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CHIURA OBATA

(1885-1975)

Illustrator, Sumi Painter, Watercolorist and Landscape Artist

By Elizabeth Cooper




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

Chiura (né Zoroku) Obata was born on November 18, 1885 in the ancient northern city of Sendai, Japan on the island of Honshu. As a young child, Obata was adopted by his older brother, Rokuichi Obata, an artist of some distinction specializing in a Western-style exposé. Obata’s natural proclivity for drawing became apparent at a very early age, and by the age of seven, he began studying the classical art of sumi (ink) brush painting in the painstaking, rigorous manner still stipulated at the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912). Obata recalled his seven-year apprenticeship as grueling, since for “nearly two years [he] was forced to paint lines and circles without resting his elbows” (Driesbach, 18). It was only after he proved his firm control over the brush that could he then rest his elbows and paint without restraint.

Even within this stern setting, however, Obata displayed a determined and rebellious individuality, and was, as self-described, “quite roughneck” (Hill 2). At the age of fourteen, Obata’s father threatened to ship him off to boarding school, but Obata instead ran away from home and became an apprentice under a master painter in Tokyo where he assumed the name “Chiura,” referring to the scenic “thousand bays” on the coast near his native Sendai. By the age of seventeen, Obata had already obtained painting commissions and artistic acknowledgment.

Despite his successes in Japan, however, Obata, along with many of his fellow citizens, yearned to discover more about the western world. After persuading his father that ‘“the greater the view, the greater the art; the wider the travel, the broader the knowledge,”’ Obata embarked on his journey to the United States. In 1903, Obata arrived in San Francisco at the age of eighteen and earned money working as a ‘”schoolboy”’ performing domestic duties while he studied English” (Hill 3). He registered in the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, but eventually dropped out to study independently due to his disgust at witnessing his fellow classmates’ lack of self-discipline and restraint. While living in San Francisco’s Japantown, Obata worked as an illustrator for the city’s Japanese newspapers, The New World and The Japanese American. In 1912, Obata met and married Haruko Kohashi through mutual friends in the Japantown community. Obata had initially enticed Haruko with his future plans of European travel and studying art, but the couple settled in Japantown after having their first son, Kimio, in 1912. They would eventually have three other children—Fujiko (1915), Gyo (1924), and Lillian Yuri (1927).

Though they had a pleasant family life, their experiences out in public were quite opposite since “turn-of-the-century California was a hostile environment to Asian immigrants and coping with prejudice was a part of life in San Francisco for the Japanese, including the Obatas” (Hill 5). Strangers often hit and spat on Obata as he walked down the street. California also had a long history of anti-Asian legislation, and United States law even prohibited Asian immigrants from becoming American citizens. Ironically, however, “amidst the prevailing anti-Asian sentiment, the upper classes of San Francisco had a taste for the decorative arts in the fashion of ‘Japonism,’” which provided Obata with work. In the 1920s he had several large commissions to paint murals and designs for such leading department stores as Gumps and the City of Paris. In 1924, Obata was also commissioned to design the sets for the San Francisco Opera’s production of Madame Butterfly.

While living in Japantown, Obata took pleasure in the friendships he formed with fellow Japanese artists, such as Matsusaburo Hibi, and by 1920 had become close friends with such American artists as Perham Nahl and Ray Boynton. Obata felt, however, that “there was not much communication between the Americans and the Japanese, not even between artists. At least in the world of art there shouldn’t be any walls between the poor East and the rich West” (Hill 5). Obata and his friends, along with thirty-four other Japanese, American, Russian, and Chinese artists, founded an art association called the East West Art Society, with their first painting exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1924.

In 1927, Obata embarked on a camping trip to Yosemite and the High Sierra with his close friend, Worth Ryder, a University of California, Berkeley art professor. Obata had always admired California’s landscape, but this trip deepened his regard for it. According to Obata, “this experience was the greatest harvest for my whole life and future in painting” (Hill 5). Though the landscape inspired him visually, it more importantly provided Obata with spiritual inspiration.

