As a 16-year-old bus boy at a Chinese restaurant, Kim Frank Fujiwara spent his down time penciling portraits of the waitresses, eventually earning a commission from a customer. Since then, his portraits have included celebrities such as Arnold Palmer, Isiah Thomas, Henry Ford II, Hillary Clinton and others.
"You almost feel like you know them," Fujiwara said, describing how a portrait artist absorbs a subject's personality, soul and spirit. "I've always been a face person. Sometimes, you feel like a bug on their face."
Fujiwara's commercial and fine artwork have been featured in national ads, books, magazines, CD covers, billboards and children books, with his fine artwork earning him several awards and exhibitions, including Birmingham's Our Town exhibit, a first place award at the Village Fine Arts Association's Views/Huron Valley for the Arts; the Ray and Nancy Loeschner Art Competition; and a finalist for the MI Great Artist contest. His work has appeared at Park West Gallery, in Southfield; the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park collection in Grand Rapids; Oakland Hills Country Club; and many other locations.
On Tuesday, October 22, Fujiwara was selected as the MI Great Artist for 2018 by Park West Gallery, in Southfield. The award comes with a cash prize, scholarship for Oakland County business workshops and solo exhibitions at the gallery and at the Oakland County Galleria in the Executive Office Building in Waterford. Fujiwara was also named a top five finalist in the competition three other times.
Fujiwara's talent showed from an early age, landing him in advanced art classes as a child on Detroit's northwest side. Taking inspiration from comics, posters and Creepy and Mad magazines, he took second place in a state poster contest in 11th grade. After graduation, he enrolled in the Center for Creative Studies, later working for major art studios in Detroit and becoming an instructor himself.
"In first grade, they pulled me out of homeroom every day, and I had an hour to go into art class and do whatever I wanted," he said. "At that age, you figure there must be something to it if I can get out of class. So, that triggered something.
"Every kid, when they bring something home and their parent puts it on the fridge, you get a response. It's kind of like a high – so I kept doing it."
Fujiwara said Detroit was home to some of the largest art studios in the country from the 1950s through the 1990s. The demand led him to artwork in the automotive field, but with some crossover, such as producing more than 30 portrait montages for Ford Motor Company's annual NADA awards, which are on display at their world headquarters in Dearborn.
In 1992, he started his own studio, Fujiwara Art, Inc., which has been located at his home studio in Rochester Hills since 1994.
"I've tried to stay in fine arts, but I did anything to pay the bills," he said. "You don't want to lose that human touch."
Since 2010, he has devoted most of his time to fine art, particularly the figures and portraits for which he's best known. A recent series of oil paintings include "The American West" and "La Belle Femme" (The Beautiful Woman).
The western series became a number of Smithsonian-approved works he was commissioned to illustrate for a Native American-themed children's book. For his series, Fujiwara hired models and a wardrobe designer specializing in making authentic 19th century clothes and teepees.
"With fine art, it's probably one of the few things that is still done by hand," he said. "The art has so many figures and backgrounds and everything that you want in a painting. It's like a little movie you can create."
Photo: Laurie Tennent