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.

1 comment:

Kevin Ready said...

Thank you so much for posting this information about Obata-san.

I was given a painting of Yosemite by some dear friends several years ago. The couple, Doris and Al Grundy, were avid hikers in Yosemite from the 1930's-1960's. They came across Obata one day while he was painting (year unknown). After what was apparently a good conversation, he gave the painting he was working on to them. They then kept this majestic painting in their home for the following decades.

Doris passed away 2 years ago, and Al passed away this month at 93 years of age. In wanting to trace back some of their history, I looked for Yosemite + Obata on Google and found your post.

Finding this information means a lot to me.


Kevin Ready