yet, so it was the only place for artists, really.”
There were darker parts of Towata’s life, Pritchard said. Towata was forced to live in an internment camp as a Japanese child in America.
“Every time Arthur was a kid, he and his family were actually taken away,” Pritchard said. “He never really saw his father because he was taken first and he died in that separate camp.”
Pritchard also said that Towata did not initially realize how much his art was connected to this part of his childhood early in his career, but he became more aware of this connection later.
“He didn’t think about it on purpose in his art, but he looked later in life and found that the colors he used in some ceramics were exactly the same shades and tones as the sand in Manzanar, which is the camp he was a kid in,” Pritchard said. “He didn’t do his show on that part of his childhood until the end of 2007. He ended up doing a whole whole series just from his experiences.”
With over 1,500 works of art in the arts center, Lappin said Towata is a very prolific artist, and the variety of art he showcases is what attracts many people.
“His art is so powerful. I think that’s what’s unique about the series. People have seen his work in other time frames, or only certain mediums. It has paintings, ceramics, collages, masks and so many things,” Lappin said. “It has been brought together here in an unfortunately retrospective way. The range is both playful, humorous and serious. It’s nice.”
According to Osawa, what makes her uncle’s art special to her is his personality that shines in it.
“He was a quiet person, but very observant and very funny… You could see his humor in his works, and all you could do was smile. When you examine a ceramic work of art , you find all these different hidden things, like hidden faces or dragonflies,” Osawa said. “You see the humor in the things he’s done. I can imagine him making these little hidden things. and laugh about it wondering who will notice.
Towata’s art will be at the arts center until March 5. A reception for the exhibition will take place at 6 p.m. on Friday, February 11 at the Jacoby Arts Center in Alton. For more information see Jacoby Arts Center website.