Few moments in my life have left me so exalted that I float out of my grinning body, watch myself from the outside, and try high-fiving my corporeal self. Meeting Chiyo Ishikawa was one of those experiences. I stood in the Seattle Art Museum, a place I have been a hundred times. Except that day, the Deputy Director for Art was giving me a tour of her favorite works. Lucky doesn’t begin to explain it. I’d toured the space many times, in awe of the work but without context for much of it. And that day, one of the foremost experts and the Curator of European Painting and Sculpture was exuberantly answering my questions and kindly ignoring the fact that I was completely geeking out.
Because that’s Chiyo. She defies the conceptions I've had about people in the art world. She entirely lacks pretentiousness. She’s warm, she’s wholly enthusiastic. She is so open that, when I joined her in her home a few days later, she confidently owned early professional shortcomings, describing the epiphany that occurred in fashion design school that caused her to drop out after four months: “I could draw ok,” she explained. “But I had nothing new to say.” Who knows themselves that well at 18??
Walking through Chiyo’s craftsman home, it is, expectedly, full of objects. Books, paintings, drawings, sculpture, and installments of various mediums are spread carefully throughout the space - work by her husband (an artist) and her many friends, all full of countless stories. And Chiyo openly shares those stories.
And then we arrive at the small memorial dedicated to her son, Nap. Just a few years ago, at eighteen, Nap passed away after a tragic biking accident. This left Chiyo and her family grieving – a kind of devastation I have never experienced, and one that I couldn’t possibly imagine or describe. When discussing the massive life shift that occurred after her loss, Chiyo explained: “Giving birth to my daughter and son also gave birth to an ever-present undercurrent of fear surrounding their well-being. That ended when my greatest fear was realized.” Now, she described, “No death seems surprising anymore... Having control matters less to me than it did.”
Chiyo’s willingness to share with me, a virtual stranger, these intimate insights from such a traumatic experience halted me. Her openness serves as a reminder of the strength, resilience, and honesty of the many women I have interviewed over the years. In every conversation, there is an unexpected offering - a time when the subject reveals one of her most life-altering moments. She never has to, but every time, she chooses to. I’m continually honored by this trust, and this desire to communicate devastation and loss with the knowledge that sharing will ultimately help guide and comfort others. This bravery continues to astound me. It serves as a beacon for me – a goal. I hope I can one day be as brave as Chiyo. I hope I can be as thoughtful and warm and honest. I hope I can know myself that deeply, and, like Chiyo, also be open to the possibility that that knowledge can change.
Tell me your life story:
I was raised in the Midwest by liberal and politically active parents. My father is Japanese-American, mother German-American—so there is a joint heritage of hard work and duty. I am the third of five children. My older brother taught me to read early so I was moved ahead in school. I lived on a farm in Denmark for a year when I was 15. Two years later I went back there to study clothing design but realized it was not for me so I returned home after four months, a failure at 18.
After a year and a half living at home and working as a secretary I applied to Hampshire College—attracted by its interdisciplinary practice and the opportunity to create a personal program of study. Once I figured out that I was good at art history and liked it, my professional path was set. I went to graduate school, had two museum internships, wrote a dissertation, and moved to Seattle for my first job. I am still at the Seattle Art Museum.
When I came here I was married with a small daughter; after our son was born the marriage broke up. My ex-husband and I shared custody and struggled to balance family and work over the next decade and a half. I remarried in 2011, a joyful event, which was followed a year later by a tragic event, the death of my son Nap in a bike accident a week before his 19th birthday.
What role did art play in your upbringing?
My mom’s father, a biologist, drew beautifully; and her eldest sister went to art school, so even in small towns in Kansas and Nebraska there was a consciousness of visual art as a positive element of life. My dad, raised in Los Angeles, was first introduced to art in a serious way when he entered graduate school at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska to get out of internment camp during World War II. He got a job working at the university art gallery, which led to a career in museum administration. Many of my parents’ friends were artists, and our home was filled with their work. Being an artist was never discussed as an alternative to a “real” career, it was just part of life—though I was aware that unless you were a teacher or professor, it could be hard to support yourself from your art.
What was a major influence in your young life that shaped your professional journey?
For my dad’s sabbatical my parents decided to take the family to Europe, traveling in a VW microbus and staying in youth hostels across the continent. Three aspects of that trip helped define the course of my life: 1) the primary focus was art, so the itinerary was planned around museums and churches with the odd visit to a beach or amusement park; 2) for almost three months my dad stayed alone in Paris to do research and my mom and siblings stayed on a farm on a tiny Danish island where we had (and made) friends; 3) I learned that travel is my friend.
I think you are very open at that age, and your mind can take in and store a lot of information. I still have a physical memory of where paintings were hung in museums throughout Europe because of that experience of discovery. I always think of a quote by Dominique de Menil: “The great things are those that you discover for yourself.”
When is the last time you remember feeling incompetent?
In a social situation with people I didn’t know very well the woman made a racial comment and because of discomfort and awkwardness I didn’t call her on it. It’s not the first time that my mind processed everything too slowly and I let the moment pass as conversation moved to something else. That was a failure.
How do you think others see you?
I think others see me as smart, friendly, lucky.
How do you see yourself?
Smart, friendly, lucky—but also a homebody who craves solitude.
When do you feel the most yourself? Why?
At home, gardening, cooking, ironing, reading, etc. I like activities that occupy my hands while I can think about other stuff.
When do you feel the least yourself? Why?
Historically, in large social groups of people—I would clam up and want to disappear. In recent years this is less of an issue as I realize many people feel the same way and that helps me reach out to them. Still, I will always seek out a one-on-one conversation over talking within a group.
What do you love about yourself?
That I don’t take myself very seriously.
What don’t you love about yourself?
I recently found a birthday card I made for my mom when I was six. It contained the sentence “I knew I’d please you.” I groaned with recognition at an all too familiar desire for approval.
I also wish I would put down my phone more.
How did your perspective change after losing your son?
1. Giving birth to my daughter and son also gave birth to an ever-present undercurrent of fear surrounding their well-being. That ended when my greatest fear was realized.
2. No death seems surprising anymore.
3. Having control matters less to me than it did.
4. I learned how loving and caring others can be, and how many others have experienced loss. I feel connected to other people more than I used to.
5. I more consciously observe seasonal changes in nature with love and appreciation.
6. I feel small in the world and that seems right.
How did you survive?
After Nap’s brain surgery, immediately following his accident, we spent a week in the hospital getting the results of various tests and waiting for any sign of improvement. Harborview staff were extremely kind in allowing so many loved ones, including all of his friends, to visit Nap and sit with him. Every evening friends dropped off meals and our severed family and extended family came together at his dad’s home or my home to laugh and cry about Nap. We drank lots of beer. We shared our grief and love. I feel lucky that we had that week together, with time to realize together that we were losing our boy forever. I think often of all of the families who have lost their children or loved ones to violence without getting to process loss or say goodbye.
I stayed out of work for three months. My husband was an enormous support, as were friends and family. I took a meditation class.
Name one of your girl crushes, and why you are crushin’ on her:
Florangela Davila. She is a strong, talented, passionate writer and journalist. She is beautiful inside and out.
When was the last time you were guilty of judging a woman too quickly?
At a conference I was put off by a colleague who dominated a discussion. Later in the conference when she gave a presentation I saw her “domineering” presence as confidence, knowledge, and conviction. I realized that my first impression was an expression of intimidation on my part.
What frustrates you about the way women treat each other?
I don’t like seeing gossip and jealousy. I am happy to say that mostly I see women supporting each other and treating each other well.
What do you love about the way women treat each other?
When they show empathy without judgment.