Thirty-five works by Japanese-American artist Chiura Obata are set to join the permanent collection at the Art Museum of Utah in fall 2022.
“Building a collection for future generations of humans who will inhabit Utah is truly one of the most exciting and important things we do at a collecting institution like UMFA,” said Gretchen Dietrich, Director executive of UMFA. “Incorporating Chiura Obata’s work into this collection is really exciting for us. Adding his work to our collection will serve the museum well.
Much of Obata’s work is inspired by World War II internment camps, which held many Japanese American citizens, beginning in 1942 and ending in 1946. Obata and his family were among the Japanese Americans who were wrongfully incarcerated. More specifically, they took place in the Topaz internment camp in Delta, Utah.
UMFA first reached out to the Obata family through a traveling exhibit dedicated to Obata’s work. The exhibition has been shown in many museums, including UMFA.
According to Obata’s granddaughter, Kimi Hill, she and her family immediately thought UMFA was a perfect place for the exhibit to stop.
“The Topaz Museum is a two-hour drive away,” Hill said. “It would be perfect if people could see Obata’s art and maybe, hopefully, be inspired to go visit. It’s so important [that] if people are even a little curious about this part of American history, they go to the site itself.
She has described herself as Obata’s “family historian” and says discussing her grandfather and educating others about his life brings her closer to him.
“At this point in my life, I feel like I’m in a really good relationship with my grandfather,” she said. “It’s a funny way to put it, but we seem to be hanging around a lot because of all the interest [in his life].”
Hill said that although Obata is the only real expert on himself and his life, she does her best to interpret his story and has learned a lot from it.
“I really appreciate his philosophy and his tenacity to live the way he wanted and with his values,” she said. “It’s a beautiful way to be guided at this time in my life.”
According to Hill, people seem to find Obata through his art and stick around to learn his story.
He was born in 1885 and raised in Sendai, Japan, where he was raised by an older brother.
Hill said Obata enjoyed drawing and painting from an early age and was trained in the sumi style of painting.
When Obata was 14, he fled to Tokyo, Japan, where he found a master painter to work with as an apprentice. In Tokyo, Hill said, Obata was heavily influenced by the West.
“It was very cosmopolitan,” Hill said. “The West was interesting. [As] artist, he wanted to go to the world capital of art, Paris.
At this point in his life, Obata was beginning his career as an artist.
“He was adventurous and restless,” Hill said. “He wanted to travel and support his artistic interest.”
Hill said Obata’s adventurous nature is what brought him to the United States.
“He was curious,” she said. “He thought he would come to California, at first, to make money and then move on. But what happened was he really fell in love with California, made some friendships, and got married.
Obata settled in San Francisco and was present during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
“He came from Japan, which has earthquakes all the time,” Hill said. “He didn’t panic. He came out of his room in one piece and then, right away, because he’s an artist, he started drawing. He has small sketches that are depictions of the aftermath of the earthquake that are in the Museum of Asian Art in San Francisco.
Hill attributes this to Obata’s optimistic attitude, an attitude that would follow him to the Topaz internment camp.
“On the first day of the forced eviction, he’s thinking about starting an art school,” Hill said. “It started at the first camp, which was a detention center while they were building Topaz.”
Hill described that within a month, Obata and his family opened an art school.
“They had no government money,” she said. “The government basically gave them a building to use and that was it.”
The art school has been a great success, attracting children and adults alike to its classes.
“One of the best stories is that they were able to put on an art exhibit,” Hill said. “They were trying to maintain some resemblance to normality and, you know, a life instead of being thrown into this completely unnatural situation.”
One of Obata’s main messages is to learn from nature.
“He described it as ‘immerse yourself in nature, listen to what nature has to say to you,'” Hill said. “I think in the end that was it. We’re living beings in a natural world, if we don’t have a close relationship with that and we don’t grow together or help each other the others, then it’s going to go wrong.
Dietrich said there was no doubt in his mind that Obata was a very important American artist.
“I think he was seen primarily, for a long time, as an American-Japanese artist and, you know, kinda pushed aside for not very big reasons,” Dietrich said. “The truth is that he lived and worked as an artist in the United States. He was trained [in] and good at traditional Japanese art forms. He took traditional forms of Japanese art making and made American art. [Obata] showed us the American landscapes and the American people in a really important, interesting and incredibly beautiful way.
Dietrich thinks Obata’s works are beautiful, powerful, and connected to historical and contemporary issues.
“They connect us to contemporary issues, [like] when you think about immigrants at the Mexican border, and how we keep people in detention centers until we can sort out their arrival in the United States,” she said. “These are complex and very painful issues that are not really new. They are relevant and present in [Obata’s] work, and I think that’s what great art is: it offers new ways of thinking and reflecting on the challenges we face. »