Japanese American Artists Behind Barbed Wire

Following the forced exile from the West Coast under Executive Order 9066, many incarcerated Japanese Americans turned to art as a way to cope with their harsh prison environment. Stripped of the routines that had filled their pre-war lives, inmates picked up creative hobbies to while away the idle hours of confinement, and painting and drawing soon became popular pastimes.

At some of the camps, Japanese Americans participated in organized classes in painting and drawing taught by fellow inmates. At Tanforan Assembly Center, for example, professional artists Chiura Obata and George Matsusaburo Hibi established an art school which enrolled more than 300 students in just over five months. After the school’s students and instructors were transferred to Topaz in the fall of 1942, the Tanforan Art Center merged with the Topaz Education Program, growing to over 600 students and offering classes in a wide range of subjects from graphic arts to oil painting.

Others tried their hand independently, recreating scenes from the journey to camp, depicting the surrounding landscape and documenting everyday life, and even sketching intricately-detailed fashion designs.

We’re fortunate enough to have several examples of these inmate-artists’ work in our digital archives—and we hope to continue adding to this impressive collection!

Painting of Gila River concentration camp by Dick Sata. Courtesy of the Sata Family Collection.
This painting, titled “Playing Go in the furnace room in Minidoka,” was done by Nisei Art Mayeno in camp. He later submitted it to Burnley School of Art in Seattle as an admissions requirement. Courtesy of the Mayeno Family Collection.
A hand-painted postcard sent to Rev. Shinjo Nagatomi, the lead Buddhist minister at Manzanar. The postcard, sent from Tule Lake, shows the barracks there with the sun rising over Castle Rock. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Shinjo Nagatomi Collection.
Harry Hiroshi Imamura created several paintings depicting the journey to and life in Manzanar. Decades later, in the 1970s, he returned to painting after selling his truckstop restaurant. This painting shows Japanese Americans arriving in Manzanar: “Journey’s end is Manzanar, attained by the desert-dusty convoy as the long shade of the Sierras reaches across Owens Valley from the west.” Courtesy of the Imamura family and the National Park Service, Manzanar National Historic Site.
“Internees filled mattress tickings with straw as the last daylight fades over the Sierras. Upon these ticks, covering metal Army cots, Japanese slept. Only essential furniture was supplied. Additional comforts were fashioned in Manzanar workshops.” Courtesy of the Imamura family and the National Park Service, Manzanar National Historic Site.
Watercolor painting of Tule Lake by Shigenori Oiye. (Fun fact: Shigenori is the grandfather of Densho Digital Archivist Caitlin Oiye Coon!) Courtesy of the Shizuko and Shigenori Oiye Collection.
A sketch of Castle Rock near Tule Lake, also by Shigenori Oiye. Courtesy of the Shizuko and Shigenori Oiye Collection.

Artwork from an Issei art class in Amache, unknown artist. Courtesy of the George Ochikubo Collection.
Ink painting depicting a “famous Manzanar storm,” by an unknown Issei artist. Courtesy of the Wada and Homma Family Collection.
Hand-painted greeting card sent from Tule Lake to Rev. Shinjo Nagatomi in Manzanar. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Shinjo Nagatomi Collection.
Fashion print hand-drawn by Doris Ota Saito during her time at Heart Mountain. Courtesy of the Doris and Carl Saito Collection.
A color print by Doris Ota Saito. Courtesy of the Doris and Carl Saito Collection.

By Densho Staff.

[Header image courtesy of the Shizuko and Shigenori Oiye Collection.

2 Comments
    • 17/01/2019 at 7:23

    Such beauty out of tragedy! Thank you!

    • 21/01/2019 at 22:13

    Hello- Thank you for sharing those beautiful, bittersweet images. I have an extra copy of the book “Topaz: Chiura Obata’s Images of Internment” edited by Kimi Kodani Hill that I would like to donate to the Densho learning center, if it would be useful. Please let me know if I can send it.

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