Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
Editor's note:This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.
SALT LAKE CITY — Over three-dozen works of art created by a legendary Japanese American artist — once held at a Utah internment camp during World War II — will have a new home with the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
The museum announced this week it had acquired 38 pieces of art made by Chiura Obata, including some created after he and his family were relocated from his California home to the Topaz War Relocation Center near Delta in the 1940s. Thirty-five paintings were a gift from the artist's estate, while the museum purchased three other artworks, museum officials said Monday.
"We're very grateful to the Obata family for recognizing Utahns' deep feelings for this incredible artist and for entrusting these wonderful objects to the UMFA," said Gretchen Dietrich, UMFA executive director, in a statement. "We're honored to be able to care for them so that Utahns can enjoy them for generations to come."
Who was Chiura Obata?
Obata was born in Okayama-ken, Japan, in 1885, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. His life in art started very early and that eventually carried him across the Pacific Ocean to the United States, where he would go on to become a vastly influencial artist in the 20th century.
He began formal art training at the age of 7, and in 1903, at the age of 17, he immigrated from the community off the coast of the Seto Inland Sea in southern Japan to San Francisco, bringing his artwork with him — in fact, Obata's grade school sketchbook remains well-preserved well over a century later.
The artist would quickly become enamored with his new home.
"Obata is an immigrant who comes with a set of experiences and stories, and yet at the same time, he embraces his new homeland," said Alex Mann, the then-Smithsonian art museum curator of prints and drawings, in a 2019 video about the artist. "He loves California, he loves the landscapes of Yosemite and of the Sierra-Nevada."
He would go on to become one of the most widely recognized Japanese-American artists of the 20th century over the ensuing several decades. Luke Kelly, the associate curator of collections at the Utah Muesum of Fine Arts, noted that Obata crafted a style that blended Japanese and European-American traditions and aesthetics into a unique style of his own.
"His brush makes the quietest — the bleakest — places the most alluring," Kelly said.
His work was also unique because it would sometimes incorporate a piece of the land he painted. ShiPu Wang, a professor at the University of California, Merced, added in the 2019 video that Obata would mix in water from the site he was painting with his materials, allowing for the "elements of nature" to be a part of the artwork.
He also became a teacher of the craft. The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive at the University of California, Berkeley wrote that Obata and his family bounced between Japan and California in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In 1932, he returned to the Golden State to become an art instructor at the university, a job he held up through the start of World War II.
But Obata's life — and the lives of tens of thousands of other Japanese Americans — would take a turn as a result of the war in the 1940s. While anti-Asian immigration laws and racism were already in place during the time he first arrived in the U.S., discrimination against Japanese Americans grew even stronger after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
As a part of the post-attack xenophobia, Obata and his family were arrested and first taken to the Tanforan Assembly Center in California before they were transported to the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah in 1942, according to the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project.
That didn't stop his work as an artist. The Utah Museum of Fine Arts notes that not only did he continue to paint but he also administered an art school there, providing an education for other artists. One edition of the Topaz Times, an internment camp newspaper, preserved by the Library of Congress even lists him as a speaker at an event at the camp.
Some of what helped him through the difficult time were the same aspects that inspired him when he first came to the United States.
"(He) never wavered from the inspiration he found in nature and his faith in the power of creativity," said Kimi Hill, one of Obata's grandchildren, in a statement. "The solace that Obata found in the beauty of the Utah desert landscape was profound."
And the artwork from that era of his life captured that.
The Obatas were eventually released in 1945 and returned to the Bay Area, where Chiura Obata was able to return to his job at the university. He retired in 1954 and died in 1975 at the age of 89.
A return to Utah
UMFA held the "Chiura Obata: An American Modern" exhibition in 2018, and some of Obata's Topaz artwork was featured in "When Words Weren't Enough: Works on Paper from Topaz, 1942–1945," an exhibition at the Topaz Museum in 2015.
The museum, in 2018, also acquired two drawings of the University of Utah campus that Obata sketched in the 1940s. They said those drawings also came from the internment era during a "rare occasion" that he and his wife were allowed to briefly leave Topaz.
But now, nearly 80 years after his family was relocated, more of his work is coming back to Utah.
We are thrilled that art lovers will have the opportunity to appreciate and study these works by our grandfather.
–Kimi Hill, grandchild of Chiura Obata
The museum said the donated drawings and watercolor paintings it acquired range from 1934 and 1943, his early years as an art instructor through the start of his time at Topaz. The collection includes prints of flowers, animals and California landscapes, as well as life as an internee.
The 38 newly acquired pieces are going through a "brief period of assessment" but are expected to be on display in the museum's American and regional art galleries by fall 2022, according to the UMFA. Officials said that they hope that his work will provide a "more accurate understanding of the breadth of American art history."
Hill said she hopes Utahns will go and appreciate her grandfather's art at the museum — but then make a trip to the Topaz Museum, too.
"We are thrilled that art lovers will have the opportunity to appreciate and study these works by our grandfather," Hill said. "Because many of these artworks were created in Utah, we hope people will be inspired to learn the history of wartime incarceration and go visit the actual campsite in Delta as well as the Topaz Museum. ... We appreciate UMFA for wanting to share his vision with the people of Utah."