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A California Artist
Nature gives us endless rhythm and harmony in any circumstance, not only when we are on a joyous path, but even in the depth of despair we will see true greatness of beauty of strength, beauty of patience, and beauty of sacrifice. Above the borderline of nationality, everybody must feel a deep appreciation toward Mother Earth.... If we keep appreciation in the depth of our hearts, not only our senses will develop more energetically ... but our feeling will become as clear as full moonlight.
CHIURA OBATA, 1933
These words were given in an address by my grandfather, Chiura Obata, at a 1933 meeting of the California School of Fine Art Society of Women Artists in San Francisco. Obata, a renowned Japanese painter, had been invited as a guest lecturer from the art department at the University of California, Berkeley. His audience was living amidst the hardships of the Depression, and he hoped to inspire the young artists to persevere in their studies. Nine years later, Obata spoke similar words of encouragement to a new group of art students. But the circumstances surrounding his speech were far different. Together, he and his audience were facing the upheaval and humiliation of a forced life within government internment camps.
Chiura Obata, his wife, Haruko, and members of their family — including my mother, Yuri — were all interned in the camps from 1942 to 1943, having committed no wrong except to be of Japanese ancestry. During his internment, Obata not only taught art in the camps, but also produced a volume of artworkof which over 200 paintings and sketches remain. Today, nearly sixty years after his internment, Obata's artwork serves as an enduring testament to the spirit of a people surviving in the face of adversity and expresses his gratitude to the natural beauty that sustained him "as a mother heart comforts lost children."
My clearest memories of my grandfather are of an elderly man who spoke little English during the last years of his life before he died at age ninety. After his death, I researched his life through his words, his art, and his friends, and I can now imagine him in his prime as a university professor. Although only 5-foot-4-inches tall, he commanded respect and impressed his friends with his dignity, confident (if sometimes inaccurate) use of English, and quick sense of humor. By the 1930s he was regarded highly in both the university and art communities as a professor and an artist. In 1938, Time magazine reported that "a demonstration of brush painting by a 53-year-old Japanese artist drew an unprecedented number of 1,900 visitors to the old Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento, Calif., and his atmospheric, formalized landscapes, on view last week, made critics remember him as one of the most accomplished artists in the West.
Born in 1885, Zoroku Obata was raised in the northern city of Sendai, Japan, the only child of an artist father. As a young boy Obata showed a natural inclination for drawing, and at age seven he began training in the art of sumi (ink) brush painting. But Obata also possessed a stubborn and rebellious personality; he was, in his own words, "quite roughneck" By the time he reached age fourteen his father threatened to have him sent to military school. Instead, Obata ran away from home and then, with his father's approval, apprenticed himself under a master painter in Tokyo. Here, he began using his artist name, Chiura, in reference to the beautiful "thousand bays" on the coast near Sendai. By age seventeen he had already received painting commissions and recognition for his art. Yet he felt the desire, shared by many of his compatriots, to learn more of the western world. Having convinced his father that "the greater the view, the greater the art; the wider the travel, the broader the knowledge," he set off for the United States.
Arriving in San Francisco in 1903, the eighteen-year-old Obata worked as a "schoolboy" performing domestic duties while he studied English. He enrolled in the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, but he was so appalled by his fellow students' lack of self-discipline that he resolved to study independently. Living in San Francisco's Japantown, he found work as an illustrator for local Japanese-language publications. But he also seized every opportunity to study and paint, whether he was exploring the varied California landscape or living in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and fire. A refugee camp in a city park was Obata's temporary home after that disaster: "I just learned that however violent is nature, like an earthquake, there is always a way to live if we try our best. I had a nickel when I went to Lafayette Square and after six months when I left I still had a nickel."
Obata met Haruko Kohashi through mutual friends in the Japantown community. Haruko was an educated young woman from Fukuoka, Japan, who had come to San Francisco in 1910 at the age of seventeen. She lived at a boarding house in Japantown owned by her aunt, who wanted Haruko to work at her business. Haruko refused, pursuing her own aspirations to study English and western sewing. She had planned to return to Japan to teach western dressmaking, but instead, she and Obata married in 1912 with the approval of their families.
Chiura had wooed Haruko with his future plans to travel to Europe and study art. But after he and Haruko had their first son, Kimio, in 1912, they settled in Japantown. They had three other children — Fujiko (1915), Gyo (1924), and Lillian Yuri (1927) — who were also born in San Francisco. Their marriage was a traditional one: Haruko not only assumed responsibility for cooking, homemaking, and child rearing, but she also assisted Obata in his painting. Haruko became an expert at preparing and cleaning the paints and brushes; when Obata was inspired in the middle of the night to create a painting, Haruko would also be awakened.
Haruko became an artist in her own right as one of San Francisco's first teachers of the traditional Japanese art of ikebana (flower arrangement), which she had studied since age nine. Her ikebana demonstrations and classes captivated American audiences who were charmed by her gracious and friendly personality. She said, "Papa [Chiura] used to complain about the other things I did, but he never complained about the time I took to teach ikebana because it was teaching Japanese art to Americans, and he thought that was a good thing." The husband and wife often combined their talents at exhibitions — an Obata painting would serve as a backdrop to Haruko's ikebana arrangement. Among her early accomplishments was a one-room display of her flower arrangements in the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.
