St. Olaf Magazine | Summer 2020

Uncharted Waters

Earlier this spring, Molly Murakami’s ’14 life — and her art — was a work in progress. An M.F.A. candidate at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), she was laser focused on her thesis project — a graphic novel about her grandfather, Yoshiteru “Yosh” Murakami ’51 — while also trying to figure out the next step in her life.

“I’m graduating in May,” Murakami said at the time. “It’s a little anxiety-inducing. People keep saying, ‘Are you so excited?’ But once you’ve been an adult in the real world for a few years like I have, graduation is less about being excited and more . . . ” she paused and sighed quietly. “‘I have to figure out what I’m doing now.’”

With an entire graphic novel still to complete, Murakami was, at the time, preparing to jump into the uncharted waters of the real world. Those waters became even more uncharted as the reality of COVID-19 took hold in Minnesota. Within a span of weeks, MCAD closed and Murakami’s private graduate studio was shuttered. Needing more space to create art than was available in her small, shared Minneapolis apartment, she temporarily uprooted herself and moved back to her parents’ roomier suburban home.

These days, one of the few things in Murakami’s life that hasn’t been upended is her thesis project, which will include stories of her grandfather’s experience as a prisoner in a U.S. internment camp for American citizens of Japanese descent during WWII. Based on a suggestion from a member of her thesis committee, Murakami has also researched artists of the past to see what kind of work they created during difficult times like the one we’re currently living through. In particular, Murakami has been learning about artists in the Japanese internment camps.

As she’s delved into her grandfather’s stories and the experiences of other artists, she’s begun to feel that they have indirect parallels to her own strange new reality.

“I’m not comparing this time to life in internment,” Murakami says. “I know it is far different than that. But even in the internment camps, people were still making art.” That reality felt like an inspiration, she says: “I realized I need to work through this limbo period of uncertainty and anxiety. There is so much creative opportunity that goes along with this time.”

A strong artistic streak runs through Murakami’s family. Her grandfather, Yosh, was one of ten interned Japanese Americans who were given special releases to study at St. Olaf. After a break to serve in the U.S. military, Yosh, one of the first two students of color to sing in the St. Olaf Choir, graduated from the college and went on to be the choral director at Northfield High School before leaving to join the Music Department at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Murakami’s father, Paul, who worked as a church choir conductor and was in a band, plays a number of different instruments. Growing up, Murakami and her brother, Michael, sang with the Minneapolis-based Angelica Cantanti Youth Choirs.

And for Murakami, making comics has always been another vital source of creativity. “In my life, a lot of things that I’m ruminating on or working on end up as comics,” she says. “I think I do a lot of thinking through drawing. I was making comics as a kid without realizing that I was making comics. I was drawing things out in panels, very sequential art.”

When it came time to look at colleges, Murakami knew she wanted to continue to pursue her interest in art. During a tour of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, her father decided to check out St. Olaf’s website.

“There was an article about my grandpa on the homepage,” Murakami says, still laughing at the coincidence. “We were like, ‘Weird. That’s so strange it would pop up there right now.’ ”

Though Murakami had grown up hearing stories about her grandfather, he’d died young — long before she was born — and in many ways he remained a mystery. She knew about his connection to St. Olaf, she says, but only in a vague way. She devoured the story on the college’s website: it was an opportunity for her to learn even more about the grandfather she never knew.

Later, Murakami visited St. Olaf and fell in love with the art department. “It seemed like they had all of this really good light,” she recalls. “I remember being pretty wowed by that. Coming from a high school without those kinds of facilities, it is fun to see designated space for art.”

While Murakami’s father is Japanese American, her mother, Suzanne, comes from a family of Northern European descent. Growing up in the Minneapolis suburbs of Bloomington and Edina, Murakami says she was often one of the few students of color in her classes. She now believes that experience gave her a skewed racial identity. While today Murakami proudly uses the terms “mixed” or sometimes “biracial” to describe herself, her focus as a child was more on blending in.

Murakami witnessed moments of racism and racial discrimination, but she didn’t always feel like they were directed at her. “I didn’t actively think about it,” she says. “I was aware, but when you are in a predominantly white space, people will make objectionable comments or jokes that they think are funny. When you’re young, you might not pick up on it right away.”

By the time she arrived at St. Olaf, Murakami began to realize that her racial identity really did have an impact on her life. “I was around more people of different ethnicities and different backgrounds who had lived different lives before they came to college,” she says. “I became more aware. There’s something about living on your own and being outside of where you grew up: it pushes you to figure out where you stand or where you fit.”

