Finding Chiura Obata Through His Art and Staying to Learn His Story
January 24, 2022
Thirty-five works by Japanese American artist Chiura Obata are set to join the Utah Museum of Fine Art’s permanent collection in Fall 2022.
“Building a collection for future generations of humans who will call Utah home is really one of the most exciting and most important things that we do at a collecting institution like the UMFA,” said UMFA Executive Director Gretchen Dietrich. “To bring the work of Chiura Obata into this collection is a really exciting thing for us. Adding his work to our collection is going to serve the museum well.”
Much of Obata’s work is inspired by the World War II internment camps, which held many Japanese American citizens, beginning in 1942 and ending in 1946. Obata and his family were among the Japanese Americans who were wrongly incarcerated. Specifically, they were held in the Topaz Internment Camp in Delta, Utah.
The UMFA first connected with the Obata family through a traveling exhibit dedicated to Obata’s work. The exhibit was displayed in many museums, including the UMFA.
According to Obata’s granddaughter, Kimi Hill, she and her family immediately thought the UMFA was a perfect place for the exhibit to make a stop.
“Topaz Museum is located two hours away,” Hill said. “It would be perfect if people could see the Obata art and maybe, hopefully, be inspired to go visit. It’s so important [that] if people are even just a little bit curious about this part of American history, they go to the actual site.”
She described herself as the Obata “family historian” and says that discussing her grandfather and educating others on his life brings her closer to him.
“At this time in my life, I feel like I am in a really good relationship with my grandfather,” she said. “That’s a funny way to say it, but we seem to be hanging out a lot because of all the interest [in his life].”
Hill said that despite Obata being the only real expert on himself and his life, she does her best to interpret his story and has learned a lot from it.
“I really appreciate his philosophy and his tenacity to live the way he wanted to and with his values,” she said. “It’s a nice way to be guided at this time in my life.”
According to Hill, people seem to find Obata through his art and stay to learn his story.
He was born in 1885 and grew up in Sendai, Japan, where he was raised by an older brother.
Hill said Obata loved to draw and paint from a young age and was trained in the sumi style of painting.
When Obata was 14, he ran away to Tokyo, Japan, where he found a master painter to work under as an apprentice. In Tokyo, Hill said, Obata was heavily influenced by the West.
“It was very cosmopolitan,” Hill said. “The West was interesting. [As] an artist, he wanted to go to the art capital of the world, Paris.”
At this point in his life, Obata was beginning his career as an artist.
“He was adventurous and restless,” Hill said. “He wanted to travel and support his artistic interest.”
Hill said Obata’s adventurous nature is what brought him to the United States.
“He was curious,” she said. “He thought he would come to California, at first, to make money and then keep going. But what happened is he really fell in love with California, and grew friendships and married.”
Obata settled in San Francisco, and was present during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
“He came from Japan, which has earthquakes all the time,” Hill said. “He didn’t panic. He got out of his room in one piece and then, immediately, because he’s an artist, started sketching. He has small sketches that are depictions of the aftermath of the earthquake that are in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.”
Hill attributes this to Obata’s optimistic attitude, an attitude that would follow him into the Topaz Internment Camp.
“The first day of the forced removal, he’s thinking of starting an art school,” Hill said. “It started at the first camp, which was a detention center while they were building Topaz.”
Hill described that, within a month, Obata and his family began an art school.
“They had no money from the government,” she said. “The government, basically, gave them a building to use and that was it.”
The art school was very successful, drawing children and adults alike to its classes.
“One of the best stories is that they were able to have an art show,” Hill said. “They were trying to keep a hold of some resemblance of normalcy and, you know, a life instead of being thrown into this completely unnatural situation.”
One of Obata’s primary messages is to learn from nature.
“He described it as ‘immerse yourself in nature, listen to what nature has to tell you,’” Hill said. “I think ultimately that was it. We’re living beings within a natural world, if we don’t have a close relationship with that and grow together or help each other, then it’s going to go sideways.”
Dietrich said there is no doubt in her mind that Obata is a very important American artist.
“I think he was thought of primarily, for a long time, as a Japanese American artist and, you know, pushed aside a little bit for not great reasons,” Dietrich said. “The truth is, he lived and worked as an artist in the United States. He was trained [in] and good at traditional forms of Japanese art. He took traditional forms of making art in the Japanese way and made American art. [Obata] showed us American landscapes and American people in really important, interesting and incredibly beautiful ways.”
Dietrich believes Obata’s works to be beautiful, powerful and connected to both historical and contemporary issues.
“They connect us to contemporary issues, [like] when we think about the immigrants at the Mexican border, and the ways in which we’re sort of keeping people in detention centers until we can sort out their coming into the United States,” she said. “Those are complex and very painful issues that aren’t really new. They are relevant and present in [Obata’s] work, and I think that’s what great art is all about: It offers new ways of thinking about and thinking through challenges that we are facing.”