Hisako Hibi

Name Hisako Hibi
Born May 14 1907
Died October 25 1991
Birth Location Kochi, Japan
Generational Identifier


Hisako Shimizu Hibi (1907–91) was an Issei painter and printmaker who exhibited throughout her career, and by the end of her life she was well entrenched in the San Francisco Bay Area arts community. During WWII, she produced a body of work reflecting life at the Topaz concentration camp in Utah, and taught at the Topaz Art School.

Hisako Shimizu was born on May 14, 1907 in Kochi, a farming village in Fukui prefecture, Japan, and was the eldest of six children. She arrived in Seattle with her parents in 1920 and together they moved to Los Angeles, but when her parents returned to Japan in 1925, she remained on her own and graduated from Lowell High School in San Francisco. In 1926, she enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and studied western-style oil painting. "It was a great joy, and it was exciting to carry a paint box for the first time," she wrote in her memoir. [1] While at the school, she met fellow student and painter George Matsusaburo Hibi , who was more than twenty years her senior, and the two were married in 1930.

n 1932, the couple moved first to Mt. Eden, and then to the agrarian town of Hayward, California, where George Matsusaburo established the Hibi-juku, teaching Japanese language and art classes. The couple had two children, Satoshi "Tommy" and Ibuki. In these pre-war years, Hisako Hibi mostly painted landscapes in oil and exhibited in group shows including the California State Fair in Sacramento (1934, 1937, 1939), the Oakland Art Gallery (1937, 1939, 1940), and the San Francisco Art Association annual exhibit (1940, 1941, 1944). In 1939, she was selected to exhibit her work at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island and at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco in 1940.

In 1942, with forced removal imminent, the Hibis donated fifty paintings to Will Frates, a local painter and friend, with the intention of offering them to reputable venues (hospitals, libraries, schools) in the Hayward community, to express their thanks for the city's support with the knowledge that they couldn't bring the work with them into the camps for the duration of the war. Unfortunately, those paintings have never re-emerged.

The Hibi family was first moved to the Tanforan Assembly Center and then to the more permanent camp at Topaz , Utah. The family's eviction was documented by photographer friend Dorothea Lange , who captured Hibi with her daughter Ibuki on May 8, 1942, standing aside mountains of luggage, as they waited in Hayward for the buses that would take them to Tanforan. During confinement, Hibi taught classes for the Topaz Art School that was co-founded by her husband and artist Chiura Obata . The art school had an enrollment of eight hundred students, from pre-school aged children to adults, and offered classes in sumi-e (brush painting), watercolor, oil, design, sculpture, leather craft, and lapidary, among other courses. While both Hibi and her husband George Matsusaburo were influenced by late nineteenth-century European and American painters, Hibi was particularly influenced by the work of Mary Cassat. At Topaz, in addition to raising her two children, she produced over seventy paintings and numerous sketches; many depict the intimate daily life of mothers at work, the cold sterility of the barracks, and images such as persimmons and New Year's rice cakes, that symbolized a nostalgia for a previous life. In 1943, she received a prize for her painting of sunflowers that was exhibited in a show of work by incarcerated artists that was held at the Friends Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She also sold several paintings to Topaz staff or visitors who admired her work.

After the war the Hibis relocated to New York City. Tragically, George Hibi died shortly afterwards in 1947, and to support herself and her children, Hibi took up work as a seamstress in a garment factory. Eventually she was able to return to her art, studying oil painting at the Museum of Modern Art once a week, which influenced the style of her painting, which became increasingly abstract. In 1953, Hibi became a U.S. citizen, and a year later, she moved back to San Francisco with Ibuki, where she remained until her death in 1991.

To support herself in the Bay Area, she continued working as a seamstress until she found a position as a live-in housekeeper for Helen Salz, a prominent artist, poet, and the co-founder of the Presidio Open Air School, who also offered her studio space to paint. Hibi exhibited widely in the Bay Area in the postwar years, and in 1960, she was invited to join the San Francisco Womens Artists. Her first solo exhibit was held at the Lucien Labaudt gallery in San Francisco in 1970, which was followed by numerous solo shows through the 80s and 90s. In 1985, the San Francisco Arts Commission presented Hibi with an Award of Honor, and mounted a major solo exhibition "Hisako Hibi, Her Path" at the Somar Gallery. She was an early member of the Asian American Women Artists Association.

Hibi died on October 25, 1991, in San Francisco, at the age of 84. Her memoir, Peaceful Painter: Memoirs of an Issei Woman Artist was edited by her daughter Ibuki and published posthumously in 2004 by Heyday Books, along with an accompanying exhibition at the deSaisset Museum in Santa Clara, CA. In 2006, her granddaughter, Amy Lee-Tai, wrote and published a bilingual children's book based on the experiences of the Hibi family in Topaz titled A Place Where Sunflowers Grow .

Authored by Patricia Wakida

For More Information

Brown, Michael D. Views from Asian California, 1920-1965 . Michael D. Brown, 1992.

Chang, Gordon H., Mark Dean Johnson, and Paul J. Karlstrom, editors. Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970 . Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.

Hibi, Hisako. Peaceful Painter: Memoirs of an Issei Woman Artist. Ed. Ibuki Hibi Lee. Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 2004.

Hisako Hibi Collection at the Japanese American National Museum.

Higa, Karin, et al. The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1943-1945 . Los Angeles, CA.: Japanese American National Museum, 1992.

Kano, Betty. "Four Northern California Artists: Hisako Hibi, Norine Nishimura, Yong Soon Min, and Miran Ahn." Feminist Studies 19.3 (Fall 1993): 628–42.

Lee-Tai, Amy. A Place Where Sunflowers Grow . New York: Children's Book Press, 2006.

Taylor, Sandra C. Jewel in the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.


  1. Peaceful Painter: Memoirs of an Issei Woman Artist. Hibi, Hisako, Ed. Ibuki Hibi Lee. Heyday Books 2004, page 6.

Last updated March 11, 2024, 11:47 p.m..