By Sayaka Kochi
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy on December 7, 1941, an estimated 120,000 American citizens were forced into isolated camps because of their Japanese ancestry. Their ethnicity separated Japanese-Americans living in the United States from white culture, and racism took away their human rights. Additionally, many were placed in camps under the false pretense of giving them safe places to live at that time.
One of these internment camps was located in central Utah; the camp, Topaz, was named after a nearby mountain. Chiura Obata, a Japanese-American artist and former professor at the University of California, Berkeley, was one of those who were sent to Topaz. According to Sandra C. Taylor, Obata was “a sensitive, political aware man” who continued his art activities in the Topaz art school while teaching painting to Topaz internees with a hope of raising people’s spirits in the camp. (Taylor, p. 73)
Obata has been a widely recognized Nikkei artist (Japanese word for emigrants and descendants) since before the abandonment of his life in California. On March 11, 1928, the Oakland Tribune reported Obata’s art exhibition in the East-West Gallery of Fine Arts in San Francisco. His artworks had a variety, and every piece of his work expressed his appreciation of art.
Obata was not merely a well-known artist but also a student-oriented teacher. According to the California Magazine published on March 15, 2016, Obata held his last painting demonstration combined with an art sale for “any art student, regardless of race or creed” before he moved into the camp. In April 1942, Obata closed his art studio due to a relocation to the camp, and along with it, he sold his masterpieces, raised money, and donated all earnings into the establishment of a scholarship for students in the University of California.
His enthusiasm for the arts did not decline but grow, even after he was forced to relocate and was imprisoned in the middle of the desert. The Utah Nippo reported on January 25, 1943, that the eighth governor of Utah, Herbert B. Maw, was presented with the scenery painting of Topaz by Obata in the induction ceremony of the new councilmen of the Topaz community government in the Central Utah Relocation Center. Furthermore, the article of the Utah Nippo published in January 1943 announced that Obata’s silk paintings were sent to President Roosevelt as a gift. Even though Obata was interned during World War II, his artistic talent was never oppressed.
In 1945, with the end of the bloody chaos across the world, Obata was released and allowed to return to his beloved old home. Soon after he returned to the campus of the University of California as an art professor, three water paintings drawn by Obata, while he was interned in Topaz, were exhibited in the University of Utah. This University of Utah Japanese art exhibition sponsored by the War Relocation Authority was reported by the Utah Chronicle on November 15.
Obata left his teaching job in 1954. Upon his retirement, he got word from Clark Kerr, the first Chancellor of the University of California, who said, “You have been able not only to exercise your own creative gifts to the fullest extent, but also to help develop and guide the talent of students. In addition, your exhibits, lectures and demonstrations have given pleasure and instruction to countless people throughout California and in many parts of the United States.” (In Memoriam, p. 137)
In the midst of turbulent times, Obata was acknowledged to be one of the best artists in spite of his Japanese ancestry. His dedication to arts and his contribution of teaching arts have been outstanding, even now. At the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Obata’s new exhibition named “Chiura Obata: An American Modern” was held in 2018. Through his experiences under the restraint and the patience, he created the arts which carry the strong message: “Who gets to be called American?” (Mann) This message can be sympathetic and relevant with today’s society as well.
Sayaka Kochi is a senior at the University of Utah. She is majoring in communication with an emphasis in journalism.
“Chiura Obata, Art: Berkeley,” University of California: In Memoriam (September 1978): 137
Cirrus Wood, “Artist Interned: A Berkeley Legend Found Beauty in “Enormous Bleakness of War Camp,” California Magazine, March 15, 2016.
Court Mann, “UMFA’s new Chiura Obata exhibit asks: ‘Who gets to be called American?’” Deseret News, June 1, 2018.
“Governor Maw Visits Topaz,” Utah Nippo, January 25, 1943, 4.
Hal Johnson, “So We’re Told,” Berkeley Daily Gazette, April 20, 1942, 6.
“Jap Internees’ Art Displayed,” Utah Chronicle, November 15, 1945, 1.
“Pres. Roosevelt to Be Presented Silk Paintings,” Utah Nippo, January 15, 1943, 4.
Taylor, Sandra C. “Book Reviews of Topaz Moon: Chiura Obata’s Art of the Internment,” Utah Historical Quarterly 69, no. 1-4 (2001): 72-73.