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Art show, film explore how Jimmy Mirikitani distilled hope from horror, homelessness; exhibit is showing May 2-Sept. 16 at Emerson Street House

COURTESY PHOTO - 'The Art of Mirikitani' exhibit opens at Emerson Street House this week, and it features the art of the late Jimmy Mirikitani, who was 'discovered' by filmmaker Linda Hattendorf while living on the streets of New York City. He loved to paint images of cats, in honor of a friend who didn't survive an internment camp during World War II.A filmmaker encountered Jimmy Mirikitani on a New York City street soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. While many homeless folks have great stories to tell, Mirikitani certainly had lived quite the life.

Born in Sacramento, California, Mirikitani spent time in Hiroshima, Japan, as a young adult before leaving the country rather than fight in the Japanese conflicts leading up to World War II.

Once back in the United States, as the government put many Japanese-Americans in internment camps, he was sent to the Tule Lake camp just across the Oregon border in California. He renounced his citizenship in protest.

From there, Mirikitani became a cook in New York City until his employer died, casting him out to the street, where he survived in large part from selling his paintings — many of them of cats.

He lived for several years on the streets until one day in 2001 filmmaker Linda Hattendorf came across Mirikitani and learned his story. Hattendorf documented it in the 2006 documentary "The Cats of Mirikitani," which became a fan favorite at the Tribeca Film Festival.

This week, the Emerson Street House gallery will start showing some of his paintings, 30 of them. And gallery owner Diane Freaney, a friend of Hattendorf's, couldn't be more thrilled. Freaney was enraptured by Mirikitani's story of perseverance.

"He never wavered from what he believed," Freaney says. "He said, 'I'm an artist, not a soldier.'"

COURTESY PHOTO - The late Jimmy Mirikitani painted through his years in Japan, living in an internment camp, while working as a cook and then when homeless in New York City.Mirikitani began creating art as a youngster and continued through his adult years, including at Tule Lake and on the streets of New York City.

"When he was on the street and in low-income housing, he produced so much," Freaney says. "He produced them every day. Once the movie won the audience award at Tribeca, (they) became valuable. He could have sold them for a lot of money, but he couldn't do that because he would have been kicked out of low-income housing, because of stupid (income) rules."

The exhibit comes from the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle, and is curated by Roger Shimomura. It has shown in Sante Fe, New Mexico, and New York City.

"I'm hoping to take it to Palm Beach (Florida), where I was living when I met Linda," says Freaney, who adds that the exhibit and Mirikitani's story addresses issues of xenophobia and homelessness.

COURTESY PHOTO - Jimmy Mirikitani working in the 1940s.Hattendorf took in Mirikitani after the Sept. 11 attacks in Lower Manhattan, where he actually had a workshop on a street in the Soho district. She helped him obtain housing and find his sister and niece (poet Janice Mirikitani), while working on the documentary. Much of Mirikitani's family died in the atomic bomb that hit Hiroshima in 1945.

Mirikitani died in 2012 at age 92, reportedly with Hattendorf and collaborator Masa Yoshikawa by his side.

Freaney admires the artist's passion, creating through all stages of his life. He painted cats in memory of a friend who didn't survive the internment camp.

"He is so clear that art is his passion in life. It was very much a healing proposition for him," she says.

"I just love the story. Linda's passion and caring for him, for someone who she met on the street and making sure he was taken care of. I'd call her and she'd be doing something with him; 'I'm at the dentist with Jimmy.'"

The exhibit "The Art of Mirikitani" opens Wednesday, May 2, and will stay at Emerson Street House, 1006 N.E. Emerson St., until Sept. 16. Gallery hours are 1-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. An official opening is 4 p.m. Sunday, May 6.

The documentary "The Cats of Mirikitani" will be shown at the Clinton Street Theater, 2522 S.E. Clinton St., 7 p.m. Thursday, May 10, and June 29.

Hattendorf won't be able to visit Portland during the exhibit.

But, "Linda wants as many people to see it as possible," Freaney says.

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