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Meet Trailblazer Courtney Ozaki

Today we’d like to introduce you to Courtney Ozaki.

So, before we jump into specific questions about your work, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I am a third and fourth generation Japanese American born and raised in Colorado. My family has been in Denver since the 1940s when upwards of two thousand people of Japanese descent re-settled in the “Lower Downtown” corridor, hoping to start new lives following the close of the WWII Japanese incarceration camps across the country. This influx of Japanese people was primarily due to Colorado’s Governor Ralph Carr being the sole western governor who opposed the idea of Japanese imprisonment during the war. His reasoning was purely constitutional: He felt it was illegal to imprison American citizens (which U.S.-born Japanese Americans were) without cause, and he welcomed Japanese Americans to Colorado. My family found compassion and opportunity in Colorado – this history, as well as my own upbringing, compelled me to pursue the best way possible to contribute back to the broader Colorado community in a meaningful way.

Japanese arts have been integral to my life from an early age – I started playing taiko (Japanese drums) at eight years old when my aunt and uncle who are professional musicians (Nancy Ozaki and Gary Tsujimoto from ensemble One World Taiko) began teaching my cousins and me how to play. We gradually began performing professional gigs with One World Taiko (OWT), including summers in Orlando, FL at Epcot Center, Disney World. My cousins and I formed our own ensemble, Mirai Daiko, in 2002, and we joined OWT again in 2010 to travel to Dubai, UAE for a two-month artist residency. Today, both ensembles are actively performing in the Denver/Metro area. Taiko allows me to connect on a deeper and more intrinsic level with my Japanese heritage and culture.

Beyond playing taiko, I began my professional career in the arts working primarily in music. My undergrad degree was in recording arts and music management at CU Denver – I moved from there to work in the classical music field–I was an artistic coordinator for a chamber orchestra in Boulder and worked summers at the Aspen Music Festival. In 2011 I moved to NYC and earned an MFA in Performing Arts Management; I was seeking the opportunity to build a foundation of knowledge and grow my skill sets so I could return to Colorado to make a more meaningful impact locally on the arts. After graduating, I worked in the city as a dance producer with the Joyce Theater – producing and touring new contemporary works set on dancers like Wendy Whelan, former NYC Ballet principal dancer, and Daniil Simkin from American Ballet Theater. I was presented with the opportunity to return to Colorado for a job opportunity in 2016 at the Lone Tree Arts Center and began thinking more seriously about how I’d best contribute to the arts and broader Japanese community in Colorado. Fast forward to today – I am now in the throws of developing a Japanese Arts Network, based out of Colorado, to serve as a national resource for artistic collaboration and connection through Japanese-American & Japanese cultural arts.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
The road I’ve chosen to take has had many peaks and valleys, and there has not ever been a clear trajectory or destination. The largest challenge has probably been the self-doubt I’ve faced as I’ve been working toward creating and building a new model for supporting the intersection of multiple arts and culture sectors. There is not a clear trajectory for what I am trying to accomplish, and it has been scary to be okay with existing in the uncertainty. For many years, I felt that in order to be successful I needed to find stability within an institution – I sought roles within arts organizations which I felt I could mold myself to fit, but I never felt as though I had found a place where I could contribute my best self towards a greater mission and vision. I still struggle with self-doubt, but I find strength in learning from stories shared by other female trailblazers who have carved out their own spaces by connecting all of the best parts of themselves to develop their own businesses. A friend of mine once gave me a magnet that says “Leap, and the net will appear” – I have found great comfort in that mindset. I find inspiration in each artist I speak with, and keep a mental list of successes to reflect upon when I need a pick-me-up on a difficult day. I take comfort in understanding that all of my choices have to lead me to be in the space where I am today and that all of the events in my life – whether positive or not so positive, have been interconnected and necessary.

We’d love to hear more about Japanese Arts Network.
I am a cultural connector and creative producer, and my company is the Japanese Arts Network (JA-NE) – a national resource for artistic collaboration and connection. We provide access to resources and develop programs and platforms that support and strengthen visibility for JaJA (Japanese and Japanese-American) Artists in America who create with ‘cultural intention’ and are vital to society. We are dedicated to bringing together artists, communities, and stakeholders by celebrating and advancing Japanese arts experiences in America.

Art should be valued for its vital contribution to society.  We proudly connect artists to collaborators and build beneficial partnerships and relationships with stakeholders and communities to recognize the interdependence of all players in the field. We also develop programs and initiatives to encourage a sustainable and symbiotic relationship between artists, communities, and stakeholders. We raise-up the artist’s experience as a person of Japanese descent in America, and provide opportunity and resources for them; recognizing the struggles they might face as part of a marginalized community.

We work with stakeholders to expand the visibility of their brand and businesses through innovative and organic arts partnerships, connecting them with artistic collaborators whose creative output aligns with the values and missions of their companies or institutions. We want to help them reach target audiences through mutually beneficial endeavors, and we envision sustainable ecosystems where there is equitable support for cultural, social, and economic development.

We also strive to expand the reach of communities by partnering them with Japanese artists in America to broaden audience engagement and investment. We help communities to connect with one another across the country, increase connections across generations with the arts as a vessel/tool for communication, and nurture the sharing of stories, culture, and ideas.  We generate dialogue and educate through the arts, and we explore the alignment between artists’ intrinsic values and community needs.

Do you feel like there was something about the experiences you had growing up that played an outsized role in setting you up for success later in life?
Absolutely. Growing up as an only child in a household with parents who always supported my interest in and love of the arts was crucial in setting me up for success later in life. I never felt any pressure from my parents to pursue a “model minority” career; instead my family invested in piano lessons, drove me to taiko practices, made sure I had access to as many opportunities as possible to experience live performing arts at the Denver Center, and always encouraging my creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.

I’ve also always been very inspired by learning about my grandfather’s entrepreneurial endeavors. Following my family’s post-WWII resettlement in Denver, my grandpa opened multiple grocery stores across Denver. My father also has been a strong example of leadership in my life, as he had a 37-year career managing the City of Broomfield and forging strong connections between communities, businesses, and government.

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Image Credit:
Courtney Ozaki, Project Worthmore

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