When he was 56, Chiura Obata — already recognized as a gifted landscape painter known for beautiful vistas of California — moved with his family to Utah, but not by choice.
The move in 1942 was a forced exodus from the Bay Area to the Topaz War Relocation Center near Delta. Topaz was one of the internment camps the U.S. government opened to detain Japanese-Americans during World War II, imprisoning people for no reason other than their Japanese heritage.
The Obatas lived less than a year at Topaz, but the experience had a major effect on his painting and drawing — as can be seen in a major touring retrospective of Obata’s work, now open at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
“Before the war, his brushstrokes were very measured, methodical and almost calm. … After the war, they seem to open up a bit,” said ShiPu Wang, associate professor of art history and visual culture at the University of California-Merced, and curator of the touring exhibition “Chiura Obata: An American Modern.”
The exhibit, which is making its first stop in Utah after its debut at UC-Santa Barbara, features some 150 works spanning seven decades of paintings and drawings by the prolific artist, who was born in Japan in 1885 and emigrated to America in 1903.
Wang said he looked through 800 of Obata’s works to select the 150 in the show. The number of works Obata created is unknown. In a 1928 interview, he claimed to have already created 5,000 artworks, and he continued to paint until his death in 1975.
“We’re just scratching the surface,” Wang said.
In a loosely chronological format, the exhibit begins with works inspired by his Japanese history. There are pictures of animals done in a brushstroke style reminiscent of Japanese calligraphy. And he painted still-life works of flower arrangements, which his wife, Haruko, made in the ikebana tradition.
“I call these paintings his love letters to his wife,” Wang said, adding that the Obatas would travel together giving demonstrations in flower arranging and drawing.
In the 1920s, Obata painted landscapes around California, most famously of Yosemite National Park. His Yosemite images were so striking, and so different from traditional landscape painting, that one jaded art critic of the era said “he fell in love with California landscape again,” according to Luke Kelly, a curator at UMFA who worked with Wang in displaying the exhibition.
Life for Obata, an art instructor at the University of California in Berkeley, was upended by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the government’s reaction in Executive Order 9066, which sent thousands of Americans of Japanese descent into internment camps.
“His response was to keep making art,” said Gretchen Dietrich, UMFA’s executive director.
“He brought his art materials with him,” Wang said. “He would have a pad, and every chance he got, he would be sketching.”
The Obatas were moved first to the Tanforan Assembly Center, a converted racetrack in California, and later to Topaz. At both locations, Chiura Obata organized art schools. The Topaz Art School had 16 instructors, teaching some 600 students.
He created watercolors of beautiful Utah skies above what was essentially a prison camp. And he drew in ink — or scratched into the paper with dry pens when ink ran out — dozens of sketches presenting an almost photojournalistic look at day-to-day life in the camps.
The images from his internment period “are very short, agitated, emotional, unsettled,” Wang said. “If you think about his physical being at the time, sitting on the train, on the bus, while still painting, which is a remarkable thing — that reflects his experience.”
The Obatas left Topaz in the spring of 1943 to live in 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, later founded Hellmuth Obata and Kassebaum, now called HOK, one of the world’s leading architecture firms.)
Some of the most striking works in the exhibition depict the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima in 1945. But even in those works, there are signs of hope. In one painting, Obata depicts green grass growing through the destruction.
His postwar landscapes reveal how Obata wrestled with the war and its aftermath — the word “struggle” appears in the titles of some paintings — but not with resentment, Wang said.
“It’s not turning dark, or getting depressed, but coming back to the vibrant colors” of his pre-war works, Wang said. “He learned from nature, telling him, ‘Don’t stay bitter. There’s no point in doing that.’”
Though Obata is considered a leading Japanese-American artist, Dietrich said, “We’re really looking at him as an American artist.”
Wang also rejects attempts to categorize Obata by his ethnicity. “I always get the question: Is he a Japanese artist or an American artist?” he said. “I always [say], ‘What a mistake it is to ask that question.’ What are we trying to do with those labels?”
‘Chiura Obata: An American Modern’<br>Where • Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City<br>When • On show Friday, May 25, through Sunday, Sept. 2<br>Hours • 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; open until 9 p.m. Wednesdays; closed Mondays<br>Admission • Part of UMFA general admission: $12.95 for adults, $9.95 for youth (6-18) and seniors (65 and up); free for children (5 and younger), UMFA members, University of Utah students, staff and faculty, students at all Utah public universities, Utah Horizon/EBT cardholders, and active-duty military families<br>Free days • Free admission on the first Wednesday and third Saturday of every month<br>Lecture • “Topaz: Our Stories,” in which Kimi Kodani Hill, Obata’s granddaughter, and other descendants of Japanese-American internees share their families’ experiences at the Topaz War Relocation Center near Delta, Utah; Thursday, May 31, at 6:30 p.m. at the Dumke Auditorium at UMFA; free.