People On Campus for March 2001
First Monday
People On Campus
People On Campus is published in FirstMonday by the Public Affairs and Publications offices at SFSU. 415/338-1665.

People On Campus

Irene Poon Anderson - 'Leading the Way' for Asian-American art history

During her 36 years as slide curator in San Francisco State University's Art Department, Irene Poon Andersen has done much more than manage small squares of film in order.

"Irene is one of the most importantscholars in the developing field of Asian-American art history and is helping situate San Francisco State University at ground zero for the field," says Mark Johnson, director of SFSU's Fine Art Gallery. "She is modest, gracious and also quite brilliant."

With Johnson and two others, Andersen co-curated "With New Eyes: Toward an Asian American Art History in the West," a groundbreaking exhibition at the Fine Arts Gallery in 1995. After the conclusion of "With New Eyes," SFSU art Professor Whitney Chadwick suggested that someone should document these artists "before they're all gone" and convinced Andersen - an Asian-American artist herself - that she was the ideal candidate. The result is "Leading the Way: Asian American Artists of the Older Generation," a book that Andersen hopes will help fill the gap of Asian-American art excluded from art history textbooks.

"The 'With New Eyes' exhibition made me realize the potential strength and breadth of work created by Asian-American artists, and I believe it is imperative that this is documented," she says. "I hope this book will help solidify these artists' place in American art history."

"Leading the Way" features the art of 25 Asian-American artists from 1930-1970, supplemented by Andersen's photos and biographical sketches. Their work ranges from traditional painting and photography to digital art. Bay Area artists highlighted in "Leading the Way" include Ruth Asawa of San Francisco, Charles Wong of San Francisco, Jade Snow Wong of San Francisco, Dan Harada of Berkeley, George Miyasaki of Berkeley, and James Liu of Tiburon.

"Poon's work represents the most comprehensive effort to compile a visual portrait of the Asian-American artist community," writes Paul J. Karlstrom, West Coast regional director of the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art, in the book's introduction.

"Leading the Way" is the first book that Andersen - who goes by Irene Poon for her professional work - has written.

The years of work on the book have been an emotional ride for her, as she interviewed and photographed artists she admired when growing up. Five of the artists died shortly after she met them.

"Each time one (of the artists) passes on, it just gets a little bit sadder," says Andersen, who received a bachelor's degree in art and master's degree in photography from San Francisco State College in the 1960s.

During her 40-plus years on campus, Andersen says SFSU became a second home to her. She recalls her days as a student when she sipped cherry and lemon Cokes at the soda fountain in the old Commons. She also met her husband, emeritus English and humanities Professor Stanley Andersen, on campus.

Despite living her entire life in such a progressive and multicultural city as San Francisco, Asian-American artists were largely invisible to the public during her youth.

"When I was growing up in Chinatown, the only Asian-American artists I really knew about were Dong Kingman and Jade Snow Wong. I never dreamed that I would somehow meet them," she says.

Andersen's research for "Leading the Way" also enabled her to discover more artists, such as Tyrus Wong, who was responsible for the paintings that inspired such animated Disney classics as "Bambi" and "Fantasia." She was particularly impressed by special-effects artist Wah Ming Chang, an Academy Award winner whose credits include "The King & I," "Star Trek," "The Time Machine" and even the Pillsbury Doughboy.

"He's extremely modest, real quiet. You'd never know it," Andersen says. "It surprised people that this 80-year-old Chinese man did all this work."

An accomplished photographer, Andersen's work has been displayed at such museums and galleries as the M.H. deYoung Memorial Museum, Oakland Museum, University of New Mexico, UC Davis and E.B. Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento. She also serves as a board member for the Chinese Historical Society of America, which is opening the National Chinese American Museum and Learning Center in San Francisco later this year.

As the Art Department's slide curator, she is responsible for maintaining the department's vast slide collection. The collection has grown from about 36,000 slides in 1965, when she joined the Art Department, to about 175,000 today.

In contrast to the modern worker who jumps from job to job, Andersen's family has always stressed the importance of loyalty. She also enjoys working in a campus environment, where there is a continuous cycle of change.

"People change, students change, the place changes and the art changes," she says. "This job keeps me close to the arts."

--Matt Itelson--

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