1904 - 1975
Born and raised in Riverside, California in 1904, Benji Okubo learned landscape design from his father and an appreciation of art from his mother, an accomplished calligrapher. In 1928, he moved to Los Angeles to attend the Otis Art Institute where he won first prize in the California Botanical Gardens poster contest, among other honors. While at Otis, Okubo began attending the Los Angeles Art Students League, where he became a student and later a colleague of Stanton MacDonald-Wright. With artists Hideo Date, Tyrus Wong, and Gilbert Leung, Okubo organized the Oriental Artists Group of Los Angeles, which held exhibitions at museums throughout California, including the Los Angeles County Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Art. When MacDonald-Wright left to pursue other projects, Okubo became a co-leader of the Art Students League, helping shape the direction and style of its work until the on-set of World War II. During this period, Okubo also created a set of murals with Tyrus Wong for Eddie See's Dragon's Den, a restaurant and club in Los Angeles' Chinatown popular among Chinese Americans, Los Angeles artists, and members of the Hollywood elite.
In 1942, as part of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, Okubo was sent to the Pomona assembly center and then to the concentration camp at Heart Mountain where he and fellow artist Hideo Date mounted what researchers believe is the final exhibition of the influential Arts Students League. While in camp Okubo continued to paint while teaching art to other inmates, including artist Estelle Ishigo. He married Chisato Takashima in Wyoming and they returned together to Los Angeles after the closing of Heart Mountain in 1945.
Upon returning to California after the war, Okubo resumed his landscape architecture practice, the career he used to support his artistic endeavors over the years, designing gardens for prominent businesses and celebrities. While Okubo continued to paint, his professional career in art did not resume its pre-war level of activity and recognition. He died in Los Angeles on April 15, 1975. His sister, Mine Okubo, was also a noted artist.