Week Of Remembrance
The Wanto Co. Grocery Store was owned by Tatsuro Masuda, an Oakland native. He had this sign made the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. As a result of Executive Order 9066, Masuda and his wife were forced to abandon the store when they were incarcerated in the Gila River American concentration camp in Arizona. They never returned to the store.
Photograph by Dorothea Lange, March 1942, Oakland, CA.
Work In Progress: Tar Paper Monument
In Chicago for now, I begin assembling a tar-paper work to install and document at a few different locations this spring.
Tar paper is the most salient material that I think of when I conjure images of the American concentration camps: its ubiquity and utter uselessness in providing protection from the elements marks every oral history I have heard about the forced removal.
These days I'm in a race against time to prepare this work and to finish the Everything Must Go quilt before I need to get back on the road. I tear tar paper by day, and sew in the evenings. My wrists and knuckles ache and swell. Everything I do is slow, labor intensive and likely to produce repetitive-stress injuries. So a change in medium may be in my future while my hands recover.
I go back through the documents that approximate a timeline of my family's separation and movements through various camps.
Having nothing to return to in Seattle when the war ends, my family resettles again, this time at Seabrook Farms, a purveyor of frozen vegetables in southern New Jersey. My grandparents work 12-hour shifts opposite one another. They pay rent to the company, and they shop at the company store. It takes them 16 years to save enough to get out of Seabrook. My father grows up, and attends nearby Bridgeton High School.
I revisit a document that Ranger Sarah Bone at Manzanar provides in one of our many exchanges: a page from the 1954 Bridgeton High School yearbook. My father's picture appears there, and over the picture, he has written a note: "Joe, Lots of luck..." He signs the note, "Mustard," the nickname he earned at Seabrook. "Mustard": clearly a bastardization of Masatada; possibly a reference to a hot temper; definitely a reference to the color yellow. The note is written in carefully rounded, youthful letters, but I recognize the same capital "M" that he writes today when he signs his name, "Mas."
As I work at the chalkboard I listen to a podcast about the camps.
Reading Lee Ufan to the Ancestral Homeland (now a city dump)
Shot at Crystal City in the approximate location of my family's barrack, this work uses excerpts from Lee Ufan's book The Art of Encounter (Lisson Gallery, 2004). The first excerpt talks about the author's mother washing rice. A lot of Asian Americans know what this means. My mother is Irish-American but she learned from my Obaachan how to cook gohan (rice). In Japanese families, this skill usually passes down by way of the women's hands, so Japanese or not, my mother taught me how to "wash the rice."
When I think about assimilation, I think about what we lose and what we keep. Language goes, food stays. That which comes from the mouth is forbidden; that which goes into the mouth flourishes.
I can swallow my pride but I cannot speak it.
The second excerpt is about the desert, time, continuity and seeing.
This portrait is made from the University of California's digitized copy of the Aquila, the 1944-45 yearbook from the Tulelake American concentration camp high school.
Digital pinhole photograph. Raw file, unadjusted.
A Unifying Theme Emerges
This is the subtractive part of the process.
I find it helpful to get things down so that I can stand back and look at what is there. This is an additive part of the process.
I learn that Korean (once Japanese) chalk is the best chalk.
I go for a walk in the hill country. I look for landscape that approximates perspectives and subjects found in late-Edo Nanga painting which was a product of influences of Southern-style Chinese literati "mountain-water" paintings of the Song dynasty.
Everything Must Go, In-Progress, January 20, 2021
Today the inauguration plays in the background as I figure out a way to lay out a large-scale scallop design without the aid of a ruler. The basic framework of the design comes together fairly quickly. I begin quilting in large black stitches inspired by artist Akiko Ike's chiku-chiku sashiko (right-side detail).
Barton Springs Pool, January 14, 2021
I wake up at 3:00 AM and work on the Everything Must Go quilt for a couple of hours. Sun rises at about 7:30 here so I decide to go to Barton Springs to shoot in the early light. A few people are doing laps. The morning air temperature is about 30 degrees cooler than the water (which is always around 70) and mist rises from the water. My hands are numb from the cold. I shoot for a couple of hours. There is an inkiness to the shadows, especially in this image which makes me think of the characteristics of Chinese landscape paintings: mist, trees, water.