That awareness infused You Can’t Say That, Murakami’s senior capstone exhibit at St. Olaf, in which she used Lichtenstein-inspired pop-art imagery, personal experience and memories, as well as social commentary to discuss issues of race, racism, white privilege, and history from the perspective of a young woman of mixed race.

Murakami says that at first she felt nervous that You Can’t Say That would stir up negative reactions on campus.

“It’s hard putting a lot of yourself on the wall or a lot of yourself in a book and giving it to someone,” she says, adding that she received great support and feedback from her mentors, Art Professors Wendell Arneson and Peter Nelson ’04. “I think it’s hard to let people into that very personal space. People can disagree or criticize. And it’s all about you.”

To Murakami’s relief and delight, the exhibit was met with positive response. But in the years since, she says she’s grown a tougher skin: “I feel like not a lot of people inherently want to rock the boat or try and make dialogue or start things. I think now I’m okay with rocking the boat, but when I was 22, I was a little anxious.”

In the end, the experience bolstered Murakami’s confidence and helped confirm that she was on the right track. Since You Can’t Say That, her work has continued in a similar vein, with a focus on personally and politically aware comics, graphic novels, and illustration.

Murakami’s M.F.A. thesis will be titled In Your Path. It contains four chapters written as a series of letters to her grandfather.

“I’ve been circling around this topic of looking into my grandpa and writing something about him for some time now,” Murakami says. “I feel like since I came to the [M.F.A.] program, a lot of my work has focused on family. I gravitated to this topic.”

At first she thought she would use a documentary-like style to tell her grandfather’s story, but she’s since decided to take a more personal approach. “The letters are in my voice,” she explains. “For some reason, that felt important.”

Murakami’s research for her graphic novel has involved long conversations with her father — and time spent digging through her now-deceased grandmother’s family photos. “It’s so fun to see these little glimpses into their life when my dad was very little,” she says. “And to see my grandpa as a person. We never had many pictures of him when I was growing up, so to see all those photos — it’s like a piece of history that I never knew.”

Despite the fact that her world has temporarily been turned upside down, Murakami has a feeling that she’s beginning to hit her professional stride. While she was hard at work on her thesis, she landed her dream freelance gig: illustrating three books for middle grade readers for the children’s book publisher Candlewick Press.

“In the future, my hope is I can either write my own stories or use my skill sets to illustrate stories that I’m equally passionate about,” she says. “This [the Candlewick Press project] is definitely in line with what I want to do. The authors themselves are black and Native women, and the stories that we are writing and illustrating center around those narratives. I’m incredibly excited to do this work.”

For the next few months at least, Murakami plans to take time to hunker down and focus on her art. With such exciting projects on the docket, it shouldn’t be hard. As for further-out plans, she’s taking a more day-by-day approach. “It feels silly to try and plan for stuff now when so much is unknown. We are all in uncharted waters. Everyone’s life and work has been impacted.”

No matter what, Murakami says she will find a way to make art out of the upheaval. “I’m moving forward,” she says. “My plan is to play it by ear and find inspiration wherever it exists.”

Learn more about Molly Murakami’s grandfather, Yosh Murakami ’51, in this issue’s STOries.

Andy Steiner is a Twin Cities freelance writer and a regular contributor to St. Olaf Magazine.

Seeds of inspiration

Molly Murakami’s art has been inspired by a number of authors and illustrators. Here are some of her favorites:

Mariko Tamaki (This One Summer, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me) “She is a big influence,” Murakami says. “She’s really great. A true leader.”

MariNaomi (Turning Japanese)

A.J. Dungo (In Waves) “He wrote a history of surfing that also runs in tandem with documenting his relationship with his girlfriend, who passed away from cancer,” Murakami says. “I really love how he handled concurrent narratives.”

Jen Wang (The Prince and the Dressmaker, Stargazing)

Alison Bechdel (Fun Home, Are You My Mother?) “In Fun Home, I was really intrigued by the way she was able to take a really complex character in her father and make him very empathetic,” Murakami says.

Ocean Vuong (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous) “In this novel, the narrator is writing a letter to his illiterate mother,” Murakami explains. “I think that was a big influence on the direction that my thesis has taken: what does it mean to write a letter to someone who can’t read it?”

Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw (Kiss Number 8)