Japanese American History

Arts & Crafts from the World War II American Concentration Camps

During World War II, Americans of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in ten concentration camps across the United States. Among the 120,000 that were sent to these desolate and remote locations, were established and emerging artists that were able to create works of beauty despite their harsh conditions.

A familiar item that most people who were in camp remember owning or knew someone who made them were carved wooden bird pins. The National Museum has over one hundred bird pins among its permanent collection. No one knows how they started, but carved wooden bird pins were made in all ten camps. They were all very similarly made, and included a wide variety of types of birds. Made from scrap pieces of wood (often from crates that the eggs came in), some had wire feet which the artist clipped from the edges of barrack screens.

Many carved wood into a variety of other artistic and functional pieces. Furniture made from scrap pieces of wood left over from the building of the barracks were used to make a variety of pieces by many of the internees. One notable craftsman from this period was George Nakashima who was featured in the exhibition George Nakashima: Nature, Form & Spirit.

Shinzaburo and Gentaro Nishiura were noted carpenters, originally from Mie prefecture in Japan. They were hired to help construct the Japanese Pavilion at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. Devout Buddhists, they constructed many temples in California before World War II. After being evacuated to Heart Mountain, they carved beautiful Butsudan to be used for services while incarcerated.

There were many accomplished painters incarcerated as well. Many taught art classes during the war. Hideo Date taught art at Heart Mountain. There were especially many artists from the Bay Area in California that were sent first to Tanforan Assembly Center, then Topaz Relocation Center. Chiura Obata was an accomplished painter who is noted for his watercolor paintings of Yosemite National Park, as well as his paintings from the camps. Mine Okubo was the author of Citizen 13660, the illustrated memoir of her life at Tanforan and Topaz. Hisako Hibi and her husband George Matsusaburo Hibi were both artists who painted in the camps. Hisako has been a subject of an exhibition (A Process of Reflection: Paintings by Hisako Hibi, 1999) and book (Peaceful Painter: Hisako Hibi—Memoirs of an Issei Woman Artist).

In Arkansas, Henry Sugimoto taught art classes while painting everyday life in camp. Although born in Wakayama, Japan, he immigrated to the United States at the age of 19. After attending the California College of Arts and Crafts, and the California School of Fine Art, he traveled to Paris, France and took classes at the Academie Colarossi. Upon his return to the United States, he came back to California, where he traveled and painted in Yosemite Valley, Carmel, Los Angeles, and San Diego. He also took a six-month trip to Mexico. He was living in California when Executive Order 9066 was issued. He was sent to Jerome, then Rohwer in Arkansas. After the war, he relocated to New York, where he lived until his death in 1990.

The Japanese American National Museum has featured many of these amazing artists and craftsmen in past exhibitions. Lasting Beauty: Miss Jamison and Student Muralists featured eight murals painted by students of Miss Mabel Rose Jamison at Rohwer High School in Arkansas for a new auditorium building built by the Public Works Division at Rohwer. Unfortunately, the finished murals were executed on beaver board, and were destroyed when the building burned down in 1960s. The exhibition included practice pieces that were done on pieces of cloth prior to the final paintings.

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