Sound/Music Collaboration with Shi-An Costello, January 13, 2021
I begin a conversation with friend and composer Shi-An Costello. I'm commissioning a work called Anthem For 1 but the project is more a collaboration than commission. We talk about the primary theme (Rajio Taiso 1), practical constraints, location-based audio, and video-game audio sampling.
The following ideas arise: patriotism, loyalty, rituals that confer belonging and reinforce emotional attachments to in-group identity; memory, nostalgia and trauma.
Here is a short article about Rajio Taiso.
Image from wikimedia.
Gigantic Slowness, January 11, 2021
Back in Texas. After an 18-hour drive the everyday distractions of home begin to recede.
I read about artist Haegue Yang, I think about slowness and isolation as compelling forces in an art practice.
In a 2020 interview with Craft Council, Yang says this about the intense labor that goes into her work, "I care less about the amount of labour, and more about the time taken. The idea of taking one’s time is interesting to me, questioning if one is truly being productive or squandering these moments away. Being slow could be a form of resistance against the idea of efficiency in a neoliberal society."
Working slowly is something that I have been able to engage in recently but it is such a foreign feeling that I worried I wasn't actually working at all, even though I have been in the studio every day directly engaged in one project or another.
I realize that I had become so accustomed to equating speed and efficiency with "production" that I had almost lost my ability to recognize the value of stillness, the value of being able to think quietly for long periods of time, or to recognize the complicated ideas and work that silence and slowness yield.
A 2020 article in the New York Times says more with its title than it does with the 12 paragraphs that follow, "An Artist Whose Muse Is Loneliness: Haegue Yang seeks isolation and then mines the accompanying confusion to reflect on the nature of belonging."
This year I travel to remote sites, mostly in deserts. The pandemic has meant that I have a compelling reason to avoid people as much as possible. The sites that are National Historic Sites (such as Manzanar) have closed their visitors' centers. Tourism dwindles. The sense of loneliness and remoteness of the desert geography amplifies, but after a few hours, that disorientation gives way to something else.
Susan Stewart points out in her 1984 book of essays, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection that if “the miniature” functions to contain (for example: a photograph miniaturizes a landscape and thereby contains it), then the “gigantic” is by contrast the container; to stand in a landscape is to be contained by it. Maybe this feeling of desert solitude is related to this idea of being contained in the gigantic.
Flaneuserie, January 9, 2021
In order to learn how the pinhole lens behaves, I get into the habit of carrying the pinhole camera everywhere: even on routine errands, even when the light is uninspiring.
This image is taken waiting for a bus.
Shutter speed 1/20, ISO 400, RAW file, the only post-production adjustments mask dust spots.
Kokono Artist Exchange, January 5, 2021
I meet on-line with Sumie Sato of Kokono about once a month for a conversation about art and craft.
Before Covid, these meetings were meant to happen in person during the fall of 2020, in Japan. Instead we have managed to sustain an on-line conversation. Some of those conversations are archived on the Kokono website.
(Never) Too Late, January 5, 2021
I learn how to photograph large-scale works in my apartment. Overcast daylight works best.
The quilted lines will be familiar to anyone who knows Hawai'ian echo quilting. One observer also noticed a similarity to the raked lines in rock gardens like the one at Ryoan-ji, which I visited in 2019.
Working Title: Everything Must Go, January 1, 2021
This is an in-progress image of the textile piece that has finally begun to move forward. For weeks I had been staring at the blue and red patchwork and it just stared back at me. See the December 11 news update.
There was a minor turning point a couple of weeks ago when I made the patchwork into the body of the koi, but things really started to happen after I had a virtual studio visit with Sarah Nishiura. Via FaceTime she was able to offer suggestions: experiment with a wide variety of background options; think about the graphic qualities of the koi's head and tail; is there a way to pull the red into the background?
I dig through my collection of old advertising nobori. I find two that work aesthetically, and refer to transaction (the text says "shocking sale," and "big bargain").
With that, a resonant working title materializes and that is how I know I am on the right track.
Work has been much easier since. The composition is not complete yet, but the foundation is in place.
Winter Light, January 1, 2021
When I shoot with the DSLR pinhole camera I always shoot RAW files, but I keep my playback settings in sepia since that is how the images will be printed. But the pinhole lens does something interesting to color and I like the characteristics of the unfiltered images.
This image is one of the accidental compositions that is a result of the experiments that are necessary to set up the framing in low light. It is lit by natural light only, shot at 6400 ISO, around a 4-second exposure. No adjustments have been made to the image other than minor cropping at the left side and top of the frame.
Staying In, December 23, 2020
It's 48 hours after the winter solstice and the climate here in the midwestern United States now seems to reflect the condition of the global psyche. As short cold days bear down, staying inside is the natural thing to do. Disengage, hibernate, wait it out.
I work on the quilt which really means I sketch, try different fabric combinations, and wait for inspiration to strike...it doesn't.
In the mean time, the pinhole camera is a welcome distraction.
This image is the view through a closed window in my apartment of the rainy corner of Van Buren and Peoria streets.
I use a 24-second exposure and shoot at a 6400 ISO.
In-Progress Image: Cyanotype, Mitsuzo Funo, December 18, 2020
I experiment with a variety of supports (paper, fabric). Rives BFK works well; the tan and cream varieties resist the sensitizer more than the white. The low angle of the winter sun and the overcast weather means that exposures take days instead of minutes.
In-Progress: Quilt, Front, back, detail (8-point star) December 18, 2020
When it is too cold to shoot outside and while I wait for cyanotypes to expose, I work on textiles.
This is made from materials acquired in the Before Times: vintage Japanese textiles from Tokyo 2019, indigo from a visit to a 2018 studio visit at Rowland and Chinami Ricketts Indigo and a denim shirt from a thrift store near Marfa, acquired on a trip in March, 2018.
In-Progress: Monument Shadow, December 11, 2020
I combine the tombstone nobori and part of the cyanotype from the Rohwer cemetery. I am not sure if I can keep going. It's the color scheme that bothers me; it's too patriotic. I can tone the cyanotype later but the colors in the nobori will resist staining and toning. I can honestly say that I hate this right now.
Indiana Dunes, December 10, 2020
Prairie Grass, (DSLR Pinhole Photograph)
Today I took advantage of the unseasonably warm temperatures to spend more time outside shooting with a DSLR pinhole camera. Bright sunshine created high reflection on the display screen so image review was nearly impossible. This made the experience similar to that of using a traditional pinhole. I couldn't see through the viewfinder and I couldn't see what I had captured until I got home. Most of the images are well lit but not particularly interesting. The one I like the most is this one, which is the most "are-bure-bokeh" (rough, blurred, out-of-focus).
Self Portrait at Lake Michigan, December 7, 2020
As I prepare for the next visits to the camps, I use my time in Chicago to experiment. I learn about the Japanese term are-bure-boke, which refers to a rough, blurred, out-of-focus aesthetic that was popular in the 60's and 70's in Japanese photography.
I replace the standard 55mm lens on my Canon DSLR with a pinhole lens made out of a camera-body cap.
I think about this:
I am nagged by what I think of as the ephemeral aura of certain objects: souvenirs, but also art objects. I notice this in some of my site-responsive works. They aren't the same after they are made, as they are when I make them in a specific location. The feelings and sentiments that are so tangible in situ, slowly evaporate after the works are completed: like once-vivid, then ungraspable details of a dream. In other words, I like the images when I am making them and later, I start to feel disappointed in them.
In Progress: "Top-Quality Tombstones for Sale" Nobori deconstructed, December 1, 2020
I've been deconstructing and reconstructing this nobori since 2019. It originally read, "Quality Tombstones for sale!" and I have been unable to reconcile or rework the "stars and bars" aesthetic to my satisfaction. Initially I felt compelled to deconstruct it because I thought the tombstone content felt somehow unlucky. Now I see that it might be a good companion to the cyanotype that I made in the Rohwer cemetery.
In-Progress: cyanotype on cotton, shadow of a war monument at Rohwer, Arkansas, November 19, 2020
Driving from Austin to Chicago I make another visit to the Rohwer, Arkansas American Concentration Camp. I use the morning light and the shadows it casts on the ground to make a cyanotype exposure. This one captures the shadow of one of the monuments in the cemetery: the war monument to Nisei soldiers.
I'm not sure yet how I will use this fabric.
A package from Japan, November 20, 2020
Upon my return to Chicago from Austin, I find this package waiting. Tomomi has sent fragments of broken pottery that she found on Hayama Beach. I wonder how the pottery wound up in the sea. I like to think about the idea that the sea returned it to the shore and then it sailed in a boat to this continent. Sea pottery carried by sea mail.
In-progress: Cyanotypes, November 15, 2020
Preparing to return to Chicago soon, I'm making cyanotypes to take with me so that I have Texas-generated materials that I can work with at my studio back home.
