Sunday, October 31, 2010

S. Neil Fujita, 1921-2010

A year ago last May, I did a post here with the title "Jazz and the Visual Arts", which included an image of the cover of Charles Mingus' album Mingus Ah Um. The painting reproduced on the cover was by an artist unfamiliar to me, S. Neil Fujita. I soon noticed, from my Site Meter, that this post was attracting lots of hits off web searches, many of them for generic topics like "album cover art" or "jazz album covers", but also many for Fujita. This piqued my curiosity, and I thought I should do a web search for him, but other matters seemed more urgent. A few days ago, I noticed a spike in visits to S-A B, and, checking the details, saw that many were off searches for Fujita. I did my own search and learned that he died last Saturday at the age of 89.

Fujita was born and raised in Hawaii, the son of Japanese immigrant parents. The initial "S" is for Sadamitsu, his given name at birth; the name Neil was assigned to him when he went to a boarding school in Honolulu. He went to art school in California, but his studies were interrupted after Pearl Harbor when he, like thousands of other Americans of Japanese origin or parentage, was sent to an internment camp. He left the camp by volunteering for the U.S. Army, and served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit consisting almost entirely of Japanese Americans, which won many honors for bravery in combat in Italy and France. After the war, he completed his art studies and went to work for an advertising firm, where he produced award winning graphic designs. His success led to a job at Columbia Records designing album covers, including Mingus Ah Um and Dave Brubeck's Time Out (shown above), both of which featured his paintings, and 'Round Midnight by Miles Davis.

Fujita later formed his own firm, and his commissions included many book jacket designs, the best known of which are probably Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Mario Puzo's The Godfather. Fujita discusses his career in detail in his 2007 interview with Steven Heller. He has also written an autobiography, Mouth of Reddish Water. Late in life, Fujita returned to his original passion, painting.

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