Memorial Day, 2008

A brief time-out from the Landmark of the Month for a few images taken in and around DC this Memorial Day.

Arlington National Cemetery: "Where Honor Lives"

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Words from JFK's Inaugural Address:

"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of Liberty."

Vietnam Memorial

Right in the middle of the image:

Sanford L Nelson (23 Sep 1946 - 06 Dec 1966); Laurens, SC
Ginger's Uncle

Stanley R Pettit (20 Dec 1948 - 15 Sep 1968); Liberty, SC

Eddie Pettit's brother

A note left at the base by some anonymous stranger:

"Elwood Randall Henridx; A brave soldier that gave his life for Freedom."

Landmark of the Month (May): Obata's Yosemite (Part III)

Chiura Obata was born in 1885 in the Okuyama Prefecture of mainland Japan. At the early age of 5 he showed a natural inclination for drawing, so he was adopted by his older brother, Rokuichi, who was himself an artist. At the age of seven he began his formal training by a master painter in the art of sumi-e, Japanese ink and brush painting. At 14 years old, he was apprenticed to the painter Murata Tanryo in Tokyo for 3 years.

From 1900 to 1903, Obata traveled throughout Japan as he sketched, painted, viewed art collections, and visited temples and monuments. He also studied with famous teachers of the Tokyo Art School as he perfected his classic style. His future and reputation were assured. Yet at this stage of his career, Obata spoke to his father, “The greater the view, the greater the art; the wider the travel, the broader the knowledge.” His father agreed that Obata should travel, and he arrived in California in 1903.

Obata settled in San Francisco, earning his living as illustrator for different newspapers and as commercial designer, but also becoming involved in a variety of new and interesting experiences: playing on the first Japanese-American baseball team in the United States, sketching the aftermath of San Francisco earthquake, working in the grain fields near Sacramento. In 1921, Obata co-founded the East West Art Society, which sought to promote cross-cultural understanding through art.
His big break came in 1932, when he was appointed as an instructor in the Art Department at the University of California, Berkeley. He had also gotten married; his wife Haruko ran an art supply store in Berkeley, and offered lessons in ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arrangement, also known as kadō, the "way of flowers"). For the better part of a decade, life was good for the Obatas. But early one December morning, for most of America, life took a drastic turn.

Haruko & Chiura Obata

World War II was a time of tremendous sacrifice and courage by our country. As mentioned last October 31, it unfortunately also contains some of the darkest days of our history.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, created a huge groundswell of anti-Japanese feelings. Racism against the Japanese had been building, primarily on the west coast, for many years, and the US entry into WWII intensified such feelings.
On February 19, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued United States Executive Order 9066. FDR used his authority as Commander-in-Chief to exercise war powers to send ethnic groups, those with "Foreign Enemy Ancestry", to internment camps.

The order authorized the military commanders to declare areas of the United States as military areas "from which any or all persons may be excluded," although it did not name any nationality or ethnic group. It was eventually applied to one-third of the land area of the U.S. (mostly in the West) and was used against those with "Foreign Enemy Ancestry" — Japanese, Italians, and Germans.

The order led to the Japanese-American internment in which some 120,000 ethnic Japanese people were held in internment camps for the duration of the war. Of the Japanese held, 62% were Nisei (American-born, second-generation Japanese American) or Sansei (third-generation Japanese American). Let me repeat that—62% of the people interned were American citizens, imprisoned simply because they belonged to a family of Japanese descent.

Americans of Italian and German ancestry were also targeted. It isn’t as well documented, but there might have been as many as 11,000 German-Americans imprisoned across America, and several thousand were forcibly relocated to Europe.

Internment camp at Manzanar; Eastern Sierra, California.

Notably, there were people in Washington who strongly opposed internment, among them was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (we previously saw her involvement with Marian Anderson in 1932.) She spoke privately many times with her husband, but was unsuccessful in convincing him not to sign it.

The Obata’s flower shop was the target of several random shootings, and the Obatas were forced to close it and cancel all classes.

In April 1942, allowed to bring only what they could carry, Obata and his family were interned at the Tanforan detention center. [About 10 miles south of San Francisco, near modern day San Bruno, Tanforan was one of 17 "Civilian Assembly Centers", where internees were sent before being relocated to more permanent (and remote) "relocation centers". About 8,000 people were kept at Tanforan during the war, and as it had previously been a horse track, the horse stalls were used as housing. It’s now a suburban strip mall, with only a small plaque to remind people of it’s history.] Unable to bring his many paintings and woodblock prints with him, Chiura organized a large sale. With the same generous and transcendent spirit he would demonstrate again and again throughout his life, he donated the sale profits to a campus student fund. His entire life wrecked, most of his possessions gone, his art works sold and dispersed, falsely imprisoned, accused of being sympathetic with the Japanese—with this background, I think it is important to see how Obata responded.

Within a month of being imprisoned, Obata initiated and led a movement that created an art school within the camp. His school had 600 students, funded entirely with their own money and with donations from the outside from friends from U.C. Berkeley. The school was so successful that they were able to exhibit the artwork outside the camp in July.

Obata teaching art at Tanforan.

Obata was sent to the Topaz War Relocation Center in Topaz, Utah. In Utah, Obata was the founder and Director of The Topaz Art School, which had 16 artist/instructors who taught 23 subjects to over 600 students. During his internment, Obata made about hundred sketches and paintings, works that serve both visual diary of the internees' daily life, as well as transcendent works that serve as a powerful and lasting testament to the perseverance of the human spirit when confronted by prejudice. The book Topaz Moon, edited by his granddaughter Kimi Kodani Hill, is a documentation of his detention period and the works of art that he created during this time.

Classes at Topaz Lake.