Back in San Francisco in 1928, Obata had his first solo exhibition for American audiences showing his California landscape images. In the same year, however, Obata and his family returned to Sendai after his father’s death, and Obata, as the only son, was obliged to maintain the family line as teacher and artist. His two youngest children, Gyo and Yuri, adjusted to life in Japan, but Kimio, the eldest son, returned to San Francisco to continue high school. After two years in Sendai, Obata and the rest of the family returned to America (though Fujiko stayed behind due to sickness in the care of Haruko’s mother; she would die in 1945 in Japan).

In 1932, Ryder and Nahl invited Obata to U.C. Berkeley to teach a summer course, so Obata moved his family across the bay to Berkeley. Obata received such positive, enthusiastic feedback from his students that the university hired him as lecturer in the art department. In 1934, he advanced to assistant professor. Not only did Obata teach the technique of Japanese sumi painting, but he also emphasized a “philosophy of discovering beauty and inspiration in the natural world.” Obata’s teaching job at U.C. Berkeley sustained his family economically during the trying years of the Great Depression, and it also allowed him to apply himself completely to teaching and painting.

In February 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, enforcing the “exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast as a ‘military necessity’” and in March, the government enforced an 8p.m. curfew and a five-mile travel limit upon Japanese Americans (Hill 13). Obata and his family had to register and be fingerprinted as enemy aliens, and the mass-removal of California Japanese Americans had begun by mid-March. The Obatas were now aware of their pending evacuation from Berkeley, and began preparing for departure.

In April 1942, as the U.C. Berkeley school semester came to an end, Obata presented his annual painting demonstration to a youthful audience at the 4-H All-Star Conference with a lecture based on the appreciation of California’s nature. On April 19, Obata presented the newly opened faculty art exhibition at the U.C. Art Gallery with “Struggle,” a recent painting illustrating a large sequoia tree in a turbulent snow storm. On April 21, however, the Western Defense Command sent out a ten-day notification arranging the evacuation of the 1,300 Japanese Americans in Berkeley.

I. BIOGRAPHY (cont.)

The Obatas thus began storing their valuables in friends’ houses, including Obata’s own collection of his art. A week before evacuation, Obata completed his grade reports and “arranged for the disposal of the remainder of his paintings” (Hill 16). On April 23, Obata sold 120 of his paintings and used the four hundred and fifty dollar proceeds to create a scholarship fund managed by a university committee for “the student, regardless of race or creed, who this committee decides has suffered the most from this war” (Hill 16).

On April 30, 1942, the Obata family left Berkeley with the first of two groups of evacuees during a rainstorm. As Haruko recalled, “We all had tags with our family number. The soldiers were polite to [Obata] because his papers said he was a university professor. They were respectful and felt badly for us, and one said he was sorry in a low voice” (Hill 23). The Obatas were initially placed in Tanforan Assembly Center, a horse racetrack turned temporary detention camp in San Bruno only twenty miles from Berkeley.

Since the day of his evacuation, “he had decided to establish an art school as quickly as possible” and three days after his arrival to the camp, Obata applied to Tanforan Adult Education program. As director, he strongly held that “the power of creativity would raise the spirit of his people” (Hill 35). After the educational director had granted him permission, Obata posted thirty-two enrollment notifications around the camp and established the art school in Mess Hall #6.

On May 19, 1942, the school opened for registration. Twenty-three courses made up the curriculum, but the school faced difficulties due to lack of funds and inadequate art supplies. Obata, however, “solicited help from his students and friends in Berkeley, as well as from businesses and art schools,” and he received generous contributions from the American Friends Services Committee, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the First Congregational Church, Flax’s Artist Materials and Duncan Vail Art Supply Company. One month later, Obata organized a student exhibition of five sculptures and seventy-five drawings outside the camp at such places as Mills College, the International House at U.C. Berkeley and the Berkeley YWCA.

On September 22, Obata and his family were transferred to the Central Utah Relocation Center after their five-month stay at Tanforan. The Obatas’ new home, Topaz, was named after Topaz Mountain, which loomed in the distance in Utah’s bleak desert. For Obata and the other internees “there was a constant battle with the powdery alkaline dirt that lay exposed on the ground after camp construction had removed all vegetation. There was no protection, even within the barracks, from the dust storms that engulfed the camp” (Hill 62).

