April 20, 2022
Saying Goodbye to Harry Kiyooka
(1928 – 2022)
“Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince…”
― Hamlet, Act V Scene II
“Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can a man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods”
― Lays of Ancient Rome, Thomas Babington Macaulay
By Ricardo Castillo Argüello
KOAC Executive Director, January 2019 – March 31, 2022.
About a year ago, I was forced to realize that Harry Kiyooka was not immortal.
Here was a man enjoying youthful nineties, healthier and better preserved than many greener pretenders, whose gait resembled someone 20 years his junior, with intact memory and clarity of mind coveted by fresher cohorts.
At this age, Harry was always trudging along, walking a mile to get his newspaper, snow or sunshine, putting several studio hours per day, or spending a whole day working the garden or surveying the works on the park’s grounds.
But an unannounced late April 2021 heart complication rendered him with a not so favourable short-term outlook. He was forced to slow things down for the first time. The physician’s stern dictamen ― “his life expectancy has to be measured in months, if he is lucky” ― obliterated hypotheses of whether Harry was moulding his 90s as the new youth into eternity.
It is not given to everyone to spend such an extended time on this project we call Life. Nor is everyone’s the ability to repeatedly dismiss calls for crossing the thin frontier into what Hamlet calls that “undiscovered country.” Harry seemed to be staging yet another surprising rebound during his last days. Which is why the news of his demise came as a cold, stark reminder that there is a term limit to the lifespan, just as one must understand that illness or incapacity, mental or physical, death included, is never more than just a breath away.
Harry did not care for Stoic or Socratic departures. His was a quiet, simple end to an extraordinary life, one entirely in keeping with his love for taking joy from the humblest aspects of life.
And now that Minerva’s owl has taken wing and the dusk of his demise has come, we who knew him well must share our remembrances as a small window into his life. However, sharing fragments of memories and stories from long, rich conversations and unscripted moments is not the easiest of tasks.
As I said on one occasion, I cannot hope to convey in a text the full effect of counting on Katie and Harry as friends and intellectual mentors from whom you feel the stupendous importance of love, solidarity and loyalty, their passion for the arts and their works, and their absolute humility and desire to give back to their community. Enjoying the camaraderie of two visionaries and trailblazers in the intimation of their legacy Art Centre project has indeed been a privilege and a life-changing experience.
PORTRAITS, HIS LAST…..
Harry lived his last year in a state of relative insouciance instead of the growing disquiet you would expect over one’s impending extinction. As if recalling his life from start to finish, he increasingly went into periods of self-conscious reflections, the type that can occur only when a way of life is sufficiently mature to be already passing.
A remarkable outcome of his introspection is a series of portraits that surveyed his friends during the last two years. These are testament to the artist’s indefatigable journey and work ethic. But when seen together, they also represent an intriguing insight into the process of ageing and impermanence. His subjects came alive from photo-based images and non-objective compositions from memory. They are not only at once factual and poetic abstractions of friends but, in his mind, a reflection on the difficulty of seeing oneself and others “accepting the arrival of the inevitable.”
In the dysmorphic pattern in the distortion of the faces, one finds traces of melancholia and nihilism yet serene and sentimental qualities and a feeling of atemporality. Harry, a fervent admirer of Bacon, once pulled a bookmarked quote: “If you want to convey fact, this can only ever be done through a form of distortion. You must distort to transform what is called appearance into image.” His sly smile was the only addition in the way of comment.
At some point, these portraits might be understood as Harry’s final output after a six-decade-long preoccupation with the dual means of representation and abstraction. Perhaps it would be more fitting to observe them within the fascinating evolution from the linear, tightly controlled geometric and graphic works of his early career to the fleshier and more fluid and richly brushy painting technique he developed and perfected with his Venetian series.
Harry Kiyooka was a man of plural paths as a painter with related interests in photography and digital reproduction, printmaking and etching, and an avid collector of art and interesting stuff, as he would like to describe. As an artist, he maintained the central artistic principle of seeing, looking, investigating, and recording. His biggest extravaganza was to tour once a year with Katie art exhibits in European cities to soak in the most current trends in contemporary art. It was this never-ending quest that allowed him to constantly update his vision of the world and his art and feed his full-fledged humanism that fueled conversations with travellers, random visitors, young artists, school children and neighbours, and even celebrities eager to meet both of them, who came discreetly invited by shared friends.
We will long for his irrepressible sense of humour and thunderous laughter. His stubborn woodpecker persistence will be sorely missed by those forging the future of his KOAC project. These same tools helped him establish the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Arts, the Triangle Gallery, and will, with Katie, the Kiyooka Ohe Arts Centre into existence.
He remained a profoundly complex person who had contradictions and flaws like most. He protected his privacy firmly. At the same time, he treasured the visits of his friends and family. His penchant for control and to do things his way sometimes led him to inadequate discussions and misguided actions that alienated more than one supporter. He was at the same time modern and old school. When it came to sticking it out for friends and colleagues, he did so unequivocally. He was flexible but took no stock in excuses and weak personalities and had little patience for breaches of trust and duplicity as loyalty ranked high in his values chart.
But most of all, Harry was a lucky man. He never lacked friendship or company because he was a damm good friend, and as the British sculptor and a lifelong comrade Michael Sandle told me, “he found the perfect wife in Katie.”
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