Estelle Ishigo

Name Estelle Ishigo
Born July 15 1899
Died February 25 1990

Artist and musician Estelle Peck Ishigo (1899–1990), a white woman who married a Nisei man, is best known for chronicling life at the Heart Mountain , Wyoming, concentration camp through her drawings and paintings. After falling into poverty and obscurity after the war, she was rediscovered in the 1970s, with former Heart Mountain inmates helping her to publish her memoir. She has subsequently been widely exhibited and was the subject of an Academy Award winning documentary.

Early Life and Wartime Incarceration

Estelle Peck was born on July 15, 1899, in Oakland, California, to Bradford and Bertha Apffel Peck. Her father was a landscape painter and piano tuner, while her mother sang opera. Her father was in his early fifties and her mother nearly fifty when Estelle was born; Estelle believed that she was a "mistake" and that her parents did not want a child. She recalled being raised by a nurse early in life, then lived with a succession of relatives and others after moving to Los Angeles at age twelve, one of whom raped her. On her own after high school, she "roamed streets alone looking for adventure" before eventually attending Otis Art Institute. In 1929, she met Arthur Ishigo, a Nisei man from San Francisco who had moved to Los Angeles with hopes of becoming an actor, and she fell in "love at first sight." Due to anti-miscegenation laws, the couple had to marry in Mexico. Shunned by mainstream society, the couple largely lived in the Japanese American community. Both worked odd jobs, with Arthur landing bit parts here and there and eventually working for Paramount as a janitor. Estelle got some illustration jobs, taught art classes for children, and, when the war broke out, was working at a drugstore and soda fountain in Hollywood. [1]

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Arthur lost his Paramount job and Estelle lost a teaching job. As a Japanese American, Arthur was subject to the mass forced removal of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Though Estelle did not have to join him, she chose to accompany him, first to the Pomona Assembly Center , then to the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, War Relocation Authority concentration camp. Ironically, she reported that she "felt accepted for the first time in my life" while incarcerated. She took an active part in camp life, working as an artist and art editor for the Pomona camp newspaper—her co-editor was the noted graphic artist S. Neil Fujita —and organizing a string ensemble and teaching violin at Heart Mountain. She was also the director of the Art Students' League at Heart Mountain. A familiar and easily recognizable figure in camp, Shig Yabu recalled "she played the violin and the mandolin, so each week she would be up on the stage, on the front, and she stood out playing the mandolin with this little band, with a smiling face." Arthur worked as a boilerman. [2]

From the initial roundup, Estelle took it upon herself to use her artistic skills to document what was happening to Japanese Americans. Throughout the incarceration, she made dozens of pencil and ink sketches of everyday events—everything from the dust and snow storms to the primitive living conditions to inmate adaptations and recreation—as well as some watercolor and oil paintings. She later worked for Heart Mountain's Reports Office as part of the Documentary Section staff "to sketch and paint center life in all its aspects." In that capacity, some of her paintings ended up in staff offices—including that of Reports Officer Vaughn Mechau—while other may have been given away to visitors. Late in the camp's history, she assisted folk art scholar Allen H. Eaton on a project to collect and document arts and crafts in the WRA camps. Ishigo recommended notable items to Eaton, arranged for their photography, and collected and shipped some key objects to Eaton, including some of her own work. His book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps was published in 1952. [3]

Postwar Struggles

The Ishigos stayed in Heart Mountain until its very last day so that Estelle could document the camp's closing. They were among the last to leave on November 10, 1945. With no place to go, they returned to the Los Angeles area and ended up in the notorious Winona trailer camp in Burbank with approximately five hundred other Heart Mountain inmates. Run by the War Relocation Authority and the Federal Public Housing Authority, it was one of a series of camps for released Japanese Americans like the Ishigos that were meant to serve as temporary housing. Two weeks after their arrival, they struggled to find work. "I've cut down on food to make the money last longer but it will interfere with the quality of my work," she wrote to a friend, while lamenting her inability to play music or paint in the cramped quarters. Winona suddenly closed in March of 1946, and the Ishigos were shuttled to another WRA/FPHA trailer camp in Lomita. When that camp closed a couple of months later, and with the imminent closing down of the WRA, they moved yet again to a privately owned trailer camp in Lomita run by California Sea Food. "So much packing, moving and suspense leaves one too exhausted to do anything," she wrote. [4]

