A Seattle Asian Art Museum exhibit highlights the 1930s artwork of painters Kamekichi Tokita and Kenjiro Nomura, while a new book sheds light on Tokita's life, both through his artwork and through a newly translated diary that he kept during his World War II internment-camp experiences.

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The roller-coaster geography of urban Seattle would seem a powerful draw for any artist. The city’s multilevel intersections, its bridges crossing both waterways and ravines, its blufftop street corners that seem to teeter on an abyss — all have an invigorating visual appeal.

Yet they haven’t figured as prominently as you might think in the city’s better-known art heritage.

Mark Tobey’s Pike Place Market paintings are justly renowned, but if other aspects of street-level Seattle engaged him, they haven’t attracted much notice. Morris Graves’ eye seems mostly trained on nature. Other big local names lean toward abstraction or Asian-influenced mysticism.

Wasn’t anyone focusing more closely on the city itself?

As it turns out, yes.

Two Seattle painters lovingly chronicled Seattle neighborhoods and waterfront sights in the 1930s. Both were so prominent that they were named Artist Life-Members of the Seattle Art Museum when it opened its Volunteer Park quarters in 1933. Yet less than a decade later both had vanished from the art scene.

The story of their 1930s success and subsequent obscurity is captured in a new exhibit at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, “Painting Seattle: Kamekichi Tokita and Kenjiro Nomura,” and in a fascinating book by art historian Barbara Johns, “Signs of Home: The Paintings and Wartime Diary of Kamekichi Tokita.” As Johns’ title indicates, their story isn’t just a chapter in local art history but touches on the internment-camp experience during World War II when all ethnic Japanese were forcibly removed from the West Coast.

A little biographical background: Tokita, born in 1897, came to the U.S. at age 22. Prohibited by law from becoming a U.S. citizen, he nevertheless built a life in Seattle. He joined Nomura — who came to the U.S. as a child with his family, then stayed here when they returned to Japan — in running a successful sign-painting company that doubled as a studio for the two men.

In the 1930s their artwork was championed by Dr. Richard E. Fuller, founding director of the Seattle Art Museum, and by artist/art-critic Kenneth Callahan. Nomura was given a solo show at SAM in 1933; Tokita had solo shows there in 1930 (when SAM was still the Seattle Art Institute) and in 1935.

By 1936, the Great Depression put an end to their sign-painting business. Tokita, with his wife, took over management of the Cadillac Hotel in Pioneer Square, while continuing sign-painting on a freelance basis. Between working two jobs and raising a large family, he had little time for painting. Then came Pearl Harbor and the relocations. After his postwar return to Seattle, he died in 1948 at age 51. Nomura fared a little better, regaining artistic prominence in the city after the war as he turned to a more abstract style. He died in 1956.

The 1930s work of both men has a strong affinity, but Tokita’s images are more distinctive for what they leave out. “Bridge” glories in the energetic, criss-crossing geometry of diagonal stairways, vertical support columns and horizontal elevated roadbed. It also teases you with its partial view of the waterfront — a moored freighter, a changeable sky — behind it. What it doesn’t show you is the whole structure.

“Drugstore” similarly pushes you up close to its subject matter: a simple commercial strip on a sloping street. Tokita plays up the contrast between the horizontal/vertical lines of the buildings and the slant of the road grade, while including only a bare minimum of detail to let you know what kind of store you’re looking at. Again, geometric verve seems as much the point as humble content.

One of the most recognizable downtown-Seattle sites tackled by both painters is the Yesler Way bridge over Fourth Avenue. Tokita, in “Street,” zeros in on it, serving up a forced perspective that excludes any horizon. Nomura, in an untitled painting of the same scene, pulls back to show you both a green hillside, uphill from Fourth, and the nearby neighborhood, with the King Street Station clock tower and a slab of sky in the background.

Nomura’s “Puget Sound” provides a similar visual escape from the crowded hilltop alleys and buildings of old Japantown. The peaks of the Olympics may be hidden by clouds in it, but the Kitsap foothills, plateau of West Seattle and silver-gleaming waters of the Sound are an inviting expanse.

If “Painting Seattle” feels like the welcome restoration of a long-lost chapter in local art history, the wartime diary of Tokita is a thornier business. Translated and published in “Signs of Home” for the first time, it’s a fascinating primary document, filled with uncertainties and ambivalence that make some of the received wisdom about the internment camps feel a little too pat. Even though the reader knows, in general terms, how the story came out, the suspense in this eyewitness account is considerable.

Tokita began his diary on Dec. 7, 1941, noting that, as he and his family heard calls on the radio for all military personnel and off-duty policeman to report for duty, they realized that “something must be terribly wrong.” On learning about Pearl Harbor, he immediately grasped how drastically his life had changed. “If I force myself to think that yesterday and today are somehow connected,” he wrote on Dec. 8, “it feels as though about a century has passed between them.”

Other eyewitnesses have left accounts of the relocations and of internment-camp life. The thing that’s different about Tokita’s diary is its day-by-day narrative of what was going through his and his neighbors’ minds in the five long months between the Pearl Harbor attack and their removal first to the Western Washington State Fairgrounds in Puyallup and then to Minidoka in Idaho.

Tokita notes every rumor, every confusing signal coming from the U.S. government and every curtailment of personal freedom (prohibitions against owning maps, going to parks, etc.). He also tracks war news from American outlets and from Japanese-language newspapers and shortwave broadcasts, which continually contradict each other (at one point, in 1943, the Japanese claimed to have invaded Australia and bombed Sydney).

He worries about his family’s safety (“I really fear the mob mentality”), and his desperate desire to get some news — any news — of what’s in store for them makes him half-welcome the internment-camp prospect when it’s finally announced, even though it means dismantling his whole life.

His national loyalties are peculiarly split. He gets depressed upon hearing of Japanese military defeats, yet he’s highly approving of the Nisei (the younger U.S.-born Japanese-American generation) being given a chance to prove their loyalty as citizens of the U.S. by enlisting in the military.

The incidental pleasures of the diary include Tokita’s vivid account of the logistics of running the hotel in Pioneer Square and his eloquent descriptions of his natural surroundings in Idaho. “When I took a closer look, I found that sagebrush, despite its small size, has the dignified look of huge trees. … I was utterly stunned.”

The diary leaves you with the impression of a complex man wracked in an oddly dispassionate manner by many internalized conflicts — and that sends you straight back to SAAM, where Tokita’s 1936 self-portrait powerfully confronts you.

In it, Tokita is simultaneously alert, guarded, sober, dapper, even raffish. The painting distills his features to a strong essence without simplifying them. Dressed in a leather jacket, necktie and sweater (shirt collar half in and half out of it), he gazes at the viewer as though to ask a question or make a small announcement.

“I was here,” he seems say, “and now I’m gone.”

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com