Written by Kathryn and Loren Omoto
Fifteen years ago, 1997, Sadayoshi Omoto traded a professor’s coat and tie for a sweatshirt and jeans, taking up residence in Leland. The lively community of local artists reminded him of past experiences at the Old Art Building; the bracing climate and warm welcome from area residents reminded him of his boyhood in the Northwest.
Sada had attended the summer painting program at the Art Building in 1950, as part of the Michigan State College art school. He was studying for his master’s degree at that time, having been uprooted from the state of Washington by internment of Japanese-Americans during the war and subsequent military service at the invitation of his Uncle Sam.
After the war, Sada earned a B.A. from Oberlin College in Ohio. Next came graduate school at Michigan State. During that summer of 1950, Sada painted scenes of Fishtown and what he called the “rural environment.” He later recalled that the peaceful surroundings in the area led him to probe more deeply into the arts of the past and the present.
That turn toward the art of the past led Sada to pursue a Ph.D. in Art History from Ohio State University. After earning his doctorate, he held teaching positions in Illinois, Detroit and – for 33 years – East Lansing. But that wasn’t the only inspiration Sada got from his first brush with Leland: Thoughts of painting landscapes and sunsets in the area – and discovering other painters who felt the same way – led to formation of the Leelanau Artists.
In fact, Sada’s affection for Leland and environs had reawakened his creative spirit, inspiring him to attend painting classes at Glen Arbor Art Association and Traverse City Art Center. When Tom Ford’s class ended, Sada encouraged the group to continue painting on their own at the Old Art Building, the “open studio” group was born.
The group – eventually known as “Leelanau Artists at the Old Art Building” – started in the year 2000. Sada suggested they follow the lead of “rebel” artists’ groups from the past, which disregarded formal rules and instead embraced the inspiration they found in nature.
The purpose of the Leelanau group was to enjoy painting together – not to pass judgment or conform to a certain style. The group includes professional artists and inexperienced amateurs, all united by enthusiasm for the beauty of Leland and the Leelanau area.
Sada encouraged the group to invite the community to see the paintings beginning in 2001. At the first show, some of the works were offered for sale, and some found buyers among kindred spirits who attended. Another exhibition was held later that year, and regular shows continue to this day – always at the Old Art Building.
In 2005, the Art Building began playing the role of community gymnasium, after Sada helped organize exercise classes for seniors on the premises. That program continues under the guidance of a physical trainer, three times a week.
In 2007, the building hosted a show that highlighted the 50 years that MSU students had been visiting the community, from 1939 to 1989. Again, Sada helped piece together the exhibit, which showcased works from past students and underlined the importance of the Old Art Building as a link to the past and the future of the community.
In the fall of 2010, the Leelanau Community Cultural Center began expansion and upgrading of the Old Art Building. That project concluded this year, resulting in the magnificent space we’re in today. Although he left the board in 2010, Sada played a part in the birth of the idea and in galvanizing community support for the project.
For more than 60 years, Sada Omoto has been returning to Leland…and to the Old Art Building. Whether for painting, exercise or civic duty, he’s been a regular presence and a key sparkplug for programs and activities that keep the building at the center of the Leelanau community.
Today, in recognition of his long commitment to the Old Art Building and its programs over the years, we honor Sadayoshi Omoto and express our gratitude. His support and inspiration began in the past but continues into the present. With his help, we look forward to a brilliant future here in Leland.