Beginning on Sept. 11, 1942, Japanese Americans living in San Francisco and the Bay area, including Chiura Obata and his family, were pulled from their homes and sent to the internment camp in Topaz, Utah that was ringed by barbed wire fences and guard towers.
In a camp that held 9000 people, Obata taught others to see and paint the sparse beauty around them. His painting “Early Morning, Topaz, Utah” depicts the beauty of dawn in the desert in peach, violet, and tan colors before the June sun rose and baked the land.
Obata was born in Okayama, Japan, and moved to California in 1903 to paint Western scenes. He endured discrimination because of anti-immigration laws aimed at the Japanese, became a U.S. citizen, and taught art at UC Berkeley.
In 1927, he saw Hiroshi Yoshida’s paintings of Yosemite, read John Muir, traveled to the Sierra Nevada, and painted intimate moments of nature’s quiet majesty. Between paintings, he fished for trout, wrote his wife Haruko to send more colors, and a wool sweater for the cold nights. He watched the colors of the sky, mountains, and flowers as they emerged from the melting snow. Full of gratitude, Obata painted a hundred sketches with washes of color, foregoing Bierstadt’s details and grand expanses, to express the spirit harmony of the land. Returning to Japan to work with skilled carvers and printers, Obata refined his woodblock techniques, and spent his savings to produce one hundred prints of thirty-five of his watercolors.
While interned in the Topaz camp, he sketched the haunting scenes that would later be published as Topaz Moon. He told his fellow internees that they could either be bitter and look down at the barren ground and focus on that, or look past the barbed wire and see the beauty of the mountains nine miles in the distance.
After the war, Obata and his family returned to the West Coast and started their lives over. Obata was reinstated as a professor at UC Berkeley. His work blended the traditions and techniques of Japanese and European art as well as brought Asian sensitivities of nature to America.
President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, and Congress, the military, and the Supreme Court said it was legal to lock up American citizens of Japanese descent. Years later they would confess that what they did was immoral and wrong. Historians have said the American system of justice failed its own citizens because of “wartime hysteria, racial prejudice, and the failure of political leadership.”
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan issued a formal apology on behalf of the United States government, and Congress approved reparations.