Sueko Kawamura was small in stature but “big in talent,” wrote fellow sculptor Mike Dillon. (Photo from memorial booklet)

Sueko Kawamura, a former student who inspired many with her artwork and work ethic, bequeathed $100,000 to the Evanston Art Center. The Center announced the gift at a memorial service on Jan. 15, with an accompanying exhibition of Kawamura’s work. Kawamura died in February 2021 at the age of 98.

“In honor of Sueko’s gift, the Evanston Art Center is naming their second floor gallery the Sueko Kawamura Gallery,” said Paula Danoff, president and CEO of the Evanston Art Center. “Everyone visiting the gallery will be able to see a beautiful plaque installed in the memory of the donor and will know of Sueko’s generosity.”

“Although only 4’9” tall, Kawamura was big in talent and in life force, often laughing at the idea of Japanese women being compliant,” wrote her friend, fellow sculptor Mike Dillon, in a beautiful memorial booklet he created. The book included photographs of her from many stages and events in her life and remembrances of several friends from her classes.

Kawamura was a woman of ability and of great dedication to her art. She was born into a Japanese samurai family in 1923 in China, where her father was serving on a diplomatic mission for the Japanese government. Growing up in the years before and during World War II taught her flexibility, resilience and a wider perception. “I was lucky that during the war, I was young and strong,” she was quoted as saying in the memorial book. “Believe me, I understood American soldiers suffered as did the Japanese. I’m the lucky one, never surrounded by ‘foreigners’ since my childhood. I never developed prejudices against nationalities, ethnic groups or persons of color.”

At the age of 36, eschewing traditional Japanese dress and refusing the concept of an arranged marriage, Kawamura came to the United States and entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There she studied painting with a minor in sculpture. On her graduation in 1964, she received a coveted prize from the school’s Alumni Painters Association.

Kawamura then went to work as a model maker at the Richard Rush Studios in Chicago’s West Loop. There she worked on architectural models for such projects as the John Hancock building and the Sears Tower and on a number of medical models. She remained at Rush Studios until her retirement. 

She also took a job as a hat check girl in a theater next to Second City to improve her English. “She loved plays and was a longtime subscriber to Steppenwolf Theater,” said Dillon in the memorial booklet. Her love of travel was obvious from the many photographs she had.

At the age of 77, upon “retirement,” Kawamura returned to her love of fine arts, continuing her painting and sculpting in classes at the Evanston Art Center, where she made many friends.

An example of Kawamura’s singular style. (Photo from memorial booklet)

“Sueko was feisty, opinionated, and one of the most talented artists it’s been my pleasure to know. One immediately noticed the energy she exhibited at all times,” wrote Bill Anders, another student sculptor friend at the Art Center.

Other comments from fellow students included: “She pushed her sculpture and developed a style that was unique and visionary. … Sueko didn’t talk much, and her every remark was important. There was no empty talk. … It was interesting and involving to watch her work.”

Kawamura’s bequest will fund eight full scholarships each year for 25 years, incorporating any likely tuition increases. The scholarships will be known as the Weighardt/Kawamura Scholarships. They will be awarded to students who cannot afford the cost of Art Center classes.

Exhibitions in the newly named gallery are part of the Art Center’s overall exhibition program. Thirty shows a year are held at the center, 12 of them month-long exhibitions in the Sueko Kawamura gallery. That allows for about 20 artists each year in the second-floor gallery space.

Kawamura’s ashes will be returned to Japan at her request by two dear friends, when travel abroad is once again possible. Free copies of the memorial book are available at the Art Center, 1717 Central St., and can also be mailed out on request.

Gay Riseborough

Gay Riseborough is an artist, has served the City of Evanston for 11 years on arts committees, and is now an arts writer at the Evanston RoundTable.