During this time he wrote he wrote, “Nature gives us endless rhythm and harmony in any circumstance, not only when we are on a joyous path, but even in the great depth of despair we will see true greatness of beauty of strength, beauty of patience, beauty of sacrifice.”

Topaz Moon

Obata certainly had justification to be angry, and bitter, and depressed. But his outlook on life and his philosophy was irrepressible. When things looked bleak, he would tell his fellow internees: ‘You can choose to look down at the ground, or you can choose to look up at the sky, the mountains and the moon.”

He found the beauty in nature, whether in dwarfed trees, the colors of the desert, or a scorpion.

In 1945, when the military exclusion ban was lifted, Obata was reinstated as an instructor at U.C. Berkeley. His one-man shows continued, as did his sketching and painting trips in the high country. He continued to teach until his retirement in 1953 as Professor Emeritus. In 1954, 12 years after he was imprisoned for being born in a different country, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

For the remaining 22 years of his life, Obata led tours to Japan, lectured widely across California and continued to “unofficially"teach art and painting close to home. In 1965 he received the Order of the Sacred Treasure, 5th Class, Emperor's Award, for promoting good will and cultural understanding between the United States and Japan. He died in 1975, aged 90. Haruko continued to teach ikebana; her last public class was held in Golden Gate Park when she was 93 years old. She passed away in 1989, at the age of 97.

Why is it that some people are able to transcend and rise above the trials and unbearable pain that causes so many others to stumble and fail? How can they consistently see the beauty in bad situations? How can they choose peace and tranquility when everything is collapsing? I don’t know the answer to those questions, but Chuira Obata should be an inspiration to us all. He reminds me of quote by Viktor Frankl in the classic book Man’s Search for Meaning:
"Everything can be taken from a man but ...the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

The artist as an old man.

Come back for a final word about this month’s Landmark in a few days.

Landmark of the Month (May): Obata's Yosemite (Part II)

Obata’s Yosemite tells the story of Chiura Obata, a Japanese-born artist who visited Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada in 1927. His pictures are amazing, and even more amazing is the story of his life and the events that occurred both before and after his trip to the majestic Yosemite. We will examine his trip and his work first, then look at his life in the next installment.

As mentioned, Obata visited Yosemite in 1927 (he had actually moved to California in 1903; more on that later). Unlike today’s visitor to Yosemite, Obata roamed all over the Sierra Nevada, visiting what are now the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area, the Desolation Wilderness, Tuolumne Meadows, and the East Side of the Sierra surrounding Mono Lake. During this trip, he made approximately 100 drawings in pencil, watercolor and sumi ink.

A portrait of the Obata, made by the great man himself, Ansel Adams.

When Obata’s father died in 1928, Obata returned to Japan and stayed until 1930. During this time, he transformed those California landscape watercolors and sketches into a limited-edition portfolio titled "World Landscape Series (Although titled the “World Landscape Series”, the majority of the prints are views of Yosemite and the Sierra). The prints were published in limited editions of 100 by the Takamizawa Print Works in Japan, and are currently very valuable. In 1930, his works were exhibited at the "Eighty-Seventh Annual Exhibition" at Ueno Park, Tokyo; Lake Basin in the High Sierra won first prize.

Lake Basin in the High Sierra

In addition to being a traditional watercolor painter, Obata also produced woodblock prints. Obata oversaw the process of translating his watercolors into woodblock prints, a process that proved very demanding both in the carving and the printing (in Japan, the technique is called “moku hanga”). Some of his designs required as many as 160 separate impressions.

[I find it somewhat difficult to accurately describe the process of creating a woodblock. For example, let’s say you have a painting of a tree on a mountain above a lake. Using a blank piece of wood, the artist would first carve away everything but the mountain, and after applying paint to the remaining flat surface (which now resembles a mountain), would press surface against the paper to create the “image” of a mountain. The process would then be repeated for the lake, again for the tree, etc etc. This is an extremely complicated process, as each new impression required a new carving to act as the pattern for the paint. For a better explanation of woodcuts, click here.]

The resulting woodblock prints look remarkably similar to Obata's watercolors, with lines like sumi brush strokes and areas of delicately layered color. Here is a piece entitled Evening Glow at Mono Lake, from Mono Mills. The original watercolor is on the left, with the woodblock carving on the right.

Evening Glow at Mono Lake, from Mono Mills

On this wall, there are 20 progressive prints, and each print shows the progression of creating the woodcut.

Here is the finished product:

Evening at Carl Inn

More of his images:

El Capitan, 1930

Life and Death at Porcupine Flat

Before Thunderstorm, Toulumne Meadows. In his notes from June 25, 1927, Obata wrote, "The spotlessly clear blue sky that sweeps high up over the mountain changes in a moment to a furious black color. Clouds call clouds. Pealing thunder shrieks and roars across black heavens. Men stands awestruck in the face of the great change of wonderous nature."

You can see the complete gallery of the “World Landscape Series” here.

Obata's Yosemite features 27 prints and watercolors and a series of progressive proofs. In addition, it includes a series of postcards he wrote his wife while in Yosemite, and a collection of his brushes and ink bottles.

Some of Obata's postcards home during his trip to Yosemite.

Brushes and bottles of watercolor paint.

This display is the first time the artist's prints have been publicly exhibited on the East Coast, and it ends on June 1. If you are coming to see it, you better hurry.

Personally, Ginger & I were fascinated as we walked through the exhibit, probably more fascinated than the ordinary visitor since so much of our past in wrapped around the Yosemite area. We had personally been to many of the places Obata had visited 81 years ago; as historians say, we had a connection. As I began to research into Obata’s personal life, I became even more intrigued. Come back next week for the details of Obata’s life—you don’t want to miss it.

The artist, as a young man.