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Edo era art evokes passion

Delicate selections from the Etsuko and Joe Price Collection represent some of the finest Japanese art in the world.

July 01, 2011
  • Sosen Monkeys with Cricket.
Sosen Monkeys with Cricket. (Courtesy Bowers…)

SANTA ANA – In Corona del Mar resident Joe Price's art collection, there are mythological monsters, noble tigers, delicate courtesans and graceful birds.

Nearly six decades since Price saw his first wood-block print, the former engineer from Oklahoma has amassed a collection of Japanese art considered among the finest in the world.

It started with a 1953 encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright. Price's father worked with the famed architect. When Wright took him along to look at Japanese prints, Price, then in his early 20s, was instantly mesmerized.

"I didn't know it as art then," he said. "I just bought the things I liked."

Price, now 81, has collected more than 600 works. Masterpieces from the collection are on display this month at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

Price fell in love with a particular type of Japanese art: That from the Edo period, created between 1603 and 1868. It was a time when Japan was closed off to outside influence and returned to indigenous art forms, he said.

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He was attracted to the tremendous skill and simplicity found in Edo period art.

He took his first trip to Japan in 1964, where he became known as "the crazy foreigner who liked Edo art." It was there that he met a woman named Etsuko, who became his translator, and later, his wife.

When Price tells the story, he ends it with "and we've been together ever since."

The couple continued to collect art and travel between Oklahoma and Japan. They had two daughters, and in 1980, Price retired from his engineering career and moved to Corona del Mar.

"I decided I was going to devote the rest of my life to trying to show the world the beauty of this Edo art," he said.

Since then, the couple has set up a workshop where students can view the collection. They have also been instrumental in the establishment of LACMA's Japanese Pavilion, and worked with museums from Australia to Japan to bring this "lost art" back into vogue.

In April, the Bowers Museum displayed works from the Price Collection in its first of two back-to-back exhibits, "Ito Jakuchu: A Man with No Age." In the second exhibit, which runs through July 17, masterpieces — one from each artist — of the collection are displayed.

Screens and scrolls depict fierce tigers, creatures from Japanese mythology, delicate courtesans, birds and flowers.

Price shows immense passion for the art, taking pains to ensure that it can be shown in conditions as close as possible to the way the artist intended. Although the works are delicate, he hates to put them behind glass and worked with the museum to ensure the light was not too harsh.

As Price looked at a series of 12 scrolls depicting nature during the different months of the year, he explained why he has devoted so many years to his collection.

"It's not about wars or teachings, just about the beauty of flowers," Price said. "That's what I love … Those flowers, they don't look like that, but they feel like that."

Masterpieces from the Etsuko and Joe Price Collection show through July 17 at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and tickets cost $12 for adults, $9 for seniors, students and children 6 years and older. Children younger than 6 are free.

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