“Where are the stories our community needs? Where are the silences? How can we bridge the gap between the two?”
Artist Trust is delighted to announce the Story Collective, an exciting new initiative that elevates the voices of Washington State artists and their experiences – the impact of support, the communities that raised them, what they need to keep creating, and more. Tamiko Nimura, a literary artist from Tacoma and a 2019 GAP recipient, is our first storyteller of the year. Read on!
My writing path has been anything but linear. Instead, it’s been more like a rhizome—a plant that puts out roots horizontally, sprouting where you might least expect it. Its roots grow deeply in the core principles of my family, community, and American ethnic studies: where are the stories our community needs? Where are the silences? How can we bridge the gap between the two?
As a writer, I began first as a reader. I’ve been reading books since I was just over a year old. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest when I was 13, and went to writing camps every summer. As a college student, I dove into the English major right away. As a graduate student I chose the “safer” path of teaching, eventually studying African American and Asian American literatures for my doctoral degree. After a painful break with academia in 2010, I found myself wanting to write again. My husband Josh, a composer, laughed at me gently. “Ever since I’ve known you,” he said, “you’ve always wanted to be a writer.” And it was true; he’d known me for about half our lives. “Why don’t you just go and be that?”
I started a blog, giving myself small low-stakes assignments and fulfilling them. I knew that after a decade of teaching, I would have to find a new community. But many of the writers I already knew and met welcomed me into the work. In my years of unemployment I turned to food writing for a time, as a way to find comfort and joy again. I wrote for community colleges as a form of consulting.
Then I began writing for communities again, for places like Seattle’s International Examiner, the Seattle Star, and Discover Nikkei, web project of the Japanese American National Museum. I’ve written for broader audiences through outlets like The Rumpus, ParentMap, Edible Seattle, Full Grown People, and FamilyFun, but these are my “base” audiences, to which I owe a great deal.
In the world of community journalism I learned how to meet deadlines, to write for broad audiences. I learned how to break out of my introvert patterns, enough to introduce myself to people and interview them about their work. I wasn’t just hiding behind my books and writing reviews. I began to do arts writing, exhibit reviews, event previews, artist profiles, interviews with authors I admired. My editors had simple but firm plans for me: Go out into the community. Meet people. Learn from them. Listen to them. Build relationships with them. Help them shape, share, and amplify their stories. These are stories our community needs, and they’re not being told elsewhere.
The aims of community journalism led me to public history: encyclopedia articles for HistoryLink, historic preservation research for the City of Tacoma, walking tours of Tacoma’s historic Japantown, and Japanese American farms on Vashon Island. My first book, published in 2019 by the Washington State Legislature Oral History Program, is a biography of the state’s first African American woman senator: Rosa Franklin: A Life in Health Care, Public Service, and Social Justice. My next book will be a co-authored graphic novel for the Wing Luke Asian Museum, We Hereby Refuse, a collaboration on Japanese American wartime resistance with writer Frank Abe and artists Ross Ishikawa and Matt Sasaki. I’m also working on a family memoir involving my Japanese American dad’s unpublished manuscript about his wartime incarceration.
Not long after I began writing, my artist friend Mizu Sugimura took me out for coffee. I told her I felt guilty that I wasn’t part of any one organization or community. “That’s okay,” she said.”Your job can be to connect communities.”
At heart I’m a memoirist and personal essayist, but my interests keep leading me through the intersections of personal, political, communal, and historical. I’ve learned that the how of what I write, regardless of the genre or audience, is less important than the why.
I began applying for Artist Trust grants with the encouragement of my friend June Sekiguchi. I haven’t always been successful, but received a 2016 Grant LAB and a 2019 GAP award. At the October 2019 Artist Trust party, I was happy to connect with other artists from around the state, and to bring my sister Teruko Nimura, another visual artist who’s recently moved to the area. I was inspired to hear the stories of Paul Rucker and Humaira Abid, and to listen to the music of my friend Tony Gomez, who works at Tacoma Arts Live. Artist Trust has helped me grow my sense of myself as a Washington artist, and I appreciate the financial assistance that the GAP Award will grant, helping me to travel to “the other Washington” in April 2020.
Life In Tacoma’s Arts Scene
As for Tacoma’s arts scene, it’s a diverse and varied one, given our midsize city size. I love how much we support each other. My Tacoma writer friends Renee Simms and Rosalind Bell, artists Anida Yoeu Ali and Masahiro Sugano of Studio Revolt, and Justin Wadland and Michael Sullivan of UW Tacoma have given me support and mentoring. I know and appreciate so many of the hardworking staff members at the City’s Office of Arts and Cultural Vitality, which would be difficult for me to envision in a larger city.
