Weathering the storm
Inside a traveling exhibit at the Crocker: one painter’s romance with California nature, and the trauma of Japanese-American internment
Thick, brown strokes of dirt torrent over a huddled mass of people, a scribbled afterthought to relentless Mother Nature.
Chiura Obata painted his 1941 piece “Landslide” in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack, where on Dec. 7 that year, 2,335 people were killed by the Japanese Imperial Navy. The next day, the U.S. declared war on Japan.
In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which would relocate over 100,000 Japanese residents—many of them American citizens—to 10 concentration camps across the country.
Obata would be among them.
For the painter, who ran away at 14 to study art in Tokyo before immigrating to San Francisco four years later, life and art would often collide.
That’s evident in the traveling exhibit Chiura Obata: An American Modern—now showing at the Crocker Art Museum through Sept. 29. It presents the 70-plus year career of the late Japanese-American painter, who brushed together richly saturated California landscapes, documented life inside the internment camps during World War II, continued painting long after his release from detention, and in so doing, rode a historical fault line as a Japanese-American man and artist in the 20th century.
More than 100 paintings demonstrate an artist who’s hard to categorize stylistically. But Obata’s obsession with natural beauty is obvious. In “Mountain Mist,” splotched black hills and quaint houses make what could appear to be an old Japanese village blanketed by fog.
It’s actually a scene from Gilroy in the 1930s. Obata was born in 1885 in Okayama, Japan, and moved to San Francisco in 1903.
What he and other Japanese immigrants found was an America emerging from intolerance. While Obata thrived in the arts society, there was still a bridge to build between two countries destined for war.
It was April 25, 1906. At around 5 a.m., the chimney fell into the apartment.
Obata snatched as many sketchbooks as he could and trekked downtown. In front of the Union Square Francis Hotel, American women in their bathrobes wandered in panic.
“I knew something seriously had happened,” Obata said in a 1965 interview with the Japanese American History Project at UCLA. “I also knew by then that you have to face anything Nature gives you with your whole body and spirit.”
A 7.9 magnitude earthquake had hit, and Obata wanted the best view of the wreckage. One of his many sketches of the Great Earthquake’s aftermath shows a barren roadside downtown, leveled buildings etched along San Francisco’s horizon.
He was 21 and already a seasoned illustrator. He had worked various jobs, including as a domestic helper, as a cook, then as an illustrator with the influential Japanese newspapers Tohoku Shimbun (“Japanese American News”) and Shin Sekai (“New World”).
In his free time, Obata explored Northern California. Over seven decades, he observed its natural monuments: Yellow moonlight reflecting on the sharp rocks and swirling waves at Point Lobos. Summer radiating over fruit farms in Alma. Melting snow engulfing the Sierra Nevada mountains.
He advocated for a life in harmony with dai shizen, or “Great Nature.”
“We humans, without knowing the rhythmical activities of heaven and earth, cannot live our harmonious life,” he wrote in “Natural Rhythm and Its Harmony.”. The exhibit’s catalog includes the 1933 essay and others by and about the artist, as well as the 1965 interview.
Some art scholars have called Obata a cultural mediator between modern-traditional Japanese and American styles. His landscapes are impressionistic. Distant city lights are represented as constellations of white, orange and gold dots. Rain clouds smear the sky in black ink, where flame tongues burn red at sunset.
“A lot of his landscapes are his subjective interpretation. His expression, his feeling, his observation of the place,” said ShiPu Wang, the exhibit’s curator and an art professor at UC Merced. “That’s a little bit different from the plein-air landscape painters who would go out and be faithful to the scene they are depicting.”
Meanwhile, racial tensions boiled in San Francisco. An incident in 1907 landed Obata an attempted murder charge after eight union rail workers ambushed him near a crosswalk.
“Immediately, they started swearing ’Jap! Skebe!’ [Pervert],” Obata said. “The second guy stood up and slapped me on the cheek. … Although I felt humiliated, I tried to ignore them and just pass. However, the third one spit on me.”
He hit the spitter first. Outnumbered, Obata grabbed a three-foot-long iron railroad connection and charged at them. One of the men stumbled, and Obata dropped the iron on his head. He was arrested and later exonerated.
Before the 1960s, visual artists of color were mostly marginalized. The Immigration Act of 1924 completely excluded Asian Americans from acquiring citizenship, and New Deal public arts programs in the ’30s offered jobs only to citizens, wrote Greg Robinson, a history professor at l’Université du Québec À Montréal, in his essay “Chiura Obata: American Illustrator.”
To support themselves, many Asian-American artists held outside employment or, like Obata, produced commercial art. From 1915-1927, he illustrated for the travel magazine Japan.
In 1922, he co-organized the first exhibit by the East West Art Society at the San Francisco Museum of Art, featuring work by Asian, American and Russian painters. He had several solo exhibitions in the ’30s, including at the Crocker in 1938.
In 1932, Obata began teaching art at UC Berkeley. His classes were popular, the curriculum rigorous, Wang said.
“He was humorous but had high expectations,” he said. Essays reveal an artist who believed that both precise form and individuality were essential to great art.
