Copyright © 2000 Kimi Kodani Hill. All rights reserved.
A California Artist
Nature gives us endless rhythm and harmony inany circumstance, not only when we are on a joyouspath, but even in the depth of despair we willsee true greatness of beauty of strength, beauty ofpatience, and beauty of sacrifice. Above the borderlineof nationality, everybody must feel a deepappreciation toward Mother Earth.... If we keepappreciation in the depth of our hearts, not onlyour senses will develop more energetically ... butour feeling will become as clear as full moonlight.
CHIURA OBATA, 1933
These words were given in an address by mygrandfather, Chiura Obata, at a 1933 meetingof the California School of Fine Art Societyof Women Artists in San Francisco. Obata, arenowned Japanese painter, had been invited asa guest lecturer from the art department at theUniversity of California, Berkeley. His audiencewas living amidst the hardships of the Depression,and he hoped to inspire the young artists to perseverein their studies. Nine years later, Obataspoke similar words of encouragement to a newgroup of art students. But the circumstances surroundinghis speech were far different. Together,he and his audience were facing the upheaval andhumiliation of a forced life within governmentinternment camps.
Chiura Obata, his wife, Haruko, and membersof their family including my mother, Yuri wereall interned in the camps from 1942 to1943, having committed no wrong except tobe of Japanese ancestry. During his internment,Obata not only taught art in the camps, but alsoproduced a volume of artwork of which over 200paintings and sketches remain. Today, nearly sixtyyears after his internment, Obata's artwork servesas an enduring testament to the spirit of a peoplesurviving in the face of adversity and expresseshis gratitude to the natural beauty that sustainedhim "as a mother heart comforts lost children."
My clearest memories of my grandfather areof an elderly man who spoke little English duringthe last years of his life before he died atage ninety. After his death, I researched his lifethrough his words, his art, and his friends, and Ican now imagine him in his prime as a universityprofessor. Although only 5-foot-4-inches tall, hecommanded respect and impressed his friendswith his dignity, confident (if sometimes inaccurate)use of English, and quick sense of humor.By the 1930s he was regarded highly in both theuniversity and art communities as a professor andan artist. In 1938, Time magazine reported that "ademonstration of brush painting by a 53-year-oldJapanese artist drew an unprecedented number of1,900 visitors to the old Crocker Art Gallery inSacramento, Calif., and his atmospheric, formalizedlandscapes, on view last week, made criticsremember him as one of the most accomplishedartists in the West.
Born in 1885, Zoroku Obata was raised in thenorthern city of Sendai, Japan, the only child ofan artist father. As a young boy Obata showed anatural inclination for drawing, and at age sevenhe began training in the art of sumi (ink) brushpainting. But Obata also possessed a stubborn andrebellious personality; he was, in his own words,"quite roughneck" By the time he reached agefourteen his father threatened to have him sentto military school. Instead, Obata ran awayfrom home and then, with his father's approval,apprenticed himself under a master painter inTokyo. Here, he began using his artist name,Chiura, in reference to the beautiful "thousandbays" on the coast near Sendai. By age seventeenhe had already received painting commissionsand recognition for his art. Yet he felt the desire,shared by many of his compatriots, to learnmore of the western world. Having convincedhis father that "the greater the view, the greaterthe art; the wider the travel, the broader theknowledge," he set off for the United States.
Arriving in San Francisco in 1903, theeighteen-year-old Obata worked as a "schoolboy"performing domestic duties while he studiedEnglish. He enrolled in the Mark Hopkins Instituteof Art, but he was so appalled by his fellowstudents' lack of self-discipline that he resolvedto study independently. Living in San Francisco'sJapantown, he found work as an illustrator forlocal Japanese-language publications. But he alsoseized every opportunity to study and paint,whether he was exploring the varied Californialandscape or living in the aftermath of the 1906earthquake and fire. A refugee camp in a city parkwas Obata's temporary home after that disaster: "Ijust learned that however violent is nature, like anearthquake, there is always a way to live if we tryour best. I had a nickel when I went to LafayetteSquare and after six months when I left I still hada nickel."
Obata met Haruko Kohashi through mutualfriends in the Japantown community. Haruko wasan educated young woman from Fukuoka, Japan,who had come to San Francisco in 1910 at theage of seventeen. She lived at a boarding housein Japantown owned by her aunt, who wantedHaruko to work at her business. Haruko refused,pursuing her own aspirations to study Englishand western sewing. She had planned to return toJapan to teach western dressmaking, but instead,she and Obata married in 1912 with the approvalof their families.
Chiura had wooed Haruko with his futureplans to travel to Europe and study art. But afterhe and Haruko had their first son, Kimio, in 1912,they settled in Japantown. They had three otherchildren Fujiko (1915), Gyo (1924), and LillianYuri (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 alsoassisted Obata in his painting. Haruko became anexpert at preparing and cleaning the paints andbrushes; when Obata was inspired in the middleof the night to create a painting, Haruko wouldalso be awakened.