In an attempt to help the other internees overcome the hardships at Topaz, Obata yet again convened with camp administrators in order to institute an art school as he had done at Tanforan. Obata yet again became art director, and on October 5, administrators designated Recreation Hall #7 as the school headquarters. A second branch of the Topaz Art School would open in January of 1943 at Recreation Hall #37. During his time at Topaz, Obata also led many painting demonstrations for church groups, classes and visitors to the camp. During these demonstrations, he famously would ask a volunteer from the crowd to paint a mark out of which Obata would create a painting.

In the spring of 1943, Obata was permitted to leave the camp on two overnight outings in order to give lectures and demonstrations in the adjacent towns. He lectured at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah where “the students were very attentive […] as it was the first time for many of them to see Japanese Freehand Brush work […]. [He] enjoyed [the] trip to the city after being in camp for nearly a year” (Hill 87).

The following month, Obata’s art was widely recognized. In May 1943, the “Relocation Center Art Exhibit,” subsidized by the Friends Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, awarded first prize to Obata’s “New Moon.” Also in May, delegates from the Japanese American Citizens League traveled to Washington, D.C. “to present two commissioned Obata paintings, one to the WRA director, and the other to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt,” who had championed equality for all Americans since the beginning (Hill 87).

On April 4, Obata spent his last night in Topaz after a violent attack. On his return to his barrack after a shower that night, an unknown attacker hit Obata with a blow to his face. Obata spent the following nineteen days in the Topaz hospital, after which he was released permanently from the camps in order to ensure his safety. On April 23, Obata left for Salt Lake City for additional medical treatment, and a few weeks later, Haruko and Yuri were also permanently discharged from the camps.

During the summer of 1943, after his release from Topaz, Obata “suddenly had to find a home in the outside world and became aware of the difficulties for [a Japanese America] to support his family. He was resigned if necessary to find farm work as had many other evacuees” (Hill 97). Obata initially stayed with friends in Salt Lake City and later went to Chicago to seek job opportunities. He searched in vain for university teaching positions, but the war had cut much funding for art courses. In May, Obata went to St. Louis where he and his family eventually settled. Both Obata and Haruko began working at a commercial art company in downtown St. Louis where Obata “painted designs and sceneries with his freehand brush techniques, and Haruko worked making artificial flowers” (Hill 99).

In January 1945, Obata received a letter from President Sproul of UC Berkeley confirming Obata’s reappointment. Berkeley was a tolerant climate for the returning Japanese Americans, and the Obatas were welcomed back with open arms. Three months after his arrival in Berkeley in January 1946, the College of the Pacific in Stockton held an exhibition of one hundred of Obata’s sketches and paintings of the internment camps.

Obata would teach at UC Berkeley for nine more years after his return to California Obata joined the Sierra Club, attending their camping trips in the mountains and leading painting demonstrations by the campfire. He also returned to Yosemite and Point Lobos, his favorite painting spots, and traveled to the Southwest and New England when he had sabbaticals from the University. Obata and Haruko enrolled in citizenship classes in Berkeley and became naturalized in 1954.

In 1954, Obata also retired from the university as Professor Emeritus and began a new career of guiding tours to Japan every spring and fall, and “for fifteen years, until he was eighty-four years old, he and Haruko introduced many Americans to the aesthetics of Japanese arts, gardens, and architecture” (Hill 110). In 1965, Obata received the prestigious Emperor’s Medal in Tokyo for his involvement in advancing understanding between Japan and the United States. In 1972, the California Historical Society funded a group exhibition on the art of internment camps called “Months of Waiting,” which included a number of Obata paintings and “the positive response to this show was important in bringing back to light an injustice that had been hidden for many years” (Hill 110).

Obata died at age ninety in 1975. He would not have the chance to witness the renewed interest in his work from Sansei (third-generation Japanese American) students at the local university, who time and again represented his work in anthologies and exhibitions about the camp experience.