These two dry in the loft after a final rinse. The one on the left is the failed experiment from the Crystal City school yard. The one on the right was made this morning (a new Moon) at the threshold of my studio here in Austin, at sunrise.
In-Progress: Long Exposure for a New Moon, Cyanotype, November 15, 2020,
I've been waking up very early, in the dark, anticipating making the most of a few more days in Austin in this tabula rasa cabin. An empty room invites ideas and leaves distractions nowhere to settle; it's the perfect artist residency space.
At night I prepare a large cyanotype sheet by ironing the creases out of it after the last light, and storing it in the only dark spot in the little building: a crawl space under the stairs. I wake up at 5:30 still not knowing what I will do with it. Over coffee I notice that there is no Moon, or a New Moon to be accurate. So I decide to make one (a Moon that is). In the dark, I set out the fabric at the threshold of the cabin, pin a double layer of thick paper discs in place and wait for the sun to rise. I spend the rest of the morning pushing shadows around so that I will get a fairly even exposure.
Outdoor Studio Space at Blue Genie Art Industries, Austin, Texas, November 13, 2020
One of Blue Genie's specialties is mold making and casting: the skull and dodo bird mold pictured here are made by Blue Genie artists; I'm just here to split bamboo.
The luxury of an outdoor work space makes me think about the many different (good!) qualities of various studios. When I return to my in-home studio in Chicago, I have a cozy atmosphere to look forward to.
Happy Friday the 13th!
In Progress: Kite, November 11, 2020
Using bamboo provided by friends and colleagues at Blue Genie Art Industries, let the experiments begin! This kite is a simple, traditional Japanese and Korean design gleaned from a YouTube instructional video made by Japanese high school students (perhaps as an assignment for their English class).
As I write this I am working in a friends' guest house in Austin. Since the space is newly constructed and minimally furnished it is an ideal studio space for a makeshift, solitary artist residency in a city where I have access to resources, fellow artists, and outdoor work space. Thanks for donating the beautiful and inspiring space Kat and Rick!
Thanks also go to Kevin at Blue Genie for the materials and an outdoor space to work at his shop. Thanks to Dan M. at Blue Genie for teaching me how to split and trim bamboo. Blue Genie Art Industries has literally monumental projects under way, and they took the time to make room in their outdoor workshop to set up a socially-distant space for me to experiment as much as I wanted. I can't thank them enough.
Failed Experiment, Crystal City, TX, November 8, 2020
I drove to Crystal City, TX to capture a shadow in the location of the former Crystal City Japanese Elementary School (and current site of Benito Juarez Middle School). This is where my father went to school after being transferred to Crystal City from the Minidoka American concentration camp.
After fussing around with composition and an unwieldy breeze and not enough direct contact with the fabric, I seal the fabric in a light-tight bag and drive back to Austin to fix the fabric in water.
I end up with a sheet of completely exposed emulsion and just a little variation in value where I had hoped to see my shadow.
I order two more sheets of fabric.
Mrs. Mollie Pressler at Ulmoris Siding, Lordsburg, NM, October 31, 2020
Mrs. Mollie Pressler is a former English teacher and art teacher, she is on the board of the Lordsburg Museum, and is also a painter. She is an avid historian and has written a book about the history of Camp Lordsburg (soon to be published).
Mrs. Pressler has been instrumental to the success of my research here in Lordsburg, New Mexico. She provided a number of hard-to-find texts and documents as well as records on my ojiichan's arrival here in 1942. She has personally escorted me to the locations of the former camp and to other relevant sites around town, liaising with property owners, acting as both fixer and guide.
This picture of Mrs. Pressler was taken at the location where I did the majority of shooting while I was in Lordsburg.
Watercolor by former Lordsburg Internee c.1943, October 29, 2020
This watercolor painting is in the collection of the Lordsburg Museum in Lordsburg, New Mexico. Thank you to Mrs. Mollie Pressler for providing access to photographs of artifacts and archives.
October 28, 2020, Prisoner Artwork (American Eagle Mosaic) Camp Lordsburg, New Mexico
While exploring Lordsburg, this mosaic stands out as a reminder of the role that art making played in the lives of the men who were imprisoned here. It is made of scavenged stones and concrete.
During their imprisonment the Japanese men were invited by the local YMCA to put on an ikebana demonstration for the local middle school children. They did so using local desert plants and scrap wood. The children were cautioned not to talk to the men.