I’m thrilled that as a city we passed Tacoma Creates, a game-changing publicly funded initiative emphasizing access to the arts, culture, heritage, and science. The City is still rolling out the program and working out the kinks, but I’m hopeful that young people across our zip codes will benefit.
I can’t possibly represent all of our arts, but here’s a sample of what I appreciate the most:
Our independent bookstore King’s Books regularly hosts literary readings, book groups, and arts fairs like Tacoma Is For Lovers and letterpress festivals like Wayzgoose.
Tacoma theaters offer choices for our youth performers. There are larger programs, but our kids have loved their years with Tacoma Youth Theatre.
Fab-5 HQ is a homegrown, POC-founded community center focusing on afterschool programs for youth in art, music, and dance.
Blue Cactus Press is a new indie micropress which has just published several Tacoma authors.
Write253 offers writing, literacy, and letterpress programs for underserved and incarcerated youth across the city.
Hilltop Artists offers year-round classes and camps for youth in glassblowing arts and leadership.
At TUPAC (Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center), students can take classes in classical ballet, West African, and ballroom dance.
The Asia Pacific Cultural Center which hosts cultural events year-round as well as a spectacular Lunar New Year festival each year drawing thousands at the Tacoma Dome.
WILLO Tacoma is an annual event sharing inspirational stories of community leaders; this is how I met Senator Rosa Franklin, subject of my first book.
Every Lunar New Year, a mystery group of “Monkeyshines” artists hides glassblown ornaments and talismans that spark a citywide hunt.
The duo behind Beautiful Angle heads out regularly to circulate their letterpress posters for people to find and retrieve.
Our Spaceworks Program not only populates vacant storefronts with temporary art installations, but also helps to incubate small businesses with local artists. I have loved murals and installations by artists Kenji Stoll, Chris Jordan, Saiyare Refaei, and Tiffany Hammonds.
A week on our busy Tacoma Arts listserv includes festivals, groups, galleries, and individual artists who work in watercolor, clay, sculpture, oil paint, letterpress, text, glass.
We have not just our mainstream Artist and Craftsman Supply store, but our “creative reuse” store, Tinkertopia.
The music scene includes alt rock, classical, hip hop, jazz, and world music.
We have film festivals and our wonderful indie movie house, The Grand Cinema.
The presence of several community colleges and universities means that we have performances and art galleries as well as visiting artists and lecturers. UW Tacoma hosts workshops and interdisciplinary programs featuring art and environmental activism.
Creative Colloquy hosts quarterly open mikes, publishes a journal, and has hosted an annual Lit Crawl.
We’ve got larger arts institutions too: performing arts center like Tacoma Arts Live, Tacoma City Ballet, Symphony Tacoma, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Museum of Glass. I’ve organized Japanese American Days of Remembrance at the Washington State History Museum, also located in our downtown core.
Tacoma is of course far from perfect. I’ve often been to arts events where I wish the audience was more integrated, more socioeconomically as well as racially diverse. The decline in funding for arts coverage positions and print media has meant that we have pockets of thriving arts scenes, but we need to know more about each other. (My friend Silong is less concerned with the pockets, reminding me that artists need to feel safe in order to express themselves. “Unlike other cities, we’re siloed—but we’re not too far away from each other, geographically,” he says.) We need financial support, infrastructure, and audiences for our work. We have no arts critic writing for a widely distributed outlet. We need a comprehensive citywide arts calendar, broadly defined and inclusive. We also need more leadership in our major arts organizations which reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of our city.
Importantly, as the discussions of affordable housing, gentrification, and displacement in our city become more urgent, so too do the discussions of sustainability, viability and equity for artists. According to the small cross-section of artists I spoke with, we also need resources which impact livability: access to affordable health and dental coverage, savings and retirement plans, legal assistance for fiscal questions, unionizing possibilities. More Artist Trust workshops or connections here would be welcome. Many Tacoma artists I know work several gigs, or gigs supplementing full-time jobs. Tony Gomez tells me that the market for ELO’s, “Expanded Learning Opportunities,” has grown exponentially—afterschool programming which can use more teaching artists. He suggests we need more panel discussions of how different artists can make the gig economy work for them.
Over the years, Artist Trust has given a lot to individual artists through grants and events. Several organizations I spoke with welcome the possibility of partnering with Artist Trust, including Tacoma Arts Live and the Foss Waterway Seaport. I understand that Artist Trust is a small organization, but I’m hopeful for deeper relationships that will reach and sustain more of our community members in Tacoma.
*With thanks to the Tacoma artists who weighed in for this post. Special thanks to Silong Chhun, Tony Gomez, Lisa Kinoshita, and my writer friend Renee Simms, who reminds me that “we rise together.”