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UMFA acquires works from major Japanese-American artist, including images of Utah’s Topaz internment camp

Chiura Obata was among thousands incarcerated during World War II because of their Japanese ancestry.

(Chiura Obata | Utah Museum of Fine Arts) Chiura Obata's 1943 watercolor "Topaz War Relocation Center by Moonlight" is now part of the permanent collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, part of a gift from the artist's estate.

Works by a prominent Japanese-American artist — including images he made while imprisoned in Utah’s Topaz internment camp during World War II — are joining the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ permanent collection.

The estate of Chiura Obata, considered one of the most significant Japanese-American artists of the 20th century, has given 35 of his works to UMFA at the University of Utah, the museum announced Friday.

Kimi Hill, a granddaughter of Obata, said the family was “thrilled” that Utah art lovers will get to see and study his works.

“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 camp site in Delta as well as the Topaz Museum,” Hill said in a statement through UMFA. “Obata never wavered from the inspiration he found in nature and his faith in the power of creativity. The solace that Obata found in the beauty of the Utah desert landscape was profound.”

The 35 works that the Obata estate gifted to UMFA were made between 1934 and 1943, and include many works he created during his incarceration at Topaz. Many of these works were displayed at UMFA in 2018, in the touring retrospective “Chiura Obata: An American Modern.” His work also was featured in the 2015 exhibition “When Words Aren’t Enough: Works on Paper from Topaz, 1942-1945,” the inaugural show at the Topaz Museum in Delta.

(Chiura Obata | Utah Museum of Fine Arts) Chiura Obata's 1943 watercolor "Very Warm Noon Without Any Wind. Dead Heat Covered All Camp Ground," depicting the Topaz Relocation Center during World War II, is now part of the permanent collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, part of a gift from the artist's estate.

Obata’s time at Topaz influenced his style, said ShiPu Wang, professor of art history and visual culture at the University of California, Merced, and curator of the “American Modern” touring exhibition.

“Before the war, his brushstrokes were very measured, methodical and almost calm,” Wang said in 2018. “After the war, they seem to open up a bit.”

UMFA executive director Gretchen Dietrich and senior curator Whitney Tassie have been working with the Obata family since 2017 to bring some of Obata’s work into the museum’s permanent collection.

In addition to the 35 works in the Obata estate’s gift, UMFA has purchased three more Obata works. The museum already owned — through a previous gift from the estate — two drawings Obata made of the University of Utah campus, drawn when he was allowed to leave Topaz briefly to deliver a talk at the U.

Chiura Obata (1885-1975) was born in Japan, and emigrated to America with his family in 1903. In the 1920s, he established himself as a major figure in California’s art scene, known for landscapes of the Golden State’s locations — most famously of Yosemite National Park. He was for many years an art professor at the University of California in Berkeley.

(Chiura Obata | Utah Museum of Fine Arts) Chiura Obata's woodcut "Upper Lyell Fork" — one of the images he created of California's Yosemite National Park — is part of the permanent collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, purchased with funds from The William H. and Wilma T. Gibson Endowment.

In 1942, when he was 56, Obata and his family were uprooted from their California home by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which forced thousands of Americans of Japanese descent living in the Pacific Coast states to relocate to internment camps.

After first being imprisoned in a camp at a California racetrack, the Obatas were sent to the Topaz Relocation Center, near Delta, Utah. Chiura Obata kept making art — drawings and watercolors — to record life at Topaz. He also administered an art school in the camp.

After eight months in Topaz, the Obatas moved to the St. Louis area with their oldest son, Gyo, who was studying architecture at Washington University. Gyo Obata and two of his Washington U. classmates, George Hellmuth and George Kassebaum, founded what became one of the world’s leading architectural firms, Hellmuth Obata and Kassebaum, now known as HOK. One of HOK’s recent works is the new terminal at Salt Lake City International Airport.

UMFA curators intend to add some of Chiura Obata’s work to its American and regional art galleries in fall 2022, after a brief assessment period.

“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,” Dietrich said in a statement.

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