Friday, October 7, 2016

61 Books: #50

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–49 are below this post.

50. Kimi Kodani Hill, Topaz Moon: Chiura Obata's Art of the Internment (2000) (10/7/16)
I am working on a piece of literary fiction that will treat, in part, the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. I am in the research phase on so many levels—there is so much to know about and understand. But one thing I do know: at least one of my characters will be an artist. I expect I'll base that character at least partly on Chiura Obata.

I first encountered Chiura Obata in a book called Obata's Yosemite, comprising paintings, drawings, and letters from a trip he made to the High Sierra in 1927. I later learned that he was imprisoned at Tanforan, near San Francisco, and Topaz, Utah, during the war.

Obata came to the U.S. in 1903, at the age of eighteen. His father was an artist, and Chiura followed in his footsteps, training in the art of sumi-e starting at age seven. By the 1920s he was becoming established as an artist, painting murals and designs for leading department stores and designing sets for the San Francisco Opera. In 1928 he had his first solo show, and in 1932 he began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, where he remained until 1954&mdash—absent the gap caused by his internment and subsequent relocation to the Midwest. In 1954, when Japanese were finally allowed to become U.S. citizens, he and his wife, Haruko, did so. He died in 1975, having spent fifteen years after retirement leading cultural/artistic tours to Japan: his second career.

This book, written and researched by his granddaughter, brings together many photographs, letters, and especially drawings and paintings that pertain to the war years, when the Obatas spent five months at the Tanforan Assembly Center and then eight more months at Topaz Relocation Center. He never stopped drawing, so we have images of the camps, of the train rides in between, of assembly areas, of the hospital—you name it, he got it down on paper. Notably, in both camps, he started and led art schools, with a professional faculty teaching hundreds of students, from children to seventy-year-olds, in all manner of classes: figure painting, still life, mural painting, and art appreciation; interior and fashion design; architectural drafting and cartooning; and many techniques, including sumi-e. Haruko taught ikebana.

The book is rich with details, but even more, it's rich with humanity. Obata was fifty-seven when he had to leave everything behind (fortunately, he had good friends in the Berkeley community who took care of his most prized possessions—something most internees did not have), but his attitude was consistently positive. He found solace and meaning in his art. As he put it in 1946, "In any circumstance, anywhere and anytime, take up your brush and express what you face and what you think without wasting time and energy complaining and crying out. I hold that statement as my aim, and as I have told my friends and students, the aim of artists."

Throughout the text, we are treated to line drawings, and at the end of the book many of his color paintings—watercolors on paper and silk mostly—show us Obata's sensibility and the beauty of his vision, in the context of one of the more tragic periods of our nation's history.

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