Beauty in a Bleak World

Beauty in a Bleak World

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In 1942, public notices like this informed ethnic Japanese that they must leave their homes. They were given a week to turn themselves in, bringing only what they could carry. 

Terry Heffernan

Author Delphine Hirasuna on art and craft in World War II
Japanese-American internment camps.

A decade ago, Delphine Hirasuna pulled a dusty box from her parents' garage. Inside, she found a peculiar assortment of objects: a small bird pin, a cracked shell brooch, some trinkets from Italy where her father, a second-generation Japanese-American had served during World War II. She realized that she was looking at a box of things packed "from camp."

"Camp" is how Hirasuna, born in 1946, grew up knowing of her family's internment. Her parents never spoke of it directly, only as a reference point in time: before camp, after camp. The subject was too painful, she explains. President Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, signed on February 19, 1942, began a process that uprooted approximately 120,000 people – 90 percent of the ethnic Japanese population of the United States,two-thirds of them American citizens – and ultimately moved them into 10 relocation centers, hastily built in remote,inhospitable terrain. They could bring only what they could carry. Voluntary evacuation soon became frantic forced removal.

Hirasuna liked the bird pin, so she kept it out. One day Kit Hinrichs, a friend and designer with whom she has collaborated on books, asked her about its origins. (The pair also collaborate on @Issue, an online journal of business and design.) When she told him, he asked if there were other objects-and suggested that the art and craft of the Japanese-American internment camps might make for an interesting next book. Neither could have predicted just how fruitful the subject would be.

Over the past 10 years, Hirasuna has uncovered a trove of amazing work. Her family and friends helped spread word of her project, while museum curators and archive directors eagerly lent their support. Though tools and materials were scarce in the camps, these objects seem to know no boundaries: elegant stone teapots, precisely woven baskets, impeccably detailed furniture, delicate shell jewelry. It was an explosion of making, in service to both physical and emotional needs. Hirasuna calls it the art of gaman – a Japanese word she translates as "to bear the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity."

In 2005, she published The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946 (Ten Speed Press), a collaboration with Hinrichs and photographer Terry Heffernan. It is an enrapturing book, equal parts contextual narrative and striking photography. The book has inspired several exhibits, and this year, "The Art of Gaman" is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery. The show runs through January 30. Hirasuna spoke to us from her San Francisco home.

 

Over the past decade, you've helped bring attention to an entire genre of American craft-inspired by a bird pin. When did you realize this was more than a book?

When I started, I had no idea what I was going to find; I wasn't even sure that I would have enough to make a book. My relatives and my parents' friends started helping, and people started showing up with these amazing objects. Oftentimes they would hand them over still wrapped in newspapers from 1945. After the war, when the camps closed, I'm sure these objects were very painful reminders of what had happened, so people just did what my parents did, which was stick them in the garage or the attic.

Then a friend called and said her friend's mother had died, and that her grandfather had made some things out of stone. She asked if I wanted to see them. The slate inkwells and the stone teapots in the book-those were all made by one man. I knew that he was a bonafide artist, but he was a gardener for a living. When I saw the teapot I thought: There's something bigger here that I haven't thought about.

Full awareness of the impact the book would have and the vastness of this subject, of course, didn't hit until after the book was published.

What sort of impact has it had?

In the past when people wrote about the camps, it was all about the imprisonment; they wrote about people as victims. They weren't writing about the "soft news," about what came out of the camps. What The Art of Gaman did, and I think the reason it has had such an impact, especially within the Japanese-American community, was that it showed the resilience these people had and the dignity with which they conducted themselves. It recognizes the internees as people with personalities, with skills, with hope.

This isn't the work of just a handful of talented artists-everybody in camp was doing some form of art or craft. You expect that people who have artistic skills are going to try to practice their art, but the objects in the book are largely by people who were not formally trained. They made amazing things.

And this came as something of a surprise.

Never in my wildest imagination did I think there would be the variety that there was-or the quality. I knew there were some already famous artists who were in camp, such as the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. I also knew there were people in the camps who later became famous artists, including sculptor Ruth Asawa, Scooby-Doo creator Iwao Takamoto, and woodworker George Nakashima. What I wasn't prepared for was the average person and what they created.

