Spring/Summer 2021 Issue – Identity

An Interview with Umbrella Arts

Window Seat interviewed Steward Ikeda, Director of Marketing and Strategic Communications at the Umbrella Arts Center, to talk about his experience with identity. Ikeda calls himself a hapa — a multiracial European and Japanese American — as well as a father, novelist and arts advocate. He also has professional experience in business and arts administration, multicultural media, and ethnic studies.

What is the purpose and mission of Umbrella Arts?

The Umbrella enriches lives and builds a vibrant and inclusive community through the arts. We promote creativity, learning, personal growth, and cultural exchange through accessible arts education programs, performing and visual arts presentations, and community collaborations.

What was your motivation for working at this organization, and how has your sense of self or identity changed from that position?

I was motivated by a desire to blend my early education and work background in the arts – mostly literary, performing and visual – with my later career experience in business marketing and communications to help grow an organization dedicated to enriching communities through arts and culture. Although I have experience in a passion for both activities – arts and business – I had never had an opportunity to impactfully combine them. It’s affected my sense of identity in that I don’t think of myself as just an artist, or just a communicator, but an arts enabler and advocate. Since starting this job, I also became chair of a volunteer arts commission the town where I live, advocating for free and accessible arts experiences because it makes my neighborhood better. It’s become part of my identity that I want to be a champion for the value of art.

How does art help develop one’s sense of identity?

Art has the ability to lift us out of our own narrow experience and help us see the world anew – to break down our preconceptions and force us to view the world through strange, challenging or amazing new perspectives. It can help us continually review, revisit and refine our sense of who we are and who we want to be.

How do you think one’s identity influences art?

We bring to our art the perspectives and background of lived and inherited experiences that have shaped us to that moment – and often we want to *represent*. But, we can also create exciting work from the place where we want to push through those confines and imaginatively explore experiences beyond us – that can expand what our identity, force us to grow and change.

Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

At The Umbrella our slogan is #DiscoverYourArts, which is a deeply personal and individual thing, but in our mission we also say that arts enriches lives, builds a vibrant community, and promotes personal growth and cultural exchange. And while I think it’s important that artists start from a place of acknowledging identity and knowing who they are – “I am a straight, male Anglo-Japanese novelist” – as important is to know why we do art – to have exchanges and to grow. At The Umbrella, I’ve loved having found personal opportunities to make pottery, take Bollywood dance class, install public big art in outdoors spaces, exhibit photography, try nature sketch journaling, learn about quilting and digital animation – not because I’ll ever be a great artist in any of those areas, but for how those experiences have enriched my life and made me maybe just a slightly bigger person. So, even if you are a maestro in your art form, I’d say never stop trying to learn something new – never stop trying to #DiscoverYourArts.

Anything else you would like to add?

I love what Window Seat is doing. It’s been many decades for me now, but I remember being involved in my first school art and lit publication — going back to elementary school — and all the teams of artist misfits I worked with in high school, college, grad school MFA, my first novel, nationally circulated magazine editorship — all these zigzaggy stops that ended me up where I never thought I’d be today, but all meaningful and enriching experiences. I’m really glad you chose to step up and take on this creative endeavor — you may not know where it will take you, but someday you’ll look back and be glad you did!