The couple searched for work and community, with Arthur working for a time as a gardener and Estelle teaching children's art classes and trying to resume painting. Arthur eventually found a job with American Airlines, and after two more years in the "hideous slovenly" trailer, they moved to a small apartment in downtown Los Angeles. Estelle wrote that Arthur had aged twenty years in camp that his "spirit was broken, he was different now than he used to be." He was also embittered by a long battle over claims filed under the auspices of the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act . An initial claim for $1,000 stretched out over years before he finally gave in and settled for $102.50. Not long after this, he died of cancer at age fifty-five in 1957. Estelle continued to work odd jobs including office work and managing an apartment building while also pursuing writing—including stories based on the wartime incarceration—while trying to paint and play music. [5]

Rediscovery and Legacy

In February 1972, the California Historical Society opened an exhibition of art created in the Japanese American concentration camps titled Months of Waiting, 1942–1945 . Ishigo was one of six artists featured in the exhibition, which toured nationally over the next three years. She was subsequently honored by the Hollywood chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), which also presented her with an honorarium "in appreciation for her personal contributions to the world of art and to the Japanese American community." The Hollywood JACL, along with the Pacific Southwest District Council of the JACL and private donors, also underwrote the publication of Ishigo's illustrated camp memoir, Lone Heart Mountain , which went on sale at the end of 1972. Her original drawings were displayed at Amerasia Bookstore in Little Tokyo in 1974. [6]

In subsequent years, she again fell into obscurity and financial hardship. In the mid-1980s, Heart Mountain community leader Bacon Sakatani was asked to find Ishigo by local officials who were interested in using one of her drawings on a plaque at the site of the camp. He found her living in squalor, destitute, and with both legs amputated due to gangrene. Sakatani and his former Heart Mountain classmates raised money to assist her and to republish Lone Heart Mountain . Through their efforts, her story came to the attention of filmmaker Steven Okazaki, who made a film about her life. Based on Lone Heart Mountain and featuring dozens of Ishigo's drawings and paintings, Days of Waiting eventually won an Academy Award for best documentary short. Ishigo lived out the rest of her life in various convalescent homes in Hollywood. She passed away on February 25, 1990. In June 1999, a group of former inmates that included Norman Mineta and Sue Kunitomi Embrey trekked up Heart Mountain to scatter Ishigo's ashes at the top, fulfilling her dying wish. [7]

With growing interest in the Japanese American incarceration, her fame has grown since her passing. Her works were featured in exhibitions including A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the US Constitution (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, 1987), The View from Within (Japanese American National Museum and UCLA Wight Art Gallery, 1992) and Coming Home: Memories of Japanese American Resettlement (JANM, 1998). She is also featured in the films Heart Mountain: An All American Town (2011) and All We Could Carry (2011), the latter the introductory video at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center . In 2015, Rago Arts offered for sale a cache of Japanese American incarceration related objects from the collection of Allen H. Eaton that included twelve watercolors and two oils depicting scenes at Heart Mountain by Ishigo. Japanese American community activists managed to stop the auction, and the collection was eventually acquired by the Japanese American National Museum . Some of her works were featured in the subsequent traveling exhibition, Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection . JANM also loaned ten of the paintings to the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, which featured them in the exhibition The Mountain Was Our Secret: Works by Estelle Ishigo in 2018. Dozens of her incarceration related drawings and paintings from collections at JANM and UCLA can be viewed online. [8]

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

For More Information

Adachi, Dean Ryuta. " Producing Japanese American History: An Exploration Through the JANM Archives, Part 3 of 5: History Is Ignored: Estelle Ishigo. " Discover Nikkei, May 17, 2012.

Days of Waiting: The Life and Art of Estelle Ishigo . Dir. Steven Okazaki. 28 min. Mouchette Films, 1990.

Dusselier, Jane. "Embodied Identity? The Life and Art of Estelle Ishigo." Feminist Studies 32.3 (Fall 2006): 534–46.

