On this day in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, condemning Japanese-Americans to internment in camps during World War II. It is one of the darkest moments of our history. To mark the annual Day of Remembrance, I’ll be featuring some artworks related to Japanese-American internment.
First up is the work of Chiura Obata, a Japanese-American artist and educator. The image at the top of this post is of his Farewell Picture of the Bay Bridge (1942) at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Below it is A Sad Plight, October 8, 1942, Topaz, Utah (1942), also from the de Young.
Obata came to the United States at age 17. In 1932 he joined the University of California, Berkeley art department faculty and taught at Cal until 1953 (except for during WWII). His numerous works include early sketches of the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, to intense watercolors, prints and paintings of the Sierra Nevada high country. (Lake Basin High Sierra (ca. 1930) from the collection of the de Young is at the bottom of this post. At right is Obata’s 1930 woodcut Before the Rain, Mono Lake, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)
In addition to teaching and painting, Obata and his wife Haruko ran an art supply store in downtown Berkeley. They were forced to close it shortly after Pearl Harbor when the store was the target of gunfire. Shortly thereafter, the Obatas were sent to the Tanforan internment camp in San Bruno, on the San Francisco peninsula. While at Tanforan, Obata and other artists organized an art school (which Dorothea Lange photographed). When the Obatas were moved to a camp in Topaz, Utah, Chiura took the art school there. Over 600 students were enrolled in the school. The students’ chronicling of life at Tanforan and Topaz is especially important as detainees were not allowed to own cameras. (Read more about the school’s history at the Topaz Museum website.)
After the war, the Obatas initially settled in Saint Louis, where Chiura and Haruko’s son Gyo pursued a career in architecture. (Gyo Obata would go on to become one of America’s most prominent architects. His projects have included the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, the Xerox PARC research center in Palo Alto, Calif.)
Recent exhibitions of Obata’s work have been held at the Saint Louis Art Museum, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California. The de Young presented an Obata retrospective in 2000. Obata died in 1975.