Haruko became an artist in her own right asone of San Francisco's first teachers of the traditionalJapanese art of ikebana (flower arrangement),which she had studied since age nine. Herikebana demonstrations and classes captivatedAmerican audiences who were charmed by hergracious and friendly personality. She said, "Papa[Chiura] used to complain about the other thingsI did, but he never complained about the time Itook to teach ikebana because it was teachingJapanese art to Americans, and he thought thatwas a good thing." The husband and wife oftencombined their talents at exhibitions an Obatapainting would serve as a backdrop to Haruko'sikebana arrangement. Among her early accomplishmentswas a one-room display of her flowerarrangements in the 1915 Panama Pacific Expositionin San Francisco.
Turn-of-the-century California was a hostileenvironment to Asian immigrants and copingwith prejudice was a part of life in San Franciscofor the Japanese, including the Obatas. Chiurawas hit and spat upon by strangers in the streets,and he once found himself in the middle ofa street brawl for which he was arrested, thenreleased, since he was only one against eight.California also had a long history of anti-Asianlegislation. United States law forbade Asianimmigrants from becoming American citizens,and the 1924 Asian Exclusion Act prohibitedany further Japanese immigration. Paradoxically,amidst the prevailing anti-Asian sentiment, theupper classes of San Francisco had a taste for thedecorative arts in the fashion of "Japonism."Obata had several large commissions in the 1920sto paint murals and designs for leading departmentstores such as Gumps and the City of Paris.In 1924 he also designed the sets for the San FranciscoOpera's production of Madame Butterfly.
Living in Japantown, Obata enjoyed closefriendships with other Japanese artists, such asMatsusaburo Hibi, and by 1920 he had alsoformed significant friendships with Americanartists including Perham Nahl and Ray Boynton.Obata felt "there was not much communicationbetween the Americans and the Japanese, noteven between artists. At least in the world of artthere shouldn't be any walls between the poorEast and the rich West." These friends, togetherwith thirty-four other Japanese, American, Russian,and Chinese artists, established a unique artassociation, the East West Art Society. In 1922, thegroup held their first painting exhibition at theSan Francisco Museum of Art.
Obata's empathy and admiration for the Californialandscape deepened with a 1927 campingtrip to Yosemite and the High Sierra' with hisgood friend, Worth Ryder, a U.C. Berkeley artprofessor. Obata was forty-two years old at thetime, and his skill as an artist had fully matured."This experience," said Obata, "was the greatestharvest for my whole life and future in painting."Not only did the Sierra landscape inspire himvisually, but more important, he found in themountains a spiritual inspiration. The reverenceand gratitude toward the natural world that wasinherent in his Japanese training found newmeaning when he encountered the majesticbeauty of granite peaks and the pure tranquillityof mountain lakes.
In 1928 Obata held his first one-personexhibition for American audiences featuring hisimages of the California landscape. That sameyear, the Obata family was obligated to returnto Japan after the death of his father. As the onlyson, it was Obata's duty to continue the familyline as an artist and teacher. Obata's younger children,Gyo and Yuri, adjusted to their new life inSendai, but the eldest son, Kimio, also known asKim, returned to San Francisco to continue hishigh school education in his native English. Dueto her poor health, daughter Fujiko was left inthe care of Haruko's mother. (She died of an illnessin 1945.) At the end of two years, the rest ofthe family returned to America. Obata had livednearly all his adult life in California and consideredit his home.
When he returned to San Francisco therewere numerous exhibitions of his work. His landscapesgave an appreciative public a new, yethighly sophisticated interpretation of Californiascenery. In 1932 Ryder and Nahl invited Obatato teach a summer class at UC Berkeley. Thestudents responded so enthusiastically to his classthat he was hired as a lecturer in the art department.Two years later he was promoted to assistantprofessor. Although Obata did not have acollege degree and was not fluent in English, hetaught from his own experiences and was undoubtedlya master of Japanese painting. Hetaught his students not only the technique ofJapanese sumi painting, but also a philosophy ofdiscovering beauty and inspiration in the naturalworld. He said, "I always teach my studentsbeauty. No one should pass through four yearsof college without he be given the knowledgeof beauty and the eyes with which to see it."
At their Berkeley home the circle of friendssurrounding the Obata family expanded fromtheir many Issei (first-generation Japanese American)and Nisei (second-generation) acquaintancesto include European Americans from the university.The Obatas generously opened their hometo students and friends, whether for meals or forextended visits. Obata's teaching position at UCBerkeley provided economic security during theDepression and allowed him to devote his fulltime to teaching and painting. Haruko organizedthe household while devoting much of her timeto teaching ikebana, and her flower exhibitionsincluded prize-winning displays at the annualCalifornia Spring Garden Show.
Their children were also actively involved inthe Berkeley community. The eldest son, Kim,studied art and design at UC; worked as art editorfor the student newspaper, the Daily Cal; andpursued a wide range of college activities fromfencing to card stunts during football games. Gyoand Yuri attended the Berkeley public schools.The family spent summer vacations togethercamping in Yosemite Valley or visiting friendson the Monterey coast, where Obata enjoyedfishing as well as painting.
At home the Obatas lovingly cultivated theirJapanese garden to produce floral materials forHaruko's ikebana and subjects for Chiura's paintings.The thriving garden reflected the stabilityand prosperity of their lives. Yet Obata insisted,"I am not a finished artist, I am studying untilI die." He would soon face one of his greatestchallenges as an artist and a teacher. The familycould not have imagined that in a few years theirgarden, as well as their thriving lives in Berkeley,would be completely uprooted by the politics ofrace and war.