Artist Midori Kono Thiel talks Berkeley origins, Japanese art

Photo of Midori Kono Thiel
Tamiko Thiel/Courtesy

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Midori Kono Thiel was born in Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley in 1933, as her father, a Methodist minister, was going to seminary at the Pacific School of Religion. Her family relocated to Hawaii six months later, but Thiel’s story in Berkeley wasn’t over.

In light of celebrating 150 years of women at Berkeley, I spoke to Midori Kono Thiel, an artist and UC Berkeley alumnus. Thiel is a Japanese arts specialist whose work has been exhibited in the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, Wing Luke Museum and more.

Spending her childhood in Lahaina, Maui, Thiel and her family, who were Japanese Americans, avoided the widespread incarceration that placed Japanese Americans living on the West Coast in internment camps across the country. Although she was only eight years old at the time, Thiel recalled the morning of December 7, 1941, in detail.

“The English language minister said to my father, ‘Mr. Kono, the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor,’ and my father said, ‘Impossible.’ And we found out it was true,” Thiel said. “Because I was a child, it was a pretty normal life. We played barefoot and climbed trees and did all those things that were part of a normal life there.”

After her childhood years in Hawaii, Thiel’s family relocated to Riverside, California, where her art teacher in high school encouraged her to apply to UC Berkeley because it was a center for contemporary art.

Thiel ended up attending UC Berkeley, partly because of its low tuition cost at the time, she said. Following her teacher’s advice, she entered as an art major. 

“I came from a tiny town in Hawaii, Lahaina, Maui, and we had a tiny, tiny library. It was a one-room library, and we were just starved for materials,” Thiel said. “And when I went to (UC) Berkeley, it was so big, but I didn’t feel intimidated at all. It was just so wonderful that I was in this big place with all these libraries. It was just a great place for me to be.”

Reflecting upon her undergraduate studies, Thiel recalled being one of the only Japanese American art majors, though she interacted with other Japanese American women through the Japanese American women’s dormitory on Hearst Avenue. She also remembered meeting with other Japanese American students for lunch in the center of campus, near Sather Gate. 

“It was an opportunity for me to meet other Japanese Americans who had different experiences from myself because I was from Hawaii,” Thiel said.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1955, Thiel continued her studies by pursuing a master’s at UC Berkeley. Having met her husband, who was in the architecture department at the time, the two of them started a family while Thiel was in graduate school. 

After conducting special research on woodblock printing, Thiel was awarded a traveling fellowship by the college in 1960 to go to Japan and study woodblock printing, an experience that heavily impacted the trajectory of her career. This fellowship was Thiel’s first experience in Japan, but she had studied Japanese language during her time on campus.

While in Japan, Thiel was mentored by artists Un’ichi Hiratsuka and Hideo Hagiwara. According to Thiel, Hagiwara, who was well known for his abstract prints, was one of the biggest influences on her life as an artist. It was also during her time in Japan that Thiel was introduced to Japanese calligraphy.

“Things that I started in Berkeley, here and there, just blossomed in different directions as I got older.” – Midori Kono Thiel

“I got interested in (calligraphy) probably because of my admiration for Franz Kline, the painter. He wasn’t specifically interested in Japanese calligraphy, but because of the black and white abstraction, it led me into also the abstraction of the Japanese and Chinese calligraphy,” she said.

After spending one and a half years in Japan, Thiel and her family landed in Seattle, Washington, where her husband had taken a job at the University of Washington. After her nine years spent in Berkeley, Thiel and her family did not end up returning to the city.

“I honestly thought I could never leave Berkeley because I had never really lived in a place that long,” Thiel said. “I felt an attachment to Berkeley.”

Apart from temporary stays in Japan and Denmark, Thiel has remained in Washington since. There, Thiel has been artist-in-residence for Washington State Arts Commission, which involved teaching art in schools throughout the state. She also has been heavily involved in the Seattle Cherry Blossom Festival, of which she is currently an exhibit chair.

Today, Thiel practices many different Japanese art forms, including calligraphy and sumi-e painting, a style that involves using black ink on white paper to create images, typically of nature or landscapes. In addition to visual art, Thiel is also trained in the performing arts of Noh and Kyogen drama, having taken lessons with the Nomura Kyogen Troupe. Thiel has also studied the shamisen and koto instruments. In Seattle, she was for many years a part of a Japanese performing arts group.

“The Japanese arts are so vast that each of them can take your whole lifetime to master,” she said.

Thiel is also a member of the Japanese American Women Alumnae of UC Berkeley association, which now holds a scholarship from the funds of the Hearst women’s dormitory, which was sold in 1967 and later demolished.

Looking back on her UC Berkeley experience as a whole, Thiel said her time on campus provided her with what she needed educationally and that she fondly remembers the friends she made.

“Things that I started in Berkeley, here and there, just blossomed in different directions as I got older.”

Contact Sarena Kuhn at [email protected].