A026066_DeathsGrave – Chiura Obata (1885–1975), Death's Grave Pass and Tenaya Peak, High Sierra, USA, 1930, Color woodcut, Private collection.
Death’s Grave, Chiura Obata (1885–1975), Death’s Grave Pass and Tenaya Peak, High Sierra, USA, 1930, Color woodcut, Private collection

When Kimi Hill was in her teens, just turning the corner on self-absorption and curious about her family’s history, her aging grandfather, artist/educator Chiura Obata, resorted to communicating exclusively in his native Japanese, a language she didn’t speak.

Cut off from Chiura Obata, the then 20-year-old Berkeley resident had little idea of the important role he played in art history, and particularly in the history of Japanese Americans in the Bay Area. Fortunately, Hill became the primary caretaker of her grandmother, Haruko Obata, for the nine years after Obata died in 1975.

Gradually, Hill got to know her grandfather through her grandmother’s stories and through his paintings, drawings, photographs, letters and documents. Seeking ever more intimate insights, she visited abstract connections: the memories of people who were strangers to her but had known her grandfather; reference materials in libraries and archives relating to his years as a respected, influential professor of art at UC Berkeley. She found the most profound answers and clues to her grandfather’s legacy in the beauty of natural settings Obata had cherished, like Yosemite National Park.

An exhibit, Yosemite: A Storied Landscape, running now through Jan. 25, 2015, at the California Historical Society in San Francisco, offers Bay Area residents the same opportunity.

Struggle, Chiura Obata (1885–1975), Struggle, Trail to Johnson Peak, High Sierra, California, 1930, Color woodcut, Private collection

Alongside Yosemite stories, and reflections from more than 20 artists, historians, scholars, ecologists, naturalists and more, a small collection of watercolor paintings, woodblock prints, photographs and artifacts open a window on the intriguing life of Obata.

Obata traveled to the United States and San Francisco in 1903, leaving Sendai, Japan, where he’d spent most of his early years. Trained in sumi-e (ink) brush painting, the brash, talented 18-year-old had no intention of immigrating: America was merely a pitstop on his way to Paris salons, the hotbed of artistic creativity at the time.

Temporarily made homeless by the 1906 earthquake, Obata continued as he always had: drawing and painting in a city refugee encampment — eyes wide open for the next piece of art he might create. Meeting Haruko, a skilled ikebana (flower arrangement) artist, dreams of Paris were abandoned. The Obatas began a family and established roots in Japantown’s local art community.

California in the early 20th century offered an odd embrace to Japanese immigrants: holding them at arm’s length with national legislation like the 1924 Asian Exclusion Act, prohibiting them from becoming American citizens and simultaneously, at least in San Francisco, mesmerized by, and adoring of, decorative Japanese art. Obata received a number of significant commissions (creating sets for San Francisco Opera’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly being just one example) and participating in group shows as part of the East West Art Society, an artists’ association he helped found.

ElCapitan, Chiura Obata (1885–1975), El Capitan: Yosemite National Park, California, 1930, Color woodcut, Private collection

It was a 1927 trip to the Sierras that launched his decades-long love affair with California’s landscape, and Yosemite in particular. Perhaps he recognized a kindred spirit in the area’s atmospheric and rugged landscapes. After all, the terms describe his homeland — fog rolling through sheer inclines; vivid mountain lakes and towering waterfalls; organic outbursts of nature in the form of sturdy flora improbably springing from rocks.

For a while Obata and his wife Haruko ran an art supply store on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, from which his wife offered lessons in ikebana. The shop was the target of a gunshot after the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, and eventually the Obatas were forced to close it and cancel all classes.

Obata tended toward a soulful response to rocky circumstances, a capacity that served him best when he and his wife were swept up in post-Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment and shipped off to San Bruno’s Tanforan, a temporary confinement center, and then Topaz, an internment camp in Utah.

Remarkably, in both locations, Obata established art schools — offering everything from traditional fine-art courses to cartooning, fashion design and architectural drafting. At its peak, the number of students enrolled in the Topaz art school was over 3,000.

The art school established by Chiura Obata at the San Bruno internment center. Shown here: part of the morning class learning free-hand brush strokes. Photo: Department of the Interior/Wikimedia

In a wonderful Heyday publication, Topaz Moon: Chiura Obata’s Art of the Internment, Hill, who’s become the Obata family historian, writes about, and includes art and letters Obata created as he kept record of his and other Japanese Americans’ ordeal. Even in the harsh climate and conditions at Topaz, he looked across the wide Sevier  Desert to Topaz Mountain and later wrote: “If I hadn’t gone to that kind of place I wouldn’t have realized the beauty that exists in that enormous bleakness.”

Obata refused to denounce America in the camp and his position resulted in a severe assault by Japanese loyalists. The action led Topaz authorities to release the Obatas from the camp for their own protection. They settled temporarily in St. Louis, Missouri, before finding their way back to Berkeley after the war and resuming a life of teaching, exhibiting and leading tours to Japan.

California Historical Society Director of Exhibitions and curator Jessica Hough said the exhibit in San Francisco includes artifacts and photographs relating to Obata’s internment experience, but the indelible impression of Yosemite on his work is the primary focus. (Notably, the artifacts include a letter from American photojournalist Dorothea Lange, writing to alert Obata that she was mailing much-needed art supplies for his school and reminding him to “Be of good cheer, you are not forgotten…” Hough said the letter “connects two remarkable artists across politics, trauma, and war, in a simple human way.”)

Topaz Moon, published by Berkeley’s Heyday Press

Of Obata’s passion for Yosemite, Hough wrote in an email, “I think Obata’s experience with Yosemite is representative of the kind of power the place has over people and how creative people over time –Ansel Adams, John Muir, Lucy Parker, Carlton Watkins — have been entranced.”

The exhibit centers on watercolors Obata created on-site during his first visit to Yosemite in 1927, corresponding woodblock prints he made later while temporarily living in Japan and letters Obata wrote — one includes a pressed flower, perhaps a nod to his wife’s artistry — describing the beauty he discovered.

Hill said she grew to understand her grandfather’s importance in art history when “impetus and curiosity” piqued after his passing. The greater lesson has been drawn while giving lectures on the family’s history.

“I learned how important this is for anybody — to understand the personal stories in relationship to the wider pictures is vital. It’s an important immigrant story that has helped others learn. There are hidden treasures and understandings to discover.”

A black-and-white painting included in the exhibit pleases her especially.

“When you look at it, you’d never know it’s from Yosemite. There’s no obvious mountain or waterfall, but it has this mist coming in and out. He’s capturing an American landscape with an Asian perspective and tradition.”

At the internment camps,Obata was able to view the possibilities of sharing and appreciating different cultures, and Hill said it extended into his teaching and life.

“He said you had to really observe,” she said. “I interviewed students of his who said he wasn’t emphasizing technique, but how to see. To really look at a tree and feel it’s temperature.”

“Yosemite: A Storied Landscape” is open TuesdaySunday (except Christmas Day and New Year’s day) through Jan. 25, at the California Historical Society in San Francisco. Visit their website for details

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