“Before the student touches brush to paper, his mind must be as tranquil as the surface of a calm, undisturbed lake,” he wrote. “Let not a shadow be cast on it nor the slightest thought of self-conceit or egotism!”
Relocation was swift. Obata and his family— his wife, renowned ikebana artist Haruko Obata, and four children—were forced to leave their homes immediately. They closed two art studios in Oakland and Berkeley, and Obata left his teaching position. His youngest son Gyo, a freshman architecture major at Berkeley, wanted to stay for school, and they successfully petitioned to have him transferred to a university in St. Louis, MO.
Many Japanese artists permanently lost their paintings. The UC Berkeley president offered to store Obata’s. What they reveal is what Obata saw, in black and white: the Bay Bridge distorted by black streaks, as if by rain or distant memory. In another painting, blurred faces and piled suitcases file into a bus.
“While I was waiting for the bus, there was a soldier with a gun,” Obata said. “There was a little child, five or six years old, not knowing anything, with childlike innocence, playing with the guard—playing hide-and-seek at the edge of the street trees.”
Obata and his family were sent to Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, and were later transferred to Topaz Relocation Center in Utah. In over 350 drawings throughout his stay, the tone is mostly monochromatic and unsentimental, Wang said. Other artists depicted the suffering and bleak circumstances dramatically, he wrote in his essay, “Moonlight Over Topaz: Picturing Displacement in the Japanese American Internment.” In a painting by George Matsusaburo Hibi, from 1945, black coyotes haunt a duskened camp.
The drawings are essential to the historical record, said Kimi Kodani Hill, one of Obata’s granddaughters.
“At that time also, Japanese Americans were not allowed to own radios and weapons, and one of the other contraband items were cameras,” Hill told the Crocker in a Facebook livestream interview. “So for people that are being forced into this situation, how do you record what’s happening to you?”
Obata’s memory of the child stuck, and was an impetus for opening the first art school in the internment camps in May 1942. The school taught around 600 internees, from children to elders.
“He believed that when you are making art, you have to concentrate,” Wang said. “And when you’re concentrating, you have a calmness of the mind to be able … not be so affected by the traumatic experience around you.”
When they moved to Topaz in September 1942, they brought the art school with them. But in April 1943, Obata was allegedly attacked by an unknown assailant and hospitalized. He was released with his family, and reunited with his son in Missouri.
At the end of of internment in 1946, 1,862 internees had died, mostly from medical issues. One in 10 died from tuberculosis.
“What we had built up during that long period—more than half a century or even a century—we had to leave and abandon,” Obata said. “They lost everything. I don’t think anyone earned anything from that experience.”
Returning to color
With immigrant artists, museums sometimes drop “American” from their identity. Asian-American artworks may be shown in the “Asian” department, while white artists can define mainstream art history, even when an artist of color may have originated an idea.
Through the traveling exhibit, Wang hopes to persuade museums to integrate Obata’s story.
“I’m presenting him as an American artist without the Japanese qualifier,” said Wang. “I’m asking American museums to think about their definitions of American art and their collections.”
The exhibit is semi-chronological, presenting Obata’s tendencies: watercolor and ink paintings of landscapes, animals, ikebana (Japanese flower arrangements), his magazine covers, and his documentations of every day life.
“It was very important that we include post-World War [II] work [in the exhibit],” Wang said. “It’s also a way to say that while World War II was a crucial period for people who were incarcerated, some of them returned to what they did before as a sign of resilience, as a sign to say, ’I’m not defeated by this experience.’”
Hope is a central theme in Obata’s 1946 trilogy reacting to the Hiroshima-Nagasaki atomic bombings, which killed between 100,000 and 200,000 Japanese civilians, and led to Japan’s surrender.
In the first painting, “Devastation,” two people sit amid battleground of dirt-colored splatters signifying the wreckage. And in the third painting, “Harmony,” smoke-infected sunrays illuminate a patch of green grass.
“He seemed to want to suggest that while the annihilation is almost complete, we can still survive,” Wang said.
After the war ended, Obata returned to teaching at UC Berkeley, where he retired in 1954. Two years prior, he was able to finally acquire citizenship after the Immigration Act of 1952 ended Asian exclusion. He continued painting and, for two decades, led ’Obata Tours’ to Japan. He died in 1975, at age 89.
“He was determined to introduce Americans to the traditional arts and culture and scenic beauty of Japan, and hopefully that way teach Americans and Japanese to appreciate each other’s cultures, to create a bridge of understanding,” Kodani Hill said.
The end of the exhibit shows a resurgence of vibrant landscapes. A bold dungeness crab painting from 1961 calls back to his prewar sumi-e animals. Some paintings show giant sequoia trees, which Obata praised as survivors.
“Think of the fact that it was more than 30 centuries ago when the sequoia trees sprung out from tiny seeds, even long before Christ was born,” he wrote in the 1933 essay. “You can imagine what tedious hardship and experience—wind, rain, snow, storm, drought and avalanche—the trees have gone through during their life without crying. This is real existence, not imagination, not abstract impression.”