Saturday, April 11, 2020

Evening glow at Mono Lake (Chiura Obata)

We won't be able to see Chiura Obata's stunning retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Museum any time soon (sigh), but we can learn about the Japanese American artist and appreciate his work from home.

I read this fantastic article about Obata and learned some fascinating things:

  • He was a prodigy, the son of a painter and drawing instructor from Okayama, Japan
  • He ran away from home to study art in Tokyo at age 14
  • By 17, he won his first major award and was being solicited to paint for magazines and books
  • He wanted to break out of what he felt was a constrained existence and immigrated to the US in 1903, knowing no one and having no work
  • In San Francisco, he found room and board as a domestic helper and began the learn English and take art classes
  • He was painting a streetscape and was jeered and spit on by a group of construction workers; he fought back and was arrested for hitting one of the workers over the head with a piece of iron; the judge, who thought it wasn't a fair fight, declared Obata not guilty of attempted murder
  • He began meeting other Japanese American artists and founded the East West Art Society in 1921
  • His prints demonstrate his painstaking perfectionism and signature style of blending American and Japanese traditions
  • His love of the Sierra Nevadas was first kindled during a six-week visit to Yosemite, during which he created some 150 watercolor sketches
  • He was among the 120,000 to be imprisoned in squalid incarceration camps during World War II
  • His wife and three of his four children were sent to live in the stables at the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, California; his family was forced to give up art stores and a studio they owned in Berkeley and Oakland
  • He opened an art school and created some 350 paintings during his time in internment, including "Examination Time," which depicted the drudgery and humiliations endured by the prisoners
  • His paintings during internment were his way of showing gratitude to nature and a way of keeping himself grounded in hope, "If I hadn't gone to that kind of place I wouldn't have realized the beauty that exists in that enormous bleakness."

Read the entire Smithsonian article here.

Considering the role of art in a pandemic. (Artforum)