Linda Okazaki: Into the Light

Friday, December 29, 2023 5:32 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

Linda Okazaki’s retrospective exhibit at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art is an exploration of painting and life that requires us to look and look again. First we experience the subtle color relationships, the extraordinary handling of watercolor. Then we register on the imagery, and finally a pervasive anxiety and discomfort.

This major exhibition includes many themes, but they are not clustered together; rather curator Greg Robinson, in collaboration with the artist, conducts a symphony of phrases that build on one another, and repeat each with a new variation. Artist Jo Hockenhull, who knew the artist well in Pullman, commented “No one attacks watercolor with such surety and knowledge as Linda Okazaki.” The transparency of watercolor conveys many moods of water, the color relationships evoke emotions. Okazaki immersed herself in a study of Goethe’s color theory and then made her own color charts in order to exactly convey emotions that she wanted to express.

The theme of water is one example: at the outset of the exhibition, we see “Evening Departure” (1980). The sea (Puget Sound) swirls around the boat, as the artist, accompanied by her dog, is held in the arms of a large wolf. The embrace is tender, but the image suggests anxiety. This represents on one level her departure from many years in eastern Washington to live in Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula.

But on another level, we can sense her fear of starting over in an entirely new environment through the imaginary—but gentle—embrace of a wolf.

In “River Story Return” (1989), the artist now depicts herself nude in the water, carrying a raven reaching for the shore as a glass vessel seems to fall toward her, and a person in a large red and black striped robe fails to connect to her. Desperation is palpable, expressed through the color, textures, and images. “Crypt Swimmers” (2012) heightens the sense of danger as several figures swim among heavy columns and arches.

Okazaki received two degrees from Washington State University and taught there in the 1970s. She became part of an edgy group of artists who cohered, not into a single style, but into a concentrated group of supportive friends, who, because of the isolation of Pullman, partied together, but had plenty of time for concentrated work. Artist Gaylen Hansen was one of her professors, and near the beginning of the exhibition is “Studio Conversation Vincent and Gaylen”(1985) of Gaylen Hansen and Vincent Van Gogh. We see Hansen’s presence in Okazaki’s benevolent animals and birds that fill her paintings. But her birds multiply and congregate and disperse as in the wonderful recent painting, “Birds Take Flight into Twilight” (2023). We see twenty different species of birds, each carefully observed, fly away in a landscape filled with a rainbow of colors. Another inspiration was the Bay Area artist Joan Brown, who also pursued a personal vocabulary of self portraits, dancing and swimming, in a fantasy world. Also important to her was the anguished imagery of Frida Kahlo, as we see in “Letter to Frida” (1985).

The formative event in Okazaki’s life occurred when she was six. Her mother was murdered by a stalker who then committed suicide. For the first time, the artist is showing several works that refer to this trauma, each more explicit than the last. The earliest is a pencil drawing made while in art school, but later large watercolors confront the subject with a courageous directness. This is the first time she has shown these works.

Not surprisingly then, the overall sensation of the exhibition is one of unease, everything is off kilter, filled with undecipherable metaphors, particularly in the still life paintings of tables set vertically against the picture plane and filled with odd objects. Much of the imagery is from dreams, dreams that suggest struggles to just find a firm footing, particularly in juxtaposition with water.

But I will end where I began, with the dazzling color: Okazaki deeply understands the subtle relationships that she creates to convey exactly the right emotion. So seeing these paintings through color first gives us a feeling of comfort and sometimes joy, even as the paintings themselves take us on a fantastic adventure.

Susan Noyes Platt

Susan Noyes Platt writes for local, national, and international publications and her website,

“Linda Okazaki: Into the Light” is on view through February 25, 2024 at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, located at 550 Winslow Way East on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, visit

2023 © Art Access 
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software