And that they created these objects out of found materials, out of scrap. Oftentimes they had to forge their own tools. When people first went into camp, they couldn't take any metal objects, so they would sharpen butter knives and melt down scrap metal to hammer out tools. They would crush glass and glue it onto paper to make sandpaper.

You've described it as making out of "physical and emotional necessity." People began with a need to make barren living quarters more sustainable, but then craftwork and art began to take on a more expressive role.

Here people are, they've lost everything. They've been put in this camp in the middle of the desert for the most part; they're living in a space where the walls don't go to the ceiling; the only thing in their quarters is a metal cot and a mattress. They've lost their privacy, their dignity and they've physically lost a lot of things.

Someone told me a story about how there was one camp where the women formed a suicide watch. In all of the camps, people got depressed; suicides were above normal. When these women heard that someone was depressed, they would find something of beauty and take it to that person. So making art and sharing beautiful and well-crafted things became a way to give emotional strength. What that says about the role of arts and crafts in bolstering the spirit is pretty powerful.

And yet many of the people never made things again.

I look at the stone teapot and the carved cow [in the book], and I think, "My God": The guy who made the teapot was a gardener; the guy who carved the cow was a farmer. They had no formal training, and when they got out of the camp they never carved again.

When I ask people about it, they say it was just what they had to do. It helped them pass the time, and because they weren't trained, they didn't see what they made as art. They also were seeing everybody around them doing something, so all the more reason, I think, when the camps closed and they got home, that they didn't think of what they did as exceptional. I would say for every object that was saved, 10 others were thrown away.

People didn't recognize that they had any skill, so they never tried to show their work to anybody. Many times when I asked if there was anything from the camps, the adult children or grandchildren weren't even aware that it had been saved.

It seems like this has been an amazing opportunity to foster community.

It really has been, and what's been amazing is how many people have stepped forward after the book came out and after the shows began to show me what they have in their collection or what some member of their family has made.

You've said that you think part of this phenomenon has been the timing.

If I had tried to do this 30 years ago, I think the emotions would have been too raw. People didn't want to talk about the subject. But I think time has helped. Also, for the most part, it isn't the artists who are giving or lending these things to me, it's their children or their grandchildren. They see this as a way of honoring their parents, and having them recognized as individuals.

What do you hope people will take away from the book, and from the exhibit at the Renwick?

It sounds like a cliché, but I see it as a celebration of the human spirit. I hope people leave feeling uplifted, feeling admiration for what people created.

The other thing is that the camps aren't well-known in the United States, even today. Many people will say they know there were camps, or that some people were put into camp, but it was ethnic cleansing of the West Coast. They took everybody, no exceptions. They took kids out of orphanages and people out of hospitals.

I think if you said, "I'm going to do an exhibition on the internment camps," a lot of people wouldn't want to go. It's an uncomfortable subject. But if people go in looking at the art, I hope they go away thinking about the circumstances in which the objects were made and who made them, thinking about where the human spirit lies and who these people were.

It's like you write in the book: that you want to honor and preserve this aspect of the Japanese-American concentration camp experience. I think part of what's so effective is that these are craft objects. You see that these are things made by hand-people's hands-and it brings them alive.

It certainly did for me. It's so easy to rattle off statistics-120,000 Japanese-Americans-but when you bring it down to one person, you're not talking numbers anymore, you're talking how something affected people's lives.

I wanted to put a human face on this history, and the objects do that. That's what I like about the shows, the book, the objects in the book. The artists are telling their own stories. They are revealing their personalities through what they created.

I never fail to be amazed when I look at the work. I put the book [and the exhibit] together, but I don't take credit for the objects. People who were in the camps created these things, and they're telling a very moving story. This story also raises a lot of questions. What happens to people when they're put in these circumstances? Where does creativity lie? Are we all capable of doing something like this?

I don't know. I look at the work, and I think never in a million years could I do that. Then I think, well, this artist was a fisherman; this one was a farmer. Does the ability to create beautiful things exist in all of us?

Julie K. Hanus is the senior editor of American Craft.