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Marlon Brando's former gardener, now 78, gets big break at The Hammer

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Kenzi Shiokava has been carving wood and making assemblages in relative obscurity. Now, at 78, the Japanese-Brazilian-American has a whole room at the Hammer Museum's Made in LA biennial.

UPDATE 8/16/2016: The Hammer just announced that Kenzi Shiokava has won one of the Mohn Awards, given to artists in the Made in LA biennial. Using kiosks around the museum, visitors named Kenzi their favorite artist, and he's getting the $25,000 Public Recognition Award. (Disclosure: Jarl Mohn, now the head of NPR, is a longtime board member and supporter of KPCC.)

You want an only-in-L.A. story?

Try Kenzi Shiokava, a Japanese-Brazilian-American artist who works in Compton, was Marlon Brando's gardener, and is getting his big break at the Hammer Museum — at 78!

Kenzi was born in Brazil in 1938 of Japanese parents and came to California in 1964.

"Art was something like sacred to me," he says. "Even when I was in grammar school or whatever, I always liked to draw, but I never felt I was going to be an artist." He thought to himself, "Maybe in 20 years I'll do something that really comes from me."

Kenzi went to Chouinard and Otis art schools, but he says it wasn't until the final semester, in 1972, that he found his medium. He'd been doing two-dimensional work — drawing and painting — but then had to take a sculpture class and was lost. "I had no ideas. I was like a vacuum, nothing there," he says.

But then at home he went outside and started cleaning a piece of wood he was going to use in his garden. And it hit him: "That was the most wonderful afternoon in my life," he says, laughing at the memory. "I said that was what I was going to use. That was the material, the wood, and from that moment, I worked day and night, and said nothing bothers me anymore, everything's going to be OK."

Artist Kenzi Shiokava has spent 22 years in a studio in Compton. His work is featured in the Hammer Museum's biennial exhibition, "Made in L.A."
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Artist Kenzi Shiokava has spent 22 years in a studio in Compton. His work is featured in the Hammer Museum's biennial exhibition, "Made in L.A."

Kenzi is about 5 feet tall, with long arms and powerful, knotted hands, and a stooping gait from arthritis. He works in an enormous warehouse studio in Compton that is neatly packed with artworks and materials to make artworks.

Since he's a woodcarver, there are stacks of wood everywhere. Not the chunks of beautiful hardwood you'd find at a good lumberyard, but driftwood, found wood, plain old boards he's salvaged.

And since he also makes assemblages, there are things everywhere — saws, knickknacks, a headless turtle incense burner, strings of beads, hand drills — all waiting to find their way into a work of art when inspiration strikes.

360 Panorama inside Kenzi Shiokava's Compton Studio

Thousands of books on tall shelves divide the cavernous space into human-sized rooms.

Kenzi says after all this time in relative obscurity — other artists knew him but not the public or the art establishment — being picked for the Hammer's Made in LA 2016 biennial gives him peace of mind, confidence that his legacy of art is secure, and that he can pay the rent.

"Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only," at the Hammer Museum through Aug. 28, features works by 28 artists, including a career retrospective of Kenzi Shiokava.

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