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Friday, December 19, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Artist George Tsutakawa Dies

Seattle Times Art Critic

George Tsutakawa, one of the region's most talented and prolific artists, died yesterday at his home, following heart problems. He was 87.

A native of Seattle who discovered his passion for art as a child, Mr. Tsutakawa went on to create oil and sumi paintings, bronze sculptures and fountains in which cascading sheets of water seemed to dance with his lyrical, abstract bronze structures.

He made more than 75 fountains in the United States, Canada and Japan. He was also one of the region's most influential art educators, spending almost 30 years as an art professor at the University of Washington, and was a tireless art champion.

He was also the patriarch of what is perhaps Seattle's most influential arts family. All four of his adult children are known for their work as artists, curators, musicians, writers and teachers. His wife, Ayame, is also well-known for her arts activism.

Though artists, curators and art lovers admired all of his work, to the public he was best known for his serene fountains. Among his most famous are the "Naramore Fountain" at Sixth Avenue and Seneca Street, "Fountain of Wisdom" at the Seattle Public Library, and "Heaven, Man & Earth" at Maynard Avenue South and South Jackson Street. He also has works at the Seattle Center, Seattle Community College and Seattle University.

Mimi Gates, director of the Seattle Art Museum, noted that SAM owns several of Mr. Tsutakawa's pieces, and frequently exhibits

them. Gates noted that one of Mr. Tsutakawa's great contributions to the regional scene was his ability "to draw on Asian roots in a very imaginative way.

But his works also reflect the convergence of Eastern and Western artistic tradition.

"Of course, the other works of his that I love, and I think everyone loves, are his fountains," said Gates. "There's the one at Sixth and Seneca. I actually like waiting for the light there because you get to look at it. It is just beautiful."

Ron Chew, executive director of the Wing Luke Museum, said the museum in 1992 chose Mr. Tsutakawa as the recipient of its first lifetime achievement award.

"It was an easy and very natural decision," said Chew. "He was truly the premiere Asian-American artist in this region. Given the quality of his work and his nurturing of so many other Asian-American artists, we knew he should get the award.

"Besides doing an incredible range of work, he was also a very humble, modest, generous individual," said Chew. "In the early years of the museum, he was part of the core of artists who regularly gave work for our auctions, which helped sustain the organization."

Mayumi Tsutakawa, the artist's daughter, said her father was drawn to art as a very young child. Because of that, he was sent to Japan for 10 years at the age of 7 to live with his grandfather, who had a deep appreciation of all the arts. But by refusing to join the family's Seattle export/import business, Mr. Tsutakawa was essentially disowned, said his daughter.

When he returned to Seattle, he lived with cousins and attended Broadway High School on Capitol Hill. He matriculated to the University of Washington, where he eventually earned a Master of Fine Arts Degree.

In World War II, Mr. Tsutakawa joined the U.S. Army and was an instructor of Japanese. After the war, he briefly taught Japanese at the University of Washington before joining the university's architecture and design school to teach drawing. Because of his talents in fine art, he later became a professor in the art department, where he influenced several generations of young artists.

He was also one of the youngest of the school of Northwest Mystic painters and artists. His daughter said that as a child, her parents' home was an informal arts salon where visiting dancers, musicians and actors from Japan dropped by for meals. Since her father was close friends with such Northwest legends as painter Mark Tobey, the house was always full of artists.

Mr. Tsutakawa is survived by his wife, Ayame; sons Gerard, Marcus and Deems; daughter Mayumi and seven grandchildren.

A memorial celebration for friends and colleagues will be held at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, Volunteer Park, at noon, Monday, Dec. 29. Remembrances may be made to the George Tsutakawa Memorial Scholarship Fund, Key Bank, 666 S. Dearborn St., Seattle 98134.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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