The development of a society within a particular geographic location with given demographic factors is never without pitfalls. The factors that have affected the development of our own society are unique, and in many cases triumphant; but even though our desert has been transformed into a thriving civilization, Utah has its own cultural and demographic blemishes. One of those is the World War II internment camp at Topaz, tucked away in the desert near Delta. Such a blemish cannot be hid, but must be made known, for the dignity of the lives affected, and for the standards of humanity of those to come. This has been the mission of Jane Beckwith, who has spent decades trying to raise awareness about this part of our history. Her crowning achievement is the newly realized Topaz Museum, which opens this month with a fine art exhibit curated by art historian Scotti Hill.
Just after Pearl Harbor, the 70% of Japanese Americans who lived in California were given 10 days to liquidate their assets and, only with what they could carry, were taken to internment centers. At Topaz, in an area with just a 1 ½-mile radius, 8,500 detainees were housed in unfurnished communal barracks where they were subject to bitter cold and dust storms. Worst of all, according to Hill, might have been “the psychological and emotional stress involved when your government labels you an enemy to your country.” Families, however, were allowed to live together, and detainees could attend school, were treated at hospitals, had access to libraries, theaters, and a job. This was not Auschwitz, but each detainee had their freedom taken from them as well as their way of life.
Jane Beckwith became intensely interested in Topaz in 1982, when she asked her journalism students to research what she thought was an important part of U.S. history and discovered that few of her students knew about Topaz and the other Japanese internment camps. “From that time on, my interest in the complexity of the subject led from one project to another, until now the Topaz Museum Board [of which she is president] has purchased 634 acres of the original site and has constructed a building to house the museum.”
The Topaz site is the most intact of the original 10 internment camps and looks much like it did in the late 1940s when the buildings, guard towers, utility poles, water tower and water pipes were removed from the site. For more than a decade the camp has been open to visitors. And now a museum in nearby Delta will chronicle the lives of those who lived in Topaz.
As the project developed, says Beckwith, “Japanese Americans started sharing with me their stories about what it was like to live in Topaz. The stories were fascinating and complex given that we live in the U.S… People who were in Topaz had something they wanted to say, and they wanted the Topaz Museum to record their memories.”
With financial assistance from the National Park Service, the Topaz Museum Board purchased land on Delta’s Main Street and, in 2013, constructed a museum designed by Alan Kawasaki, principle of Shah Kawasaki Architects, Oakland, whose family, the Hayashidas, lived on Block 7 at Topaz. Sparano and Mooney Architects and Darin Mano of RAW Design completed drawing for the 8,000 sq. ft. building situated at 55 W. Main St.The opening of the museum, on Jan. 13, has waited only on the final installation of the impressive exhibits.
Among the artifacts the museum has amassed are 95 pieces of art painted at the Topaz Art School, run by Chiura Obata, the UC Berkeley professor of art who was detained there. From among these, Hill has curated an exhibition of works on paper, a primary Japanese art medium, entitled “When words weren’t enough: Works on paper from Topaz, 1942-1945.”
Hill has chosen to focus on five major artists from the camp, working in five mediums (watercolor, ink, woodblock printing, gouache and color casein) hoping the public will recognize and respond to the art as “giving [these] people a reason to look forward to life.” For the artist, Hill has a sense that there was some urgency, a feeling that, “If I don’t record this, maybe it will be forgotten.”
One of the primal urges in these artists, one which created some of the most potent art, was the desire to express the situation of the camps. For artist Minè Okubo this meant an emotionally brutal rendering of the harshest of human conditions. In her “Mother and Child-Telephone Poles,” the figures are expressed with an exaggerated geometry and hyperbole of various parts to the whole, not to arouse sympathy, but to convey the extent of the state of suffering. Heads are in a gross state of proportion as if the mind has been pushed to its limit, eyes are minute, and in the girl’s case doubled, showing a myopic view on the world and an unclear vision nearly cut off, forced to live in one’s mind. The feeling of anxiety is extreme as the mother wrings her hands and the daughter clings to her and the state of unknowing is echoed in the telephone poles which stand as symbols complicit with barbed wