Obituaries

Ikuko Burns, 81, sculptor and mainstay of Boston’s Japanese community

Mrs. Burns, who studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, showed her artwork in New England and Japan.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file 1980
Mrs. Burns, who studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, showed her artwork in New England and Japan.

The sculptures of Ikuko Burns often seemed like small windows opening onto a moment of her life, or someone else’s.

“She had a very good eye and would come up with kind of surprising things,” said the sculptor David Phillips of Medford, in whose foundry she formerly worked. “I remember once she said, ‘Can I cast a little chariot wagon?’ I said, ‘What’s that for?’ She said, ‘I’m going to have a cherub pull it, and the wagon’s going to be filled with all this clutter from my past.’ ”

When her work was part of “Asian Women as Artists,” a 1991 show at the Chinese Culture Institute in Boston, Globe critic Christine Temin praised Mrs. Burns’s bronze sculptures, which were “built on fragments of figures that encourage the viewer to imagine the rest.”

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Temin added that “Memory of Summer II,” part of a series named for seasons, was “particularly haunting. The soles of a pair of feet and the palm of a hand point toward the viewer, looking almost alarmingly vulnerable.” In “Fur Elise,” another sculpture, “the masklike lower half of a face tilts gently onto the back of a hand,” Temin wrote. “Framing the figure is a partial rectangle-and-honeycomb patterned bronze that suggests deteriorating plaster — or perhaps a deteriorating life.”

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Mrs. Burns, who was born in Tokyo and worked with the Japan Society of Boston and other organizations to welcome immigrants from her homeland to New England, died in her Brookline home Oct. 8 of cancer. She was 81.

“It is difficult to find the words to express how beloved she was to all of us at the Japan Society of Boston and throughout the wider community,” the organization said in a statement. “Her efforts to strengthen the ties between Boston and Japan are the stuff of legends, and there are few that we have known with the passion, dedication, and kindness of Ikuko Burns.”

In its website posting, the society added that Mrs. Burns “loved creating and building bonds of friendship between the people of New England and Japan, and she was truly exceptional at doing so. Her many years of bridging the two cultures had given her a special sensitivity and understanding which we were able to witness first hand on many occasions as she delicately applied her guidance, wisdom, and boundless energy to often challenging situations and circumstances.”

Mrs. Burns “saw it as her joy and responsibility to look after Japanese who came to Boston,” said her longtime friend Ezra Vogel, a professor of social sciences emeritus at Harvard University who has written extensively about Japan and Asia.

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“She constantly put herself out in every way, welcoming them, showing them around, having them for supper. She was a great cook and always was hosting people at her home,” said Vogel, who added that her assistance extended to the day-to-day challenges immigrants faced while settling into a new city and culture.

“She was concerned when people had difficulties. She was always there to help them do errands,” he said. “She was just remarkable.”

In 2012, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan presented Mrs. Burns with the foreign minister’s commendation for promoting mutual understanding between Japan and the United States. Mrs. Burns also had served as vice president of the Massachusetts Hokkaido Association, a nonprofit that promotes the sister-state relationship between the Commonwealth and Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s islands.

Amelia Burns of Carlisle said that when her mother died, “so many people came forward and said this was such a huge loss for the Japanese community in Boston.”

Ikuko Kawai was born in Tokyo on New Year’s Day in 1936. She was proud of her date of birth because New Year’s, or oshogatsu, is considered one of the nation’s most important and celebrated holidays.

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The youngest of four daughters, and the fourth of five siblings, she and her family moved north to Yamagata to escape the World War II bombing of Tokyo. That northern mountainous region was the ancestral homeland of her parents, Ichiro Kawai and the former Asa Sato, and her father worked there as a schoolteacher.

Mrs. Burns studied American literature at Yamagata University, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1957. During the US occupation after the war, she became enamored of American culture while watching movies that theaters showed all day on Saturdays.

After college, she worked as a TV and radio announcer for the Hokkaido Broadcasting Co., which would inspire her dedication to the Massachusetts Hokkaido Association.

She had met Dr. Padraic Burns on a ski vacation with friends while still at Yamagata University. In 1959, they married in Tokyo and moved to New Haven, where he finished his medical studies. They then moved to Greater Boston and settled in Brookline.

Mrs. Burns studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, showed her artwork in New England and in Japan, and worked with various organizations, including the International Women’s Club of Boston.

In 1990, she staged a show at the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury called “Ikuko Burns: Fragment Collage Memories.”

The sculpture “Memory B: My Baby Brother’s Tricycle” depicted a full-sized tricycle “guided into a turn by the tiny hands of a child. Although only the hands are there, the sense of thrill a child feels riding a bike is present along with parental concern expressed simply in the slender hand that rests on one of the child’s,” Globe reviewer Sandy Coleman wrote.

In a eulogy she read when her mother’s ashes were interred in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Amelia said that “her art, her friendships, her love of travel were all intertwined. My mother planned shows in places she could see friends. She never missed a chance to meet new people, go new places, try new things.”

Mrs. Burns also was unforgettable hosting guests at home. “She’d spend days in preparation for these incredible parties,” Phillips recalled. “She loved to sing, and if there were some Japanese friends at the table, they’d get up and sing these Japanese folk songs that were beautiful to listen to. It was always fun to be at her parties.”

“One of the most viscerally evocative sounds of my childhood is the sound of her laughter, rising above all voices — filling the house with her presence and joy,” Amelia said in her eulogy, adding that her mother “absolutely loved being alive. She squeezed every possible experience out of life.”

In addition to her husband, Padraic, and daughter Amelia, Mrs. Burns leaves a son, Kenneth of Brookline; a daughter, Margaret Burns-Rath of Alexandria, Va.; two sisters, Hiroko Shimizu and Utako Satake; and four grandchildren.

A service to celebrate her life will be held at noon Jan. 6 in Showa Women’s University’s Rainbow Hall in Boston.

Having experienced wartime, Mrs. Burns “wanted us to know how lucky we have been,” Amelia said in her eulogy.

“She did not take for granted the marvels of our world and lives. From playgrounds to appliances, to tools, to the crust of a freshly baked loaf of bread, she was ever impressed with human ingenuity,” Amelia added. “She loved all the deliciousness and beauty the world had to offer.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.