Tanforan/Topaz Art School

Founded by Issei artist Chiura Obata and staffed by a large group of artists from the San Francisco Bay Area, the art schools at the Tanforan and Topaz concentration camps served as a source of recreation and refuge for the inmates, while also inspiring a wide variety of art and making a lasting impact on the lives of many of its students.

A well-known artist and a art professor at the University of California, the fifty-six year old Obata immediately saw the need for an art school upon his arrival at Tanforan in May 1942. He wrote that art was "one of the most constructive forms of education" that "will aid in developing a sense of calmness and appreciation" and that through the school, "the general morale of the people will be uplifted." He was quickly able to get approval from the Adult Education program to start an art school that he would direct and began to recruit other Bay Area artists to serve as instructors. He and his colleagues started putting up notices for the school even before a place had been designated. Eventually assigned the mess hall in Block 6, registration began on May 19 and the first classes began on May 25, just over three weeks after most inmates had arrived. [1]

Obata and his staff put together an expansive curriculum that included twenty-three courses taught by seventeen teachers: George Matsusaburo Hibi , Miyo Ichiyasu, Teruo Iyama, Kathryn Kawamorita, Teruo Nagai, Bennie Nobori, Kimio Obata, Mary Ogura, Miné Okubo , Siberius Saito, George Shimotori, Byron Takashi Tsuzuki , Shinji Yamamoto, Tom Yamamoto, and Itsuko Yoshiwara along with Masuo Yabuki, who was in charge of the junior and senior high school classes, and Obata, the director of the school. Courses were divided into three categories: Fine Arts (figure painting, landscape, still life, freehand brush work, art anatomy, sculpturing, mural painting, art appreciation), Commercial Art (fashion design, interior design, cartooning, mechanical drawing, architectural drafting, commercial lettering and poster layouts), and Techniques (charcoal, pencil, water color, oil, crayon, pen and ink, pastel, tempera, and sumi ). The school operated from 9 am to 9 pm and offered around ninety classes. Some six hundred students, ranging in age from six to over seventy, attended the school. Many of Obata's students in his sumi painting classes were Issei, many of whom had never studied art before. The school was largely self-supporting, funded by tuition of $1 per adult and 50¢ per child. Obata sought donations of art supplies from friends on the outside, with the American Friends Service Committee , Ruth Kingman, and others among the donors. Obata and other full-time instructors were paid $16 a month by the Wartime Civil Control Administration . [2]

Tanforan Art School students took part in several exhibitions both inside and outside the camp. The Art and Hobby Show in the camp from July 11 to 14 drew 9,000 attendees over the four days, a figure larger than the camp's population. Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS) fieldworker Fred Y. Hoshiyama wrote that it was "one of the best morale builders we had for a long time, and it was truly an inspirational success." He also noted that donations totaled $104. Another JERS fieldworker, Doris Hayashi , wrote that "about 300 people were in the two wings at one time and others waited outside in a steady stream, so that the ushers had to rush the people on." Two more exhibitions took place in Tanforan before the camp (and school) closed in September. Student exhibits were also held at Mills College the UC International House, and the Berkeley YMCA. [3]

With essentially the entire population of Tanforan moving to the Topaz, Utah, concentration camp, the art school was reestablished there with Obata again serving as the initial head. With the bulk of inmates arriving at Topaz starting in mid-September, the Topaz Art School opened on October 5, 1942, in the Block 7 recreation hall. The general scope of the school was similar to the one in Tanforan, though perhaps more limited, since there seemed to have been fewer instructions and courses offered. Nonetheless, an April 1943 report listed an enrollment of 731. In addition to the types of courses that had been offered at Tanforan, more craft type courses were offered at Topaz including fly tying taught by Henry Fujita, Jr.; leathercraft by Chiyo Shibaki; and shellcraft by Yuri Noda and Tama Yasuda. Since Block 7 was in the northeast corner of the camp, a branch art school opened in the Block 37 recreation hall in the southwest corner of the camp in January 1943. As with the Tanforan school, there were exhibitions both inside and outside of Topaz, and art school teachers spoke at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, and in local communities. [4]

