Roy Kenzie Kiyooka

This is not a comprehensive biography but rather a broad outline of Roy’s life. He was a multi-disciplinary artist who wrote many books, exhibited widely in a variety of mediums (painting, sculpture, collage, mosaics, photography, video, film), gave numerous poetry readings and music performances.

Roy was born January 18, 1926 in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. Within a couple of years of his life his family moved to Calgary, Alberta where he had many friends until the war interrupted his schooling in Grade 10.

He wrote about this time later in a letter: “I had the obscure feeling that something formless dark and stealthy had fallen upon me during my sleep but when I awoke nothing outward seemed to have changed, even though my childhood friends began to fall away from me. I might add that it’s a loss I’ve never fully recovered from.”

Because of racism his father, Harry Shigekiyo Kiyooka, lost his job at a hotel and the Kiyookas were shunned by many. They moved to the small town of Opal, Alberta and Roy worked at odd jobs to help support the family. There were seven children two of whom, George and Mariko, came over later from Japan. For many years Roy was the oldest child in Canada. His younger siblings were Harry, Joyce, Frank and Irene.

Roy’s father helped his kids get through the war years by filling up at the used bookstore whenever he was in Edmonton. Roy and his brother, Harry, would spend long evenings in deep conversation about culture. In the summers he went with other Japanese Canadians to Great Slave Lake to fish and to work in a fish processing plant. His friend, Henry Shimizu, who was also there, said while cleaning fish they would talk about poetry, philosophy and art. Humour was an outlet during the dismal war years. While in Opal his brother, George, took a correspondence course in cartooning and Roy too wanted to be a cartoonist.

After the war, in 1949, Roy returned to Calgary to attend the Alberta Provincial Institute of Technology and Art where he studied with Jock Macdonald and Illingworth Kerr. His brother, Harry, said, “you can’t imagine how (Roy) felt to go back to a place (he) had once fled.”

Roy and Monica Dealtry Barker, an architect, were married In 1955. The same year he won a scholarship to the Institutio Allende in Mexico where he, along with his friend, Ron Gyo-Zo Spickett, studied under James Pinto. He was hired in 1956 to teach at the Regina College of Art and his daughters, Mariko and Fumiko, were born in Regina.

Influenced by his time in Mexico he made mosaics on the south and west exterior walls of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and “Phoenix Rising Out of the Fire” is at the First Presbyterian Church on Albert Street in Regina. He spent summers at the Emma Lake Artists’ Workshops where he helped arrange for New York art figures such as Clement Greenberg, and Barnett Newman to teach and later taught there himself. It was Newman who introduced him to the concept of the “sanctity of the studio”, a practice Roy tried to maintain and it was in this period that he made his “Emma Lake” paintings.

In 1960 Roy moved to Vancouver, where his daughter, Kiyo, was born, to teach at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art and Design). While he had lived in Regina he made his “Hoarfrost Paintings” and scraper blade paintings and was closely affiliated with a group of other abstract painters. Shortly after he moved to Vancouver, the group, who became known as the “Regina Five” began to receive recognition: but Roy was not included.

After seeing Yvonne Rainer and Merce Cunningham in performance Roy and his students, including Carole Itter and Brian Fisher, organized Vancouver’s first multimedia show in 1960. He also brought together a group of young UBC poets publishing the poetry newsletter “Tish,” and the downtown Vancouver poets associated with blew ointment press, Intermedia, etc.,

At the Vancouver Poetry Conference, organized by Warren and Ellen Tallman, Roy especially liked the work of Allen Ginsberg and Black Mountain poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. After returning from Japan where he had been reunited with his sister, Mariko, he wrote his first book of poetry, “Kyoto Airs” (Periwinkle Press, 1964).

In 1965 he and his family moved to Montreal where he taught at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) and exhibited at the Galerie de Siècle. It was during this period, while he was making his hard –edge paintings, that he began to receive international recognition. He was made a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1965 and the same year represented Canada at the Eighth Sao Paulo Biennial where he was awarded a silver medal.

Roy and Vicki Tansey’s performance art piece at Sir George Williams in 1965 was part of Montreal’s first “happening”. He helped organize a poetry conference where American poets including Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov and Muriel Rukeyser came up to read with Canadian poets, Margaret Atwood, bp Nichol, Michael Ondaatje, Richard Sommer and others. His book of poetry, “NeverthelessTheseEyes, For Stanley Spencer” was published in 1967 by Coach House Press with whom Roy was to remain associated.

After he and his family moved back to Vancouver in 1969 Roy was commissioned to build a sculpture for the Canadian pavilion at Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japan. “Abdu Ben Adam’s Vinyl Dream” consisted of metal frames in the shape of tetrahedrons covered with lit up canvases.