Ishigo, Estelle. Lone Heart Mountain . Los Angeles: Japanese American Citizens League, Hollywood Chapter, 1972. Los Angeles: Heart Mountain High School Class of 1947, 1989. Lone Heart Mountain .

Estelle Ishigo collection at JANM.

Finding aid for Estelle Ishigo papers, 1941–1957, UCLA Library Special Collections.


  1. Account of her early life and quotes are from Days of Waiting (Farallon Films, 1990), a documentary film by Steven Okazaki based on Ishigo's own writings. Other sources include Estelle Ishigo, California Death Index, 1940–1997, FamilySearch, ; Estelle Peck, United States Census, 1900, FamilySearch, ; Dean Ryuta Adachi, "Producing Japanese American History: An Exploration Through the JANM Archives, Part 3 of 5: History Is Ignored: Estelle Ishigo," Discover Nikkei, May 17, 2012, ; Estelle Ishigo, resume, 1957, Estelle Ishigo Collection, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA, , all accessed on Sept. 12, 2022.
  2. Days of Waiting ; Heart Mountain Final Accountability Roster (FAR), Final Accountability Rosters Collection, Densho, ; Pomona Center News , July 24 and Aug. 1 and 5, 1942; Heart Mountain General Information Bulletin, Series 22, p. 6, Oct. 6, 1942, Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records (JAERR), Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder M1.16, ; Heart Mountain Weekly Report, p. 6, May 6, 1943, JAERR BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder M1.12:3, ; Pacific Citizen , Apr. 22, 1943, 6; Shig Yabu interview by Tom Ikeda, Feb. 23, 2010, Segment 12, Culver City, California, Densho Visual History Collection, Densho Digital Archive, all accessed on Sept. 12, 2022.
  3. Estelle Ishigo, Lone Heart Mountain (Los Angeles:N.p., 1972); Vaughn Mechau, Heart Mountain Reports Division Final Report, JAERR BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder M1.05:2, , accessed on Sept. 12, 2022. Ishigo's work for Eaton is documented in a flood of correspondence found in Box 77, folder 6 in the Estelle Ishigo papers, 1941–1957 at the Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA. See the finding aid at for links to the letters.
  4. Heart Mountain FAR. The trajectory of Ishigo's trailer camp journey from letter drafts at UCLA, Box 78, folder 12, as well as the Densho Encyclopedia article on hostels, . Specific letters quoted include Estelle Ishigo to Mr. Schlosser, Nov. 28, 1945, and Draft letter, Apr. 15, 1946, , both accessed on Sept. 11, 2022.
  5. Estelle Ishigo, draft letter to Allen Eaton, Nov. 12, 1946, UCLA Collection, ; Estelle Ishigo, draft letter to Tai, Fall 1948?, UCLA Collection, ; Estelle Ishigo, draft letter to Allen Eaton, Apr. 10, 1948, UCLA Collection, ; Estelle Ishigo, handwritten notes, UCLA Collection, , all accessed on Sept. 11, 2022; Days of Waiting ; Estelle Ishigo, resume, 1957.
  6. Rafu Shimpo , May 20, July 10, Nov. 4, and Dec. 26, 1972 and Sept. 3, 1974.
  7. Bacon Sakatani interview by Tom Ikeda, Aug. 31, 2010, Segment 24, Los Angeles, California, Densho Visual History Collection, Densho Digital Repository, , accessed on Sept. 12, 2022; Rafu Shimpo , Dec. 1, 1989 and Mar. 6, 1990; Chuck Hassler, "Granting Her Final Wish," Rafu Shimpo , Sept. 1, 1999.
  8. Rafu Shimpo , Sept. 19, 1987, Aug. 21, 1998, Apr. 14, 2015, and May 1, 2018; Naomi Hirahara, "The Issei 'View from Within,'" Rafu Shimpo , Oct. 14, 1992; Mia Nakaji Monnier, "The Expected Lifespan of a Promise," Rafu Shimpo , Apr. 16, 2015; "Contested Histories," Japanese American National Museum website, ; "The Mountain Was Our Secret," Heart Mountain Interpretive Center website, , all accessed on Sept. 12, 2022.

Last updated May 24, 2024, 2:30 a.m..