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Uplifting work came from a dark chapter

Smithsonian display casts light on Japanese-Americans who beautified their dismal internment camp surroundings

Kichitaro Kawase, interned at Amache, Colo., used scrap wood, metal and paint for this butsudan, a wooden cabinet with doors that enclose and protect a religious icon and other items.

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The Smithsonian American Art Museum is presenting "The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese-American Internment Camps, 1942-1946" at its Renwick Gallery. The display opened March 5 and runs through Jan. 30, 2011. The exhibition features more than 120 objects, the majority of which are on loan from families of former internees. "The Art of Gaman" presents an opportunity to educate a new generation of Americans about the internment experience and provide a historical context through archival photographs and artifacts.

"The Art of Gaman" is organized by San Francisco-based author and guest curator Delphine Hirasuna with the cooperation of the San Francisco chapter of the Japanese-American Citizens League. The exhibition is based on Hirasuna's book, "The Art of Gaman," published by Ten Speed Press.

"My mother died in 2000 and I was going through one of the boxes in the garage and came across a wooden bird pin and then I started remembering some of the things I had seen over the years. A friend of mine who saw the pin suggested that it might make an interesting topic for a book," says Hirasuna. "So that is how it started. My parents never really talked about the camps so I really didn't know what was [in the boxes] and I was blown away by what I saw - the range, the quality. It was after I gathered about a dozen things that I realized that this was a richer topic than I initially anticipated."

Gentaro and Shinzaburo Nishiura, both professional woodworkers, were interned at Heart Mountain, Wyo., and built this butsudan with wood and glue.

Soon after the Dec. 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, almost 120,000 ethnic Japanese - more than two-thirds of whom were American citizens by birth - were ordered to leave their homes and move to 10 inland internment camps for the duration of World War II.

"The rule was that the entire West Coast was declared a military zone so when the orders came down to what they called 'evacuate,' basically there was no place to evacuate to because the other states said if you consider the Japanese so dangerous, we don't want them either," Hirasuna says. "They went through the orphanages, foster care homes, they took people out of hospitals. If you had 1/16 Japanese blood, you had to go into camps. Within 11 weeks after Pearl Harbor, people had to begin reporting to camp so it wasn't enough time to really think through what you could do."

While in these remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by soldiers with machine guns, the internees used scraps and materials to make furniture and other objects to beautify their surroundings. Arts and crafts became essential for simple creature comforts and emotional survival. What they created is a celebration of the human spirit under adversity. These objects - furniture, tools, teapots, toys and games, musical instruments, pendants and pins, purses and ornamental displays - are physical representations of the art of "gaman," a Japanese word that means to bear the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience.

This Japanese-style display cabinet was made of scrap wood and shellac by Frank Kosugi, who was interned at Rohwer, Ark.

Using found materials at first and later what they could order by catalog, the internees sought courage and solace through art. They whittled and carved, painted, etched, stitched and crocheted.

"People didn't value what they had. They made it in camp, but most of them threw it in a shed or their attic and didn't look at it again. When I started asking around, people gave me stuff that was still in boxes from 1945," Hirasuna says. "Most of them, particularly the woodworkers, were not professional artists. They were just making it because they needed a piece of furniture or just to occupy their time. So when the camps closed, they didn't think of themselves as having made anything exceptional."

The exhibition is presented under the patronage of Norman Mineta, a former congressman and U.S. secretary of transportation, and regent of the Smithsonian. Mineta was interned at Heart Mountain in Wyoming.

"Since the book has come out, people have been coming out of the woodwork," Hirasuna says. "People are telling me what they have and I think they are looking at this in a whole new light. Then, once it became an exhibition, people have really changed the way they view these things. The people who made these things are all gone, I would say 99 percent."

This chair was built from scrap wood by Jack Yoshizuka, who was interned at Topaz, Utah.

In 2006, the exhibition appeared at museums in California, Oregon and Connecticut. The presentation at the Renwick includes several additions that have not been seen publicly, including works by Ruth Asawa, Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani, Isamu Noguchi, Henry Sugimoto and master woodworkers Gentaro and Shinzaburo Nishiura.

Contact: Smithsonian Institution, MRC 970, P.O. Box 37012, Washington, D.C. 20013-7012. Tel: 202-633-8530.

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.

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