‘Cutie and the Boxer’: two artists sharing the same palette

Noriko and Ushio Shinohara seem younger than they are. When Zachary Heinzerling’s award-winning feature-length debut documentary, “Cutie and the Boxer,” begins, the couple’s celebrating Ushio’s 80th birthday.

Although they both sport grayish white hair (Noriko’s is pulled back into twin braids), they have a youthful quality about them. At dinner, they throw cherry tomatoes in the air and try to catch them with their mouths. And while their dinner has evolved from Ramen noodles and cheap beer, they’re still starving artists, struggling to pay the bills and fix the leaky ceiling to their New York City apartment.

Noriko’s semi-autobiographical cartoons are naked because like her, her protagonist, Cutie, is poor. The cartoons are a culmination of 30-plus years of marriage to Ushio, a well-known Japanese Neo-Dadaist. His claim to fame are his Jackson Pollack-esque “boxing painting”; exhibits have traveled across the U.S. and Japan.

For years Noriko has been overshadowed by Ushio, quietly assisting him and raising their child, Alex.

“We’re like two flowers in one pot,” says Noriko. “It’s difficult sometimes. We don’t get enough nutrients for both of us. But then everything goes well and we become two beautiful flowers. It’s either heaven or hell.”

Her marriage was the inspiration for her artwork in her and her husband’s joint NYC exhibition, “Love Is… Roarrr!”

“My life with Ushio has been a constant struggle but that has made me who I am today,” Noriko says. “Now I think all that struggle was necessary for my art. So if I had to do it all over again… I would.”

Ushio, of course, isn’t without his own troubles.

“Art is a demon. A demon that drags you along,” says Ushio. “You throw yourself away to be an artist.”

He tries to stay fresh and relevant despite his early fame.

It’s difficult.

“You always say the first work is the best,” Noriko reminds her husband, “but you can say the same for artists, their first work is the best. It’s their later work that gets tough.”

Heinzerling’s documentary is colorful and poignant, but if the Shinoharas’ assessment is true, the director/cinematographer/writer will have a tough time topping his accolades. “Cutie and the Boxer” has already won awards in various indie festivals including Sundance, Tribeca and London. The documentary was also nominated in this year’s Academy Awards.

But that’s the beauty in art, isn’t it?

“Cutie and the Boxer” was filmed, directed and written by Zachary Heinzerling. It was nominated for the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

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