The family of Japanese American artist Chiura Obata (1885–1975) recently made a gift of seven artworks to the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum.
Obata, one of the most significant artists working on the West Coast during the last century, trained in Japan in both modern and traditional art styles including nihonga (painting that uses mineral pigments, organic pigments, and sometimes ink applied to silk or paper using brushes) and sumi-e (ink painting). After emigrating to the United States in 1903, he applied these techniques to his representations of what he called Great Nature, thereby paying homage to the landscapes that inspired him.
Obata’s decades-long tenure as an art professor at the University of California, Berkeley (1932–54) was interrupted from 1942–45 during World War II when he and his family, along with thousands of other people of Japanese heritage living on the West Coast, were forcibly relocated to incarceration camps constructed in remote locations across the American West. First sent to a relocation center in Tanforan, California, Obata was then moved to the camp at Topaz, Utah. At Tanforan and Topaz, Obata helped found art schools that, according to scholar ShiPu Wang, “educated, inspired, and comforted generations of Japanese Americans” during a time of trauma.
Three artworks now in the Denver Art Museum's collection stem from the artist’s time at Topaz. In Landscape Near Topaz, rendered in black ink and painted in 1943, a small house in the right foreground underscores the monumentality of this landscape. This may reflect both Obata’s impressions of the grandeur of the space as well as the overwhelming experience of being forcibly incarcerated.
In Clouds Over Water Tower, dated January 29, 1943, the Topaz camp water tower rises above a sere landscape. Small figures rendered in black ink emphasize the scale of this structure. Gray clouds punctured by patches of blue sky create a chilling winter backdrop to a scene that is both impressive and oppressive. Water Tower Sketch is the preparatory pen sketch for the watercolor.
While forced incarceration during World War II is an important chapter in Japanese American history, it is crucial to acknowledge the richness of the Japanese American experience before and after this trauma. Obata’s elegant watercolor Flower Arrangement, painted on May 2, 1934, provides a glimpse into his pre-war life in California. His wife Haruko Kohashi (1892–1989) created this ikebana, or flower arrangement. In her 1940 book An Illustrated Handbook of Japanese Flower Arrangement, Haruko wrote about this centuries-old Japanese art tradition that “The essence of flower arrangement is the molding of natural beauty into art.” Her husband provided illustrations for her book, underscoring their mutual artistic respect.
Obata’s post-war watercolor Jemez Spring (painted in 1949) animates this New Mexico location through calligraphic washes of vivid colors. In two undated watercolors featuring Native American dancers from the Southwest, Obata’s application of pigment and dynamic line reinforce a sense of movement.
As a group, these artworks attest to the time Obata spent traveling the United States observing its landscapes and cultures. They help us tell the challenging story of Japanese American incarceration and demonstrate Obata’s belief that “at least in the world of art there shouldn’t be any walls between the East and the West.”