While it was being assembled, Roy took photographs of the workers’ gloves discarded on the ground. These became the basis for a large photographic series and a book of poetry, “StoneDGloves: Alms for Soft Palms” (Coach House Press, 1970). The StoneDGloves images were shown in Kyoto at the National Museum of Modern Art in 1973 and at the Tokyo Museum in 1974. At both these places the exhibit was called “Japanese Artist in the Americas.” StoneDGloves was also shown at the Canadian Embassy in Paris, the National Gallery in Ottawa, etc.,

He returned from Japan with Syuzo Fujimoto who had helped him build his sculpture in Osaka and now worked with him on “16 Cedar Laminates”. In 1970 he taught briefly at the University of Calgary and while there he made a series of silkscreens prints, “Ottoman/Court Suite,” which were shown at the Bau Xi Gallery in Vancouver l971.

In 1971 Roy was hired to be head of the painting department at NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design). Because he and Monica were in the midst of a divorce, his family did not accompany him to his new job location. He wrote about his experiences and thoughts during this time in a series of letters, which later got published as “TransCanadaLetters” (Talonbooks,1975).

While at NASCAD Roy organized the Vancouver/Halifax Exchange the first part of which took place from March 6 to March 11, 1972 when 11 Vancouver artists (Don Druick, Gathie Falk, Gerry Gilbert, Carole (Fisher) Itter, Garry Lee-Nova, Glen Lewis, Michael Morris, David Rimmer, Dallas Selman, Cheryl Sourkes, and Vincent Trasov) visited Halifax.

Along with showing their their visual work, members of the group staged multimedia performances, held poetry readings and film screenings at NASCAD, Dalhousie and other venues. The Exchange reflected the strength of art being made on each coast of the country and also revealed the differences. At panel discussions there were lively debates over issues of concern to the Canadian as well as to the international art scene. It was a spirited time in the world of art.

After his job in Halifax Roy was hired in l973 to teach at the University of British Columbia which enabled him to be nearer to his children. He remained teaching there until his retirement in l991.

From l974-1982 Roy was in a relationship with poet/writer, Daphne Marlatt with whom he lived along with her son, Kit. During this period Roy was writing, working with photography, making super 8 films, playing music and doing performance art. As Daphne said, “he was so good at venerating the daily, a lot of his work was about that… It just flowed in and out of the dailiness of our lives. He enshrined the domestic, the small moments….”

“Artscanada/afloat”, a photographic series, was completed in 1974.The Vancouver Art Gallery showed in 1975 “Roy K. Kiyooka: 25 Years”, a retrospective exhibition of his work. “The Fountainebleu Dream Machine: 18 frames from a book of rhetoric” was published in 1977 by Coach House Press. The same year, he and Michael deCourcy published, with the National Film Board, “13 Cameras/Vancouver” a book of photographers’ work. Roy arranged for the images to be shown at the Vancouver Art Gallery and the National Film Board Gallery and they are now part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection.

Roy was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1978 in recognition of his painting and teaching. While he’d been in Japan for Expo ’70 and his father was visiting him he began a book of poetry which he finished years later. “Wheels, a trip thru Honshu’s Backcountry” was published by Coach House Press in 1981.

In the early 80’s Roy had a studio on Powell Street and ran “Blue Mule” a gallery where he showed artists’ work and held informal performances. Some of the people he played music with there and elsewhere were Don Druick, Maxine Gadd, Paul Gibbons, James S. Munro, Dale Pickering (now Dante Ambriel), Rhoda Rosenfeld, Trudy Rubenfeld, Minoru Sumimoto, Themba Tana, and Takeo Yamashiro.

During the difficult time leading directly up to Japanese Canadian Redress, Roy was also dealing with his and Marlatt’s separation. His book “Pear Tree Pomes” illustrated by David Bolduc (Coach House Press, 1987) was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award.

He began to travel to Japan more frequently and spent a great deal of time with Isamu and Kazuko Akino who were living in a small fishing village in Okinawa. During this period he produced several series of photographs.

In January, l994 Roy died at home where he was found by his daughter, Kiyo. He had been working on a series of interviews with his mother, which had been conducted by Matsuki Masutani in Japanese and then translated by him into English. Daphne Marlatt, who knew his mother, edited “Mothertalk: Life Stories of Mary Kiyoshi Kiyooka” (NeWest Press, l997).

Other books published posthumously include:

“Pacific Windows: Collected Poems of Roy Kiyooka”( l997) edited by Roy Miki.

“All Amazed: For Roy Kiyooka” (Arsenal Pulp Press, Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Collapse, 2002) edited by John O’Brian of UBC. Based on the “Roy Kiyooka Conference” ( 1999) organized by Naomi Sawada of the Belkin Art Gallery.

“Pacific Rim Letters”, including TransCanada Letters, (NeWest Press, 2005) edited by Smaro Kamboureli.

From a manuscript on the life of Tom Thompson found after Roy died, “The Artist and the Moose: A Fable of Forget” (LINE books, 2009) edited by Roy Miki.

Roy’s visual work is in public galleries across Canada and in private collections internationally.

Roy is survived by his daughters, Mariko, Fumiko, and Kiyo, along with his brother Harry, who is a painter and art historian, Harry’s wife, Katie Ohe who is a sculptor, his brother, Frank, who is a potter, Frank’s wife Anne, a nurse, his sisters, Joyce and Irene, his grandchildren, nieces and nephews. And many friends….

Compiled by Fumiko Kiyooka and edited by Renee Rodin.


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