Weekly Webb: Koyama's bison earns place of honor in China

2014-06-13T00:15:00Z 2014-06-13T06:22:18Z Weekly Webb: Koyama's bison earns place of honor in China The Billings Gazette

He’s shaggy, shedding his winter fur. And he looks peaceful, kind of the like the gentle Billings artist — Harry Koyama — who painted “Spirit of the Bison” in his signature style, smearing on layers of reds and yellows using a palette knife.

Some might argue that the elk or the grizzly bear best represent Montana’s spirit, but this bison is the image that Montana native Max Baucus, the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to China, chose to represent his homeland at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

The painting, which measures 48 by 72 inches, was chosen last month by Baucus to encourage cultural exchange through the arts. The program, Art in Embassies, was initiated during the Kennedy Administration during the 1960s. It pairs the work of U.S. artists with U.S. embassies around the globe. “Spirit of the Bison” shipped last week and should be hanging today in Beijing.

Baucus is familiar with Koyama’s work and, in fact, purchased a painting by Koyama at the Rocky Mountain College fundraiser Black Tie Blue Jeans a couple of years back. Baucus specifically requested a piece by Koyama to hang in China. That isn’t how the program usually works.

“It’s just real humbling,” Koyama said. “Artists from all over the country submit work all the time for this program. They are selected through a jury process, so to be selected without having to go through all that is very meaningful for me.”

Koyama sent two bison images and one grizzly bear to Baucus, and from those choices he picked “Spirit of the Bison.” Since Koyama moved into a studio on Montana Avenue in 2009, his business has grown so fast that he didn’t have a bison painting on hand for Baucus. One of the galleries that represent Koyama, Mountain Trails Gallery of Jackson, Wyo., had the piece and shipped it for Koyama. An artist reception is expected to be held later this year, and Koyama plans to attend.

About 35 years ago, another Koyama piece made the long trip from Montana to an embassy overseas. Montana native Mike Mansfield served as the U.S. Ambassador in Japan, and he requested one of Koyama’s sculptures. Koyama’s elderly mother, Emmy Miko Koyama, hand-delivered the sculpture of a Japanese samurai to Mansfield.

“I was young and I was timid,” Koyama said.

In fact, Koyama had almost forgotten about his gift to Mansfield and the significance it undoubtedly held for Mansfield and Japan, the country where Koyama’s paternal grandfather was born.

Koyama’s parents, who grew up in Wyoming, were celebrating their honeymoon in the early 1940s in Salinas Valley, Calif., when they were detained and sent to an internment camp in Gila, Ariz. Their first child was born in the camp.

Yet Koyama said his parents were never bitter. His father was released from the camp to help oversee the sugar beet operations near Hardin, and the family stayed in that area, buying land and raising sugar beets. Koyama gained respect for the Crow tribe and often paints Native Americans.

When Koyama hit his 50s, he yearned to pursue his real passion — art. He spent every free minute painting and sculpting when his long days on the farm were through. But he dreamed of retiring from the farm and painting full time.

Now, Koyama says he is excited to earn a living painting.

“We all do our thing and it all affects other people. We all influence other people, whether it’s writing or being a doctor or painting.”

I think we can all agree, we’re glad that Koyama chose to influence others through his paintings.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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