The problem was, he was a Japanese-American. As such, he ended up in an internment camp, a victim of World War II's Executive Order 9066.
An artist of a very high degree, Obata was first incarcerated, in 1942, at Tanforan Assembly Center, formerly a race track at San Bruno, California, south of San Francisco.
Within days Obata had put together an art class that became known as the Tanforan Art School. All ages came, from eight to 80. Obata perhaps didn't have to be at Tanforan. As a professor of art at Cal, he might have pulled a few strings. But if his people were going in, he was going in.
He did something that echoed Thoreau (who, queried as to why he was in prison for an act of civil disobedience, asked the questioner why he was out there _ i.e., not in prison). According to writer Karin M. Higa, a passing student saw Obata in the Tanforan prison yard and said, ``Oh how terrible Professor Obata you are behind a fence.'' ``From my perspective it looks like you are behind the fence,'' Obata replied.
Higa wrote about Obata and other internment camp artists in ``The View from Within,'' the book for a 1992 exhibit of the same name put together by UCLA (the Wight Art Gallery and and the university's Asian American Studies Center) and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
It's one of the most inspiring art exhibitions I've ever viewed and I wrote about it for a newspaper. People in internment camps throughout the West (Obata ended up in Topaz, in Utah) produced important images who had never painted before in their lives. Paintings were done on boards, on burlap, on anything that would accept paint.
In one, ``Boys with Kite,'' two kids escape over the prison's dangerous barbed wire fence so they can fly a kite in freedom; a Henry Sugimoto oil shows a brutal image titled ``Rev. Yamazaki Was Beaten in Camp Jerome''; in a picture by Mine Okubo, who eventually received her release from a camp with the help of Fortune Magazine, a family stares out at the viewer: ``Mother and Children _ People Were in Shock.''
Obata and some of those Japanese-American artists, painting while imprisoned, and many other Asian-American artists and photographers of the early and mid Twentieth Century, are being looked at again in a new show at San Francisco's M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. ``Asian/Amercan/Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900-1970.''
Yun Gee is one of the artists featured in the exhibit which runs through January 18. Gee was born in China and arrived in the Bay Area as a teenager. He studied with Gottardo Piazzoni and Otis Oldfield and founded the Chinese Revolutionary Artists Club, meant to give some guidance in methods of Western art. But he eventually had a mental breakdown because of, as Michael Brown writes, ``a combination of poverty and racism, plus little appreciation of his art . . . '' His work's much sought after today, especially a style of work he called ``diamondism.''
Brown's book, ``Views from Asian California: 1920-1965,'' and Edan Hughes' ``Artists in California: 1786-1940,'' both have numerous profiles of these artists, those who fought through tough times, trying to get their art recognized, and those, like the Japanese-Americans, who lived and created within prison fences while, in many cases, their brothers and sons and grandsons fought and died for the U.S. in Europe.
When I was researching my script for the documentary film ``The Roots of California Photography: The Monterey Legacy,'' I came across an Ansel Adams' statement that, for his work to be relevant and make a statement, he had to leave Yosemite and the Sierras and his nature photography and travel to the internment camp called Manzanar, at the western foot of the California Sierras. He had to record the scene.
There, he took some of the most moving photographs of the war, certainly among the most meaningful within the borders of this country. The people within were creating art, and were also the subject of art.
There was also a paradox. Like Adams, Chiura Obata is famous for his images of Yosemite _ there's a wonderful book on it. While Adams captured Yosemite in photographs, Obata did his work in watercolors and wood block prints.
But during the war years Obata was imprisoned and couldn't get to Yosemite. Adams, during the same time, chose to leave Yosemtie and enter an internment camp. Regardless, both artists worked with distinction and dignity making the best of an extremely trying situation.
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...