In spite of suffering ongoing abuses and indignities in Camp Lordsburg, the men who were imprisoned there also found that they had time on their hands. In an effort to stay productive and to take their minds off of their worries, they made art, theater and played sports.
Poetry was also very popular in all of the camps:
I am carving the wood slowly,
At the veranda in a faint ray of sunlight on a quiet afternoon
I am 50 years old.
Suirin Yoshizumi, from The Lordsburg Times issue 116
The First Snowfall, Lordsburg, NM, October 29, 2020
Fittingly, after the unseasonably snowy drive to Lordsburg I encounter this item in a copy of the prisoners' newsletter, The Lordsburg Times, Issue 116, January 8th, circa 1942 (from the archives of Camp Lordsburg).
The First Snowfall
It snowed for the first time in Texas and southern New Mexico. Everything was covered with snow at night from the foot of the Rocky Mountains east and west in the desert areas, It snowed about two inches at El Paso.
October 27, 2020, Trans Pecos Snow Storm, en route from Austin to Lordsburg
I spend three nights camping on increasingly cold ground in West Texas. This morning my tent is encased in ice. I break camp with cold-numbed hands and no gloves.
Now I'm relieved to spend the day in a warm car, driving from Marfa to Lordsburg even though it means heading directly into a snowstorm.
The desert transforms and the lens fogs up immediately when I pull over to take a few pictures.
This looks like a Fragrant Ash or Gregg Ash, but it's hard to tell under the snow.
October 21, 2020, Crystal City, Texas: Site of a former American Concentration Camp known as a "Family Internment Camp"
I scout locations and wait for the sun to set so that I can experiment with long-exposures. This property is now part of the Crystal City Independent School District.
This tree is growing in what was once an irrigation reservoir and makeshift swimming pool for the camp. Students sit at what was the edge of the swimming pool.
October 14, 2020 DeWitt, Arkansas
Occasionally when driving through areas of the country where there are no Japanese American communities, if I see something like this, I get momentarily excited and then immediately melancholy: unless the sign uses the "Shanghai" or "Wonton" font, then I just try to avert my gaze.
September 4, 2020, Topaz American Concentration Camp, Topaz, UT
On the way back to Chicago from the west coast, I make a detour to visit Topaz after meeting Roger Myoraku who works at Manzanar. Roger's family was incarcerated here.
According to Densho, the Topaz site was variously, euphemistically called the "Central Utah Relocation Center," the "Abraham Relocation Authority," and "Topaz Internment Camp." It is located in the Sevier Desert and was designed to hold about 9000 people. Most of the incarcerees were from the Bay Area. Today, the Topaz site is accessible to the public. It lacks the visitors centers and replica buildings that one finds at sites such as Manzanar and Minidoka, but there are some historic markers and the concrete foundations of many of the buildings remain.
September 4, 2020, Topaz American Concentration Camp, Topaz, UT
It's difficult to know if the detritus on the ground here could be dated to the 1940's or if it is evidence of recent target practice, or if this has been a dumping ground in the intervening years. Maybe someday funding for research will yield answers.
September 3, 2020, Manzanar American Concentration Camp
There are dozens of sites associated with the illegal imprisonment of close to 126,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II. Some of these sites, such as the Crystal City, TX "Family Internment Camp" were managed by the Department of Justice, others, such as Camp Lordsburg, NM by the United States Army, while the ten largest American concentration camps were managed by the War Relocation Authority.
The 51st annual Manzanar pilgrimage (in addition to all camp pilgrimages such as those to Minidoka, and Tule Lake) was cancelled due to COVID-19, however the Japanese American community organized a virtual pilgrimage called Tadaima! Programming is free and available online.
Manzanar was open from June 1, 1942 to November 21, 1945. By the time it closed, ten-thousand people had been incarcerated there, under forty-two full moons.
For their willingness to share resources, assist in research, and provide guidance and encouragement, and for their stewardship of Japanese American history, I am thankful to Park Ranger Sarah Bone, to Cultural Resources Program Manager Jeffrey Burton, and to Roger Myoraku. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.
Manzanar is located on Owens Valley Paiute land.
September 2, 2020
I spend two days exploring Manzanar. I don't have access to any of the buildings and the middle of the day is punishingly hot, so I use the early morning and evening hours to wander around the grounds.
In and around the cemetery I find thousands of tsuru left as offerings. Tsuru (cranes) are a symbol of peace and healing.