I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of illustrator, teacher and mentor Kazu Sano earlier this summer (May 31). Kazu was a master illustrator who was prolific, creating artwork for book covers, for National Geographic and painting a famous Return of the Jedi poster. Kazu was the epitome of what an illustrator should be. His ability to research, and know his subject matter and his masterful techniques as a painter created a lifetime of work that was revered by other illustrators and honored by the Society of Illustrators.
I took Kazu’s Acrylic Figure Painting class at the Academy of Art in San Francisco in the Spring of 1997 – my second semester in the graduate program in illustration. The class and Kazu’s demonstrations and insights were transformative for me as an artist. Beyond techniques Kazu imparted a passion and love for discovery.
You always went early to Kazu’s class. Without fanfare he we would bring in a painting or two of his and lean it up against the critique board. Seeing these works, leaning up close to them, soaking them in hopes of gleaning from them their magic. Kazu rarely said anything about those paintings. They were there to speak for themselves…and for me they spoke volumes. He would start off the class with a demonstration of one of his acrylic techniques, and then send us off to paint from models. Intense, inspiring, joyful and life changing for me…all in just one semester.
One assignment was a self portrait project and along with that a personal review of my paintings, studies and projects created during the semester. I remember the critique as if it happened yesterday. Inexplicably Kazu did not see just my color, or my brushstrokes or my design and painting skills. He saw what was behind them. He peered beyond the artwork to find the artist. He saw exactly where I was coming from and what I was exploring. He was absolutely in tune with what I was doing in my paintings, and what I was getting at. For me this was an exhilirating and spiritual experience. An incredible validation from a master. I have never had an experience as a student or as an artist that has come close to Kazu’s insight and inspiration that morning in Bradley Hall.
This was only one class with Kazu. Kazu’s wisdom, advice and artwork have made an indelible, lasting impact that continues to inform and influence my journey as an artist. I saw Kazu a few years ago at Barbara Bradley’s memorial celebration. I had a good conversation with him and was able to thank him for his class and insight. Thank You Kazu.
Below is the self-portrait project for Kazu’s class.
The Academy of Art director of the department illustration, Chuck Pyle posted a great tribute to Kazu on his blog: