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Bellevue Arts Museum displays work by interned Japanese Americans

Bellevue Arts Museum exhibit of art by Japanese Americans


The Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM) has taken a bold step in exhibiting art and crafts created by Japanese Americans interned in camps from 1942-1946. After Pearl Harbor, 120,000 were forcibly removed from their homes and held in several camps where they lived in tiny, poorly constructed barracks and had barely the least of necessities. To satisfy both their need for practical objects such as furniture and tools and their need for creative and emotional expression, they fashioned art out of whatever materials they could find.

In one of the videos accompanying the exhibit, curator Delphine Hirasuna points out that the materials used often identified the location of the camp, so carvings made from mesquite came from one site and those of ironwood from another. This was especially true in the case of work from Tule and Topaz, both of which were on the site of dry sea beds and thus supplied the artists with quantities of shells to fashion into delicate butterfly-shaped pins, corsages for weddings and flowers for funerals.

Some of the makers were actual artists who created paintings, many depicting the landscape around them and life in the camps. Those with particular skills often taught others in workshops. Many were non-artists--farmers, gardeners, shop-keepers--who found in art a way to pass the time as well as express their emotions, and who abandoned artwork once they were released from the camps.

Fashioned from shells, bits of wood or wire, crepe paper, and even toilet paper, these art works nevertheless exhibit a professional polish, not the crude renderings one might expect, given the circumstances of their making. One large collection features wooden pins in the shape of various birds, carved and painted to precisely resemble their species. An exhibit note mentions that the artists had access to some Audubon cards and a magazine with a feature article on birds.

Despite the misery of their situation, the Japanese Americans also found ways to entertain themselves, as witnessed by a finely rendered chess board, card decks of stenciled designs, and a painted wooden puzzle whose object is to move the pieces to free the young woman from the confines of parents and servants to surround herself with suitors.

Where possible, accompanying notes tell us something about the maker and his/her circumstances. Two videos also augment the exhibit--one featuring the curator and the stories of interned families, the other following the history of early Japanese immigrants through the internment. The latter is especially disturbing as it pits the Japanese Americans' belief in the goodness of America against racial slurs voiced by American politicians and journalists.

The exhibit is aptly entitled The Art of Gaman, where gaman means "to endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity." It continues until October 12, 2014. For more information about the Bellevue Arts Museum, contact