THE NOTICES WERE POSTED IN 1942, ordering West Coast Japanese Americans to report to internment camps, and 120,000 -- American citizens and aliens alike -- responded. Buses and trains filled up with first-, second- and third-generation Americans, taking them, after many months of stopovers and temporary living arrangements, to isolated centers where their wartime years would be lived out under armed guard, in rudimentary facilities. These barren desert camps were not the death camps of Europe. But for the loyal American citizens who were forced to abandon their homes, jobs and friends while
many of their sons and husbands fought in the U.S. Army's much-decorated Japanese American 442nd Battalion, the centers were symptoms of wartime hysteria and represented an outrageous violation of constitutional rights.
A permanent exhibition of internment memorabilia at the National Museum of American History is the Smithsonian's contribution to the bicentennial celebration of the Constitution. It opened last month, just a couple of weeks after the House of Representatives voted to offer the nation's apology to those sent to relocation camps. Half of the internees are still alive, and the House approved $1.2 billion in reparation payments to them. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill soon.
As the Smithsonian's exhibit documents, cameras as well as firearms, binoculars and short-wave radios were confiscated from the Japanese Americans. But some of the relocated were able to take more than basic clothing and personal articles to the camps. Some, accomplished artists and art teachers, took art supplies and were able to create a profound body of work, laboring feverishly to record what they experienced and felt.
Art supplies were hard to come by in the barrens of Utah and Wyoming. At times, crude paints were mixed from supplies intended for construction and canvases were fashioned from discarded mattress tickings. Concerned friends sent art supplies when possible, and as the internment lengthened from months to years, the War Relocation Authority began to provide materials and even to employ some of the artists.
Although the work they created is significant to both American history and American art history, it and the artists themselves remain relatively obscure. Some of the works featured on these pages can be seen at the Smithsonian exhibit; others come from the personal collections of artists who are still active. :: Donna Rise' Omata is an artist working in Maryland. Her mother was the last Japanese American to leave California during the internment. ine' Okubo was born in California in 1912 and in 1938 won the University of California at Berkeley's highest art fellowship, which enabled her to work in Europe. Okubo chronicled her days at the Topaz, Utah, internment camp in Citizen 13660, reissued in 1983 by the University of Washington Press. Her work reflects the influence of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera in that it narrates a story in pictures. Shown above is her charcoal drawing titled "People were in shock -- It happened so fast." enry Sugimoto was born in Japan in 1905 and emigrated to the United States when he was a teen-ager, eventually studying at the California College of Arts and Crafts and in France. At the Jerome, Ark., internment camp with his wife and small daughter, Sugimoto painted more than 50 mural-size paintings of camp life. Today he lives in New York City. The work shown above is "Thinking of Loved One." Sugimoto's explanation: "After receiving a letter from her husband who was fighting in Europe with the U.S. Army 442nd Battalion, a young mother confined in camp is deep in thought." hiura Obata was born in Japan in 1885, trained in classical Japanese painting and in 1903 emigrated to the United States. Before and after the war, he taught art at the University of California at Berkeley. His internment years were spent at Topaz, where he helped teach art to the internees and produced the above watercolor of a typical Topaz dust storm. Obata died in 1975. His son, Gyo Obata, designed the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. stelle Ishigo is a Caucasian who chose to accompany her California-born Japanese American husband to a relocation center. There she recorded camp life in watercolors such as the untitled work shown above and was eventually employed by the War Relocation Authority as a camp artist. Some of the works she completed in camp and her written recollections were published in her 1972 book, Lone Heart Mountain. Ishigo is in a nursing home in Southern California. isako Hibi came to the United States as a young girl, attended public schools and went on to study at the San Francisco Art Institute. With her artist husband, George Matsusaburo Hibi, she established art classes at the Topaz internment camp. Explaining the work shown above, she said, "Looking from my barracks window, I saw my child walking outside . . . I worried about our children, who were American citizens, being swept by an uncontrollable wind of uncertainty." Hibi is still active as an artist in San Francisco; her husband died in 1947.