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Gary Fujiwara, at 72; art designer created playful, engaging work

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / June 4, 2008

Hired as the artist for a series of posters that highlighted job options, Gary Fujiwara illustrated the topic "cook up a career in consumer and homemaking education" with fried eggs floating in the sky.

Looking at the work, Mr. Fujiwara's old friend Peter Bradford saw a mischievous allusion to their shared past as art designers in New York City in the 1960s. Many nights they worked late, then spent a few hours at Ames Billiard Academy in Times Square, where Mr. Fujiwara usually walked away with a pocketful of Bradford's cash. Afterward, they had breakfast at a Bickford's restaurant.

"We'd both order the same thing, bacon and fried eggs, and they'd come out with a cold plate on which there was a sliding fried egg," Bradford said. "We'd start to laugh because it was a trial for the guy to get to us without the egg slipping off. All designers have prevailing, recurring images. One of those for Gary was fried eggs."

A dexterous artist who captivated friends with his storytelling, Mr. Fujiwara spent the past dozen years of his life finding ways to remain vital while battling Huntington's disease. He died Saturday at Tewksbury Hospital. Mr. Fujiwara was 72 and had lived in Cambridge for 38 years.

As the gravity-defying eggs suggest, Mr. Fujiwara's imagination was not tethered by rules that restrain others.

"He made everything fun," said Glenna Lang, an artist in Cambridge whom Mr. Fujiwara encouraged early in her career. "He could see the bizarre in everyday life, but he was gentle about it."

"He would look at something and jump to an observation you wouldn't expect," said Lang's husband, Alexander von Hoffman, who first met Mr. Fujiwara about 30 years ago.

Bradford said his friend's slightly askew world view, combined with his wide-ranging talent in the days before art design moved from handcraft to computers, vaulted him to a realm beyond the reach of most of his peers.

"He practiced in a way that, I think, made other designers like me enormously envious," Bradford said. "He was all the things a designer should be: responsible, conscientious, disciplined. He cared about making something perfect, but he had something else."

Pausing, Bradford laughed and added, "He was an honest-to-God loony."

And that, he said, allowed Mr. Fujiwara to make imaginative leaps. Once while working for a magazine that has since ceased publishing, he illustrated an article about the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where protests in Chicago's streets dissolved into confrontations with police.

"He drew the back end of a donkey with a blackjack on the back," Bradford said of the illustration, which juxtaposed a weapon on the political party's symbol as a visual commentary on the use of force. "He drew it as pin the tail on the donkey."

Mr. Fujiwara was born in Fowler, Calif., near Fresno. The son of a Japanese immigrant, he and his family were sent to an internment camp in World War II.

He married and moved to New York City, relocating in part because he was a good athlete and a devoted New York Yankees fan.

In New York, Mr. Fujiwara spent a few years at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, designing interiors and furniture, and also worked as art director at two magazines, Interiors and Progressive Architecture. Some nights after work, he went with friends to Ames Billiards, the pool hall where "The Hustler" was filmed.

"He was very good," Bradford said. "When you see someone with a pool cue in a case, you know you're in trouble. He'd put together his pool cue and wave it around like Zorro."

Mr. Fujiwara's first marriage ended in divorce, and he moved in 1970 to Cambridge, where he and other artists had studio space on Harvey Street. He also taught art for several years at the Palfrey School in Watertown and freelanced by illustrating covers for book publishers.

Through friends he met Sarah Purrington, and they married in 1976. Mr. Fujiwara, she said, brought his talents home through his storytelling and turning celebrations into events by doing things like designing elaborate cakes for birthdays.

In 1991, he worked on the Multicultural Celebrations series of textbooks developed by the Children's Museum and published by Modern Curriculum Press.

"I've waited and waited to do something absolutely good, and this was one in a million," he told the Globe that November.

The series wasn't his only journey into his background and culture, though. For many years Mr. Fujiwara worked on a novel, reading passages to friends who even now are disappointed that he never found a publisher.

"He was a beautiful writer, and he continued writing, even past his illness," his wife said.

Diagnosed with Huntington's disease, a degenerative neurological disorder, he worked to keep his mental acuity and to combat short-term memory loss, sometimes reading newspaper stories three times so he could discuss them later with family members.

"He was just a really thoughtful, gentle spirit, and you had the sense being around him how much he cared for Sarah and their children," said Ron Benham, a Cambridge neighbor and friend for nearly 30 years who played softball on a team Mr. Fujiwara organized and coached. "For me, his art in so many respects reflected him and the way he lived. It was engaging and playful and intelligent, and that's the image I carry of him."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Fujiwara leaves a daughter, Emi of Cambridge; four sons, Christopher of Tokyo, David of New York City, Gary Robert of Cambridge, and Nick of Cambridge; and a grandson.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. today in First Church in Cambridge. Burial will be private.

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