Turn-of-the-century California was a hostile environment to Asian immigrants and coping with prejudice was a part of life in San Francisco for the Japanese, including the Obatas. Chiura was hit and spat upon by strangers in the streets, and he once found himself in the middle of a street brawl for which he was arrested, then released, since he was only one against eight. California also had a long history of anti-Asian legislation. United States law forbade Asian immigrants from becoming American citizens, and the 1924 Asian Exclusion Act prohibited any further Japanese immigration. Paradoxically, amidst the prevailing anti-Asian sentiment, the upper classes of San Francisco had a taste for the decorative arts in the fashion of "Japonism." Obata had several large commissions in the 1920s to paint murals and designs for leading department stores such as Gumps and the City of Paris. In 1924 he also designed the sets for the San Francisco Opera's production of Madame Butterfly.
Living in Japantown, Obata enjoyed close friendships with other Japanese artists, such as Matsusaburo Hibi, and by 1920 he had also formed significant friendships with American artists including Perham Nahl and Ray Boynton. Obata felt "there was not much communication between the Americans and the Japanese, not even between artists. At least in the world of art there shouldn't be any walls between the poor East and the rich West." These friends, together with thirty-four other Japanese, American, Russian, and Chinese artists, established a unique art association, the East West Art Society. In 1922, the group held their first painting exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art.
Obata's empathy and admiration for the California landscape deepened with a 1927 camping trip to Yosemite and the High Sierra' with his good friend, Worth Ryder, a U.C. Berkeley art professor. Obata was forty-two years old at the time, and his skill as an artist had fully matured. "This experience," said Obata, "was the greatest harvest for my whole life and future in painting." Not only did the Sierra landscape inspire him visually, but more important, he found in the mountains a spiritual inspiration. The reverence and gratitude toward the natural world that was inherent in his Japanese training found new meaning when he encountered the majestic beauty of granite peaks and the pure tranquillity of mountain lakes.
In 1928 Obata held his first one-person exhibition for American audiences featuring his images of the California landscape. That same year, the Obata family was obligated to return to Japan after the death of his father. As the only son, it was Obata's duty to continue the family line as an artist and teacher. Obata's younger children, Gyo and Yuri, adjusted to their new life in Sendai, but the eldest son, Kimio, also known as Kim, returned to San Francisco to continue his high school education in his native English. Due to her poor health, daughter Fujiko was left in the care of Haruko's mother. (She died of an illness in 1945.) At the end of two years, the rest of the family returned to America. Obata had lived nearly all his adult life in California and considered it his home.
When he returned to San Francisco there were numerous exhibitions of his work. His landscapes gave an appreciative public a new, yet highly sophisticated interpretation of California scenery. In 1932 Ryder and Nahl invited Obata to teach a summer class at UC Berkeley. The students responded so enthusiastically to his class that he was hired as a lecturer in the art department. Two years later he was promoted to assistant professor. Although Obata did not have a college degree and was not fluent in English, he taught from his own experiences and was undoubtedly a master of Japanese painting. He taught his students not only the technique of Japanese sumi painting, but also a philosophy of discovering beauty and inspiration in the natural world. He said, "I always teach my students beauty. No one should pass through four years of college without he be given the knowledge of beauty and the eyes with which to see it."
At their Berkeley home the circle of friends surrounding the Obata family expanded from their many Issei (first-generation Japanese American) and Nisei (second-generation) acquaintances to include European Americans from the university. The Obatas generously opened their home to students and friends, whether for meals or for extended visits. Obata's teaching position at UC Berkeley provided economic security during the Depression and allowed him to devote his full time to teaching and painting. Haruko organized the household while devoting much of her time to teaching ikebana, and her flower exhibitions included prize-winning displays at the annual California Spring Garden Show.
Their children were also actively involved in the Berkeley community. The eldest son, Kim, studied art and design at UC; worked as art editor for the student newspaper, the Daily Cal; and pursued a wide range of college activities from fencing to card stunts during football games. Gyo and Yuri attended the Berkeley public schools. The family spent summer vacations together camping in Yosemite Valley or visiting friends on the Monterey coast, where Obata enjoyed fishing as well as painting.
At home the Obatas lovingly cultivated their Japanese garden to produce floral materials for Haruko's ikebana and subjects for Chiura's paintings. The thriving garden reflected the stability and prosperity of their lives. Yet Obata insisted, "I am not a finished artist, I am studying until I die." He would soon face one of his greatest challenges as an artist and a teacher. The family could not have imagined that in a few years their garden, as well as their thriving lives in Berkeley, would be completely uprooted by the politics of race and war.
|Foreword by Ruth Asawa||xi|
|Introduction by Timothy Anglin Burgard||xiii|
|A California Artist||1|
|Tanforan Art School||35|