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Creativity in Captivity: Photos of Resilience Inside the Camps

Japanese American designers such as Ruth Asawa, Isamu Noguchi, George Nakashima, Gyo Obata and S. Neil Fujita have made their mark on modern design, but lesser known is how the World War II incarceration had a powerful effect on their lives. See how this period of intense discrimination and hardship changed the course of their lives and careers. Watch "Artbound" S10 E1: Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese Experience.

It was a time of fear, distrust and war.

On February 19, 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in the name of national security. With a swipe of his pen, nearly 120,000 Japanese American lives were changed for generations to come. The order helped create military zones where people of Japanese ancestry — many of whom were American citizens — had their bank accounts frozen and were asked to leave their homes and businesses behind.

Given only a week to settle all their affairs (usually to avaricious business people looking to take advantage of their desperation), the Japanese in the United States were sent to relocation camps with just the belongings they could carry. This was a loss of monumental proportions in the face of hysteria and suspicion emanating from the rest of American society.

Living behind barbed wire fences without their possessions, the Japanese Americans still found a way to stay resilient, true grace under intense pressure. One of the ways they found release was through art, creating beauty in their harsh, deserted surroundings. “These are people who were immigrants. They got put in one-mile square area and they can’t get out,” said Delphine Hirasuna, author of “The Art of Gaman,” which beautifully illustrated the poignant work that came out of the camps. “Art became a way of release for them.”

The following photos are a glimpse of the dignity and strength of spirit that Japanese Americans demonstrated in those tumultuous times.

 

Adult art classes learning freehand brush strokes. | Dorothea Lange, War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement / National Archives  ABs10 MMD
Even from the beginning, art became a refuge for the Japanese Americans. The most famous perhaps was Chiura Obata’s art classes, which started in Tanforan, a racetrack just outside of San Francisco and a temporary stop for many Japanese Americans as they wait for the permanent camp in Topaz to be built. Chiura Obata was born in Japan and then immigrated to the U.S. He became an art instructor at UC Berkeley.  At Tanforan, Obata began art classes that eventually ballooned to over 600 students, ages six to 70. This photograph shows part of the morning class learning freehand brush strokes.| Dorothea Lange, War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement/National Archives
A student of Chiura Obata's art classes painting a free water color | Dorothea Lange, War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement / National Archives ABs10 MMD
There were eventually five levels of instruction and 16 teachers who taught 95 classes per week on 23 subjects. There were no cameras in the camps, so life was captured in the artworks the people produced. Here, a student is doing a watercolor in freehand. | Dorothea Lange, War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement / National Archives
Calligrapher T. Usui at Rohwer, Arkanasas. | Paul Faris, courtesy of Japanese American National Museum (Identifier 2015.100.379a) ABs10 MMD
Calligraphy is a rarified art form in Japan. Here, T. Usui, a professional calligrapher is shown at Rohwer, Arkansas. When he found out that he had to leave his belongings for the camps, he chose a few good brushes, ink and good paper to take with him. At the Arkansas Relocation Center, he found branches of the right form from newly cut trees and improved the brush rack on his left.​ | Paul Faris, courtesy of Japanese American National Museum (Identifier 2015.100.379a)
American eagle wood carving at Rohwer, Arkansas. | Tom Parker, courtesy of Japanese American National Museum (Identifier 2015.100.389a) ABs10 MMD
The American eagle was a favorite subject at many of the camps. Miniature carvings were done many times in Poston, Arizona and embroidered in Heart Mountain. This is perhaps the largest eagle carved from a hardwood tree at Rohwer Center, Arkansas | Tom Parker, courtesy of Japanese American National Museum (Identifier 2015.100.389a)
Bobby Kaneko, aged four, all dressed up for a parade. | Francis Stewart, courtesy of Japanese American National Museum (Identifier 2015.100.413a) ABs10 MMD
Despite their meager resources, the Japanese Americans continued to celebrate. Bobby Kaneko is dressed up as one of “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” flowers for the Labor Day Parade at Tule Lake Relocation Center September, 1942. His clover was fashioned out of cereal boxes. A hint of the boxes’ advertising can be seen when the photo is scrutinized. | Francis Stewart, courtesy of Japanese American National Museum (Identifier 2015.100.413a)
Minnie Hegero learning pottery at Heart Mountain Relocation Center. | Tom Parker, courtesy of Japanese American National Museum (Identifier 2015.100.236a) ABs10 MMD
Minnie Hegero is an art student at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is learning pottery at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. | Tom Parker, courtesy of Japanese American National Museum (Identifier 2015.100.236a

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Tatsuko Shinno, wood carver, was relocated to Des Moines from Jerome Relocation Center. | Hikaru Iwasaki, courtesy of Japanese American National Museum (Identifier 2015.100.235a) ABs10 MMD
Tatsuko Shinno has made a reputation for herself at wood carving.  She relocated to Des Moines from Jerome Relocation Center in January 1944 | Hikaru Iwasaki, courtesy of Japanese American National Museum (Identifier 2015.100.235a)
A housewife prepares a wall plaque of artificial flowers made from tissue paper. | Tom Parker, courtesy of Japanese American National Museum (2015.100.173a) ABs10 MMD
At Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas, a housewife prepares a wall plaque of artificial flowers made from tissue paper. In the camps, art classes became a way for the residents to literally make more beautiful surroundings for themselves in the middle of barren areas. | Tom Parker, courtesy of Japanese American National Museum (2015.100.173a)
Woodcarving by K. Ikegami at Granada Relocation Center, Amache, Colorado. | Courtesy of Japanese American National Museum (2015.100.180a) ABs10 MMD
In this woodcarving by K. Ikegami at Granada Relocation Center, Amache, Colorado, cranes stand tall against a background of symbolic pines, plum blossoms and bamboo shoots. | Courtesy of Japanese American National Museum (2015.100.180a)
Furniture being made at Heart Mountain Relocation Center for schools, public buildings and administrative offices. | Tom Parker, courtesy of Japanese American National Museum (Identifier 2015.100.250a) ABs10 MMD
Not much was provided for the camps, so the residents had to fashion what they needed for themselves. Here, furniture for the schools, public buildings and administrative offices is being made in the wood working shop at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. | Tom Parker, courtesy of Japanese American National Museum (Identifier 2015.100.250a)
Sadayuki Thomas Uno working on his woodcarving | Courtesy of Chloe Cunningham ABs10 MMD
At Pinedale Assembly Center, Sadayuki Thomas Uno started to experiment with woodcarving. Using a butter knife (because traditional carving tools were prohibited), Uno made wooden sculptures and masks. | Courtesy of Chloe Cunningham
Making artificial flowers in the Art School at Manzanar Relocation Center. | Dorothea Lange via Densho.org ABs10 MMD
Making artificial flowers in the Art School at Manzanar Relocation Center. | Dorothea Lange via Densho.org

Top Image: Street scene with clouds at Manzanar Relocation Center, California | Ansel Adams via Densho.org 

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