Sunday, September 15, 2013

Behind barbed wire

Wood Block, Heart Mountain, Artist Unknown
To think it was a BLT and a black coffee at a café in Delta, Utah that started the whole thing.  There on the counter was a tourist rag listing things to do in Millard County. That’s Millard as in Fillmore. Don’t ask me how our good Mormon brethren came up with that moniker. But I digress. What's important is that Topaz Concentration Camp was 16 west and so our journey began.

Over libations a couple of days before the first Topaz post I mentioned the importance of the art in the camps to painter and photographer John Farnsworth.  John asked, “Where’s the art?  Why don’t we ever see it?”

Where Would We Go? Thomas Ryosaku Matsouk, Topaz
When Can We Go Home? Henry Sugimoto
Well, as it happens just three years ago the Smithsonian mounted an exhibition called The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-46.  Now a traveling exhibition, the show visited Santa Fe in July 2012. I wish I had known then but then again it might not have registered had it not been for my encounter with a certain semi-precious jewel in the Utah desert.
Tanforan, Mine Okubo
Slate Teapot, Homei Iseyama, Topaz
Author Delphine Hirasuna on whose 2005 book the Smithsonian exhibition was based writes of finding a bird pin in her mother’s belongings and how the pin made her wonder about other art created in the camps. She asked friends and family and soon items began appearing on her doorstep. She says, “I was astonished by the variety, artistry, imagination and craftsmanship they brought. The objects made of scrap and found materials ranged from ordinary things like a handmade wooden washboard and containers woven out of twisted crepe paper to an intricately decorated teapot carved out of slate.”

Further she submits that, “The objects that the Issei and Nisei made in the camps are a physical manifestation of the art of gaman.” Gaman is a Zen Buddhist word meaning “To endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” It seems that the Japanese American prisoners they did exactly that and art may have been the vehicle that made such patience and dignity possible.
Mine Okubo
Ruth Asawa
Water Park, Manzanar, Ansel Adams
Without doubt, art proved indispensable in making life in the camps tolerable. Art as manifested by water parks, murals, gardens and furniture softened bleak surroundings while painting, printmaking and sculpture served the human need to create beauty for its own sake. At each camp a specialty emerged. At northern California’s Tule Lake Camp intricate flowers were crafted from shells found in the ancient seabed. The Poston and Gila River Camps in Arizona produced carved figures from native ironwood. Heart Mountain in Wyoming was known for fine embroidery, Amache in Colorado for miniature landscapes and Jerome in Arkansas for hardwood furniture.

In her book Citizen 13660, Mine Okubo remembers that within weeks of their internment at Tanforan Race Track internees who were landscape architects on the outside had moved trees, dug canals and built a water park replete with a bridge and islands.  Another shown above was built at Manzanar to entertain Japanese American orphans. 
Chiura Obata, Tanforan
Chiura Obata, Topaz
Within twenty days of his incarceration at Tanforan Chiura Obata from UC Berkeley had opened an art school where 25 artistic disciplines from figure drawing to fashion design were taught in a mess hall.  Classes were held 9:00am to 9:00pm daily. Manzanar had a flourishing art school in a recreation hall and the Topaz art school had 600 art students. In every camp art became a life affirming pursuit. Art alone yielded something beyond survival.
Art Class, Manzanar
Much of the art in the camps was made by the “Issei”, internees born in Japan and who were primarily farmers and shopkeepers back home. Yet at the war’s end Issei artists gave their work away or simply left it behind in the camps and never practiced their art form again. To them the art was simply a device to cope with boredom and frustration and had no greater importance than that. It was a way to “gaman” but also a painful reminder of a time they wanted to forget.

When the camps were closed nearly all of the art made in the camps was left to wither in treeless barrens. What has been found is but a glimpse of what was created behind barbed wire.

The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946 by Delphine Hirasuna is available through Amazon.  It's a beautifully produced book that provides a moving look at a tragic period in our history.


Daryl A. Black said...

Thanks again, Steve, for doing this series, and calling attention to Topaz, Manzanar, and other concentration and internment camps during World War II. It has been quite the journey from your BLT and coffee stop in Delta, Utah.

Art, music, and movement in all of their assorted forms are essentials for the human body and spirit. The fact that art "schools" existed in these camps is a tribute to that spirit. Thank goodness for "spirits" like Mr. Obata who turned a wretched situation into art. I, too, missed the exhibit in Santa Fe and wish I had seen it.

Administrators in public schools across America should take note of this and make sure these disciplines are not cut from the curriculum. They are necessities!

Steve Immel said...

Yes the are Daryl as proven by the impact art and music had in keeping spirits up in a terrible and unjust situation. It's easy to dismiss the arts as "fluff' when they are anything but. They are part of any complete education.

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