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

“In any circumstance, anywhere and anytime, take up your brush and express what you face and what you think without wasting your time and energy complaining and crying out. I hold that statement as my aim, and as I have told my friends and students, the aim of artists.” —Chiura Obata

As both a man and an artist, Chiura Obata “transcended time and space,” and managed to discover beauty even in the harshest of circumstances. His wide array of paintings serve as “living memorials to the significance of his life” and to the strength of his spirit (“University of California, In Memoriam”).

At the onset of Obata’s painting career from 1900 to 1903, he traveled throughout Japan sketching, painting, viewing art collections and visiting temples and monuments for inspiration. During this time, he also perfected his classic Kano style while studying under famous teachers at the Tokyo Art School. At this initial stage of his career, however, Obata believed that “the greater the view, the greater the art; the wider the travel, the broader the knowledge,” and he moved to San Francisco to further explore his artistic vision (“University of California, In Memoriam”).

Obata arrived in California “as an alien with a foreign art style” and became involved in designing, decorating and illustrating. He continued to “paint in the moro-taior ultra impressionistic technique” and submitted a number of prizewinning works to annual exhibitions in Tokyo. Obata would later abandon the ultra impressionistic technique to return to his classic Kano style while expanding his own techniques and emphases. He lessened his use of color in favor of more “simi ink tones and washes to create moods in his paintings” (“University of California, In Memoriam”).

The California landscape would eventually become the greatest influence on Obata’s work. He took much pleasure in traveling, and such names of his paintings as Mono Crater, Sundown at Tioga, Mammoth Lakes, Evening Moon, El Capitan, Evening Moon and Rainbow Waterfall “recall geographic and scenic locations in California and the effects of natural phenomena” (“University of California, In Memoriam”). Obata’s most famous work, a portfolio of color woodblock prints titled the World Landscape Series—America (1930), was inspired by a visit to Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra mountains in 1927. Obata’s nature images have a variety of styles and moods and capture his complex response to his subjects. His “espousal of the Zen tradition, with its emphasis on subjective content, led him to imbue his landscapes with an intense, often calligraphic expressiveness” though many of his paintings also combine a “quiet lyricism” (Driesbach 14).

During the years of his internment, Obata continued to create sketches, sumi paintings and watercolors chronicling his daily life in camp. Obata painted his sumi works with an intense monochromatic calligraphic line to illustrate his experiences in his bleak new home. In such sumi paintings as Farewell Picture of the Bay Bridge (1942), Finding New Dwellings, Tanforan (1942), and #13 Horse Stable Tanforan (1942), Obata was able to reveal the harshness around him through his use of monochromatic color, shadowing and the expressionless faces of his subjects. Most of Obata’s watercolor paintings, however, focused on the surrounding desert landscape and “what was by most accounts a forbidding, inhospitable land—baked by temperatures that reached 110 degrees in the summer and whipped by blinding dust storms—became a thing of beauty in Obata’s imagination.” Obata utilized an airbrush which allowed him to transform the “dust-filled air over Topaz at sunrise into scenes of enchantment” as in Early Morning, Topaz, Utah (1943) (Driesbach 41).

Obata’s life and dedication to art are best characterized in what may well be his greatest work—a wall-size color painting “of the glory and grandeur of the sun in that instant of flashing brilliance when it covers the heavens before disappearing behind the rim of the earth.” In this work, “millennia of Chinese art history and the ultimate in Japanese technique merge under Obata’s powerful strokes to create an overpowering annihilation by writhing flares and flames” (“University of California, In Memoriam”).