As part of the wave of attacks in the various camps on inmates perceived as being too cozy with the administration, Obata was beaten on April 4, 1943. After a nineteen day hospital stay, he left Topaz for good. George Matsusaburo Hibi took over as the supervisor of the art school for the duration. Though Hibi's style—both personal and artistic—differed from Obata's, the school seemed to carry on more or less as before. The Topaz Art School closed on August 17, 1945, two months before the camp as a whole closed. [5]

"The school was a place both of recreation and serious study," wrote art historian Karin Higa, citing the example of acclaimed weaver and fiber artist Kay Sekimachi , whose early training in art took place there. Painter Taneyuki Dan Harada is another artist who received early training in these schools, initially studying Japanese brush painting with Obata before switching to Western style oil painting under Hibi. In addition to Sekimachi, Harada, and other artists trained there, the legacy of the art schools also includes the many works generated by its students and teachers that help to illuminate life in the concentration camps. First highlighted by curator Karin Higa as part of the landmark exhibition The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942-1945 , subsequent works by Kimi Kodani Hill (the granddaughter of Obata) and Hisako Hibi (an instructor at the schools and wife of Matsusaburo Hibi) have expanded our knowledge of the schools. Amy Lee-Tai, the granddaughter of the Hibis, authored a children's picture book titled A Place Where Sunflowers Grow (illustrated by Felicia Hoshino, Children's Book Press, 2006) that is set in part at the Topaz Art School. [6]

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

For More Information

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

Higa, Karen M. "The View from Within." In The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942-1945 . Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, UCLA Wight Art Gallery, and UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1992.

Hill, Kimi Kodani, ed. Chiura Obata's Topaz Moon: Art of the Internment . Introduction by Timothy Anglin Burgard. Foreword by Ruth Asawa. Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 2000.

Footnotes

  1. Kimi Kodani Hill, Chiura Obata's Topaz Moon: Art of the Internment edited with text by Kimi Kodani Hill (Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 2000), 37–39; Karen M. Higa, "The View from Within," in The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942-1945 (Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, UCLA Wight Art Gallery, and UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1992), 21–22; Tanforan Totalizer , May 30, 1942, 2.
  2. Hill, Chiura Obata's Topaz Moon , 40–42, 142n3; Hisako Hibi, Peaceful Painter: Memoirs of an Issei Woman Artist (Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 2004), 15.
  3. Hill, Chiura Obata's Topaz Moon , 44–45, 51; Fred Hoshiyama, [Recreation at Tanforan], p. 20, Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records (JAERR), Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder B8.21, https://oac.cdlib.org/ark:/28722/bk0013c5h2w/?brand=oac4 ; Doris Hayashi diaries, July 12, 1942, JAERR BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder B12.00 (2/5) http://cdn.calisphere.org/data/28722/6m/bk0013c5j6m/files/bk0013c5j6m-FID1.pdf , both accessed on July 1, 2022.
  4. Le Grande Noble, "Final Report for the [Topaz] Education Section," pp. 173–74, JAERR BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder H12.00:4, https://oac.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/k6qz2hxn/?brand=oac4 ; Hill, Chiura Obata's Topaz Moon , 67, 85; Adult Education Program, Topaz, Utah, May 1, 1943, pp. 39–42, JAERR BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder H2.54, https://oac.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/k6df6z65/?brand=oac4 .
  5. Hill, Chiura Obata's Topaz Moon , 93; Gordon H. Chang, Mark Dean Johnson, and Paul J. Karlstrom, eds., Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008), 327; Takeyuki Dan Harada interview by Martha Nakagawa, Segment 14, San Jose, California, Nov. 30, 2010, Densho Visual History Collection, Densho Digital Repository, https://ddr.densho.org/media/ddr-densho-1000/ddr-densho-1000-306-transcript-c9fae12b03.htm ; Noble, "Final Report for the [Topaz] Education Section," 175.
  6. Higa, "The View from Within," 22; Takeyuki Dan Harada interview.

Last updated Sept. 2, 2022, 2:54 a.m..