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Art: Chiura Obata
Upper Lyell Fork, near Lyell Glacier, 1930, color woodblock print. The Japanese-American artist suffered from hostility and interment but was grateful for America’s natural beauty and always gave back.

Maria Popova has an inspiring post at Brain Pickings about a Japanese-American artist who felt grateful for Yosemite and other natural beauty in his adopted country — despite experiencing cruel prejudice, discrimination, and internment.

Popova reports, “Called to art since childhood, Chiura Obata (November 18, 1885–October 6, 1975) was trained in the traditional Japanese ink and brush painting technique sumi-e from the age of seven. When his family readied him for military school at age fourteen, he ran away, left his home prefecture, and traveled four hundred miles north to Tokyo, where he apprenticed himself to a prominent painter for three years.

“Shortly before his eighteen birthday, Obata left for the United States and settled in San Francisco, working as a domestic servant while pursuing an arts education. He was soon supporting himself with illustration work for Japanese-language magazines and newspapers. But the American Dream was not on offer — instead, Obata was met with the era’s prevalent racial animosity toward Japanese immigrants. …

“Perhaps it was this anguishing disappointment with the human world, with its seething cauldron of xenophobia and racism, that made Obata turn his heart and his paintbrush to the natural world. On his first trip to the High Sierra in 1927, watching ‘beautiful flowers bloom in a stream of icy water,’ Obata wrote to his wife, Haruko:

I only feel full of gratitude. …

“By the end of the decade, his paintings had garnered considerable attention. … But neither Obata’s stature in the creative world nor his appointment as an art instructor at U.C. Berkeley protected him from the swarming hostility of the country he had made his home and the recipient of his rare gift. In December of 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, locals fired shots at the art supply store Obata and his wife owned in Berkeley. …

“By the spring, Obata was detained at one of California’s internment camps for Japanese Americans, where he founded an art school using his own funds and donations from friends at the university. Six hundred of the interned became art students and went on to produce work of such quality that it was being exhibited outside the camp by the summer. ”

More at Brain Pickings, here, where you can see other work by this wonderful artist.

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My friend was born and raised in Hawaii. His parents were Japanese-American. His mother was sent to an internment camp during World War II. It’s a complicated story how she got released and ended up in Japan for the war’s duration. Something like a prisoner swap. She returned to Hawaii after the war and raised a family.

My friend was invited to talk to fifth graders about his mother’s experience in the camp. He was reluctant. It’s painful to think about. Would young children get it?

In the end, he went, and it was a good experience for him as well as for the kids. I think he had an impact on how they think about differences in our multicultural society. And their curiosity and understanding was a comfort to him.

Here is what he put on Facebook this spring.

“Last week I spoke to two classes of fifth graders about my mom’s experience in a Japanese-American relocation camp during World War II. After the talk, one of the students asked me why the Japanese-Americans had been relocated to camps but the German-Americans hadn’t. Wow, I could have hugged that boy for asking such a perceptive question, and I was also touched by how the students were able to draw a parallel between the Japanese-American discrimination decades ago and the anti-Muslim sentiment that’s currently been gaining so much traction in the U.S. and elsewhere.”

My friend posted a family photo that he goes on to describe. It is not the photo I put below.

“This photo, taken in the mid 1930s, is of my mom and her younger sister when they were growing up in downtown Honolulu, before they were forced to relocate to a camp in Arkansas. My mom looks like she’s around the age of the students I was talking to last week, and when I showed those students this photo I got a little emotional imagining my mom as a young girl being in that classroom too, listening to me tell her story. In such ways, our stories really do have such raw power to connect people through different generations and cultures, which, I suppose, is why I first became interested in becoming a writer all those years ago.”

America has always needed people like my friend’s mother — people who carry on and return benefits to the place that harmed them. And there are lots of them. Even in the town where I live, a couple who suffered internment during the war became quietly known for philanthropy to both the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund, Inc. and our town, donating all their reparation money to local high school scholarships.

Photo: Dorothea Lange
Some Japanese-Americans who suffered from internment in World War II
still chose to return kindness for hurt after the war.

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As Maria Popova likes to point out, J.R.R. Tolkien maintained there was no such thing as writing for children, and Maurice Sendak said much the same thing. I myself have found that the “children’s books” Popova recommends to her Brain Pickings readers work as well for me as for my grandchildren.

Here she describes a book about the beauty of imperfection: “Wabi sabi is a beautiful Japanese concept that has no direct translation in English. Both an aesthetic and a worldview, it connotes a way of living that finds beauty in imperfection and accepts the natural cycle of growth and decay. Wabi Sabi is also the title of a fantastic 2008 picture-book by Mark Reibstein, with original artwork by acclaimed Chinese children’s book illustrator Ed Young, exploring this wonderful sensibility through the story of a cat who gets lost in her hometown of Kyoto …

“A true wabi sabi story lies behind the book: When Young first received the assignment, he created a series of beautifully simple images. As he went to drop them off with his editor, he left them for a moment on the front porch of the house. But when he returned to retrieve them, they were gone. Rather than agonizing over the loss, Young resolved to recreate the images from scratch and make them better — finding growth in loss.” More here.

(Remember the mortification of John Stuart Mills when his maid mistakenly burned the manuscript of Thomas Carlyle‘s first volume of the seminal French Revolution? I like to think that Carlyle’s starting from scratch on volume one after completing volumes two and three made made volume one better, as Ed Young found with his art. It’s still painful to think about how Mills felt.)

Art: Ed Young
Illustration from Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein

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I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see an exhibition on 100 years of American ceramics. It was a lovely show, but I would have liked to see an example of the late Anne Kraus’s mysterious tea cups there. If Warren McKenzie could give her a whole show at the Northern Clay Center when I was living in Minneapolis, I know it’s not just the gal on the street who thinks Kraus is major.

The MFA ceramics show was a very small show, tucked away in a corner. It hardly seemed enough to justify the admission fee and parking.

So I took a walk through a really big show there, one on the Japanese artist Hokusai (you know: “The Wave”). Unlike the ceramics show, this one was crowded and almost too extensive to take in, but I enjoyed what I saw — especially some colorful wall hangings.

I took photos both outside the museum and inside (a sign said it was OK — just not to use a flash). My Hokusai photos are mostly of large-scale reproductions. The originals were small and harder to shoot through glass.

The show is running until August 9, and if you go, I recommend that you pause for the wall of slides at the entrance, which is delightful and gives one a sensation of watching the art coming into being, like a waterfall swishing down a landscape.

natural-water-pitted-stone

Indian-outside-the-MFA-by-Dallin

MFA-dining-room-glass sculpture

Hokusai-at-MFA-Boston

Hokusai-bird

tubby-time-Hokusai-style

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