III. CHRONOLOGY

  • 1885 Born November 18 in Okayama-ken, Japan, and raised in Sendai
  • 1889 Studied in Tokyo with Tanryo Murata, Kogyo Terasaki, and Gaho Hashimoto
  • 1900 Joined the Kensei-Kai, a group of young artists who advocated a modern form of Japanese painting
  • 1903 Moved to San Francisco
  • 1906 Made on-site sketches of the San Francisco earthquake and worked as an illustrator for the city’s Japanese newspapers
  • 1912 Married Haruko Kohashi
  • 1915-27 Worked as an illustrator for Japan magazine
  • 1920 Spent much of the decade painting landscapes throughout California
  • 1921 Helped establish the East West Art Society in San Francisco
  • 1927 Spent most of the summer on a sketching tour Yosemite and its high country with Worth Ryder and Robert Howard. Produced over 100 new paintings
  • 1928 Returned to Japan following his father’s death; supervised the production of 35 color woodblock prints of California landscapes for his World Landscape Series
  • 1932 Appointed instructor in the Art Department at U.C. Berkeley
  • 1937 May-June: Taught outdoor sketching classes in Yosemite Valley; one-person exhibition: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  • 1942 Interned at the Tanforan detention center; organized art school; moved to Topaz Relocation Center, Topaz, Utah; appointed director of the Topaz Art School
  • 1943 Released from Topaz Relocation Center and moved with family to St. Louis, finding employment with a commercial art company
  • 1945 Reinstated as instructor in the art department at U.C. Berkeley when the military exclusion ban lifted
  • 1948 Promoted to Associate Professor of Art
  • 1948 Taught summer session at the University of New Mexico
  • 1952-53 Camping and fishing trips to Yosemite
  • 1954 Became naturalized citizen; Retired as Professor Emeritus from U.C. Berkeley; Organized Obata Tours to Japan, introducing many Americans to Japanese aesthetics, through 1969
  • 1955-70 Gave lectures and demonstrations on Japanese brush painting throughout California
  • 1965 Received Order of the Sacred Treasure, 5th Class, Emperor’s Award for promoting goodwill and cultural understanding between the United States and Japan
  • 1975 Died, age ninety in Berkeley, CA
  • IV. COLLECTIONS

  • Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA
  • Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA
  • San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
  • Yosemite Museum, Yosemite National Park, CA
  • V. EXHIBITIONS

  • 1930 California Palace of the Legion of Honor, CA; California School of Fine Arts, CA; Haviland Hall at U.C. Berkeley, CA; Honolulu Academy of Arts, HI
  • 1932 M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, CA; Courvoisier Gallery, CA; Stanford University Art Gallery, CA; California Palace of the Legion of Honor, CA
  • 1936 Artist’s Cooperative Gallery, CA; Best’s Studio, CA; The Art Institute of Chicago, IL
  • 1938 E.B. Crocker Art Gallery, CA; Best’s Studio, CA
  • 1940 Powerhouse, UC Berkeley, CA; Los Angeles County Museum, CA
  • 1941 University of Redlands, CA; de Young Museum, CA; The Art Institute of Chicago, IL
  • 1946 College of the Pacific, CA; University of Southern California, CA
  • 1947 San Francisco Museum of Art, CA
  • 1948 Fine Arts Gallery, CA; Maxwell Art Gallery, CA
  • 1949 Jean Williams Art Gallery, NM; Santa Fe Art Museum, NM
  • 1950 Doll and Richards, MA; de Young Museum, CA
  • 1951 Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA; de Young Museum, CA
  • 1961 Fine Arts Gallery, CA
  • 1976 The Oakland Museum, CA
  • 1977 The Oakland Museum, CA
  • 1981 San Francisco State University, CA
  • 1987 Smithsonian Institution, CA
  • 1992 Wight Art Gallery, CA
  • VI. MEMBERSHIPS

  • California Art Club member
  • California Watercolor Society
  • East West Art Society
  • VII. AWARDS

  • Order of the Sacred Treasures, 5th Class, Emperor’s Award
  • VIII. Bibliography

    1. 1. Driesbach, Janice T. and Landauer, Susan. Obata’s Yosemite: The Arts and Letters of Chiura Obata from His Trip to the High Sierra in 1927. Yosemite National Park: Yosemite Association, 1993.
    2. 2. Hill, Kimi Kodani. Topaz Moon: Art of the Internment. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2000.
    3. 3. Loran, D. “University of California: In Memoriam. Chiura Obata, Art: Berkeley.” http://content.cdlib.org/xtf/view?docId=hb4q2nb2nd&doc.view=frames&chunk. id=div00052&toc.depth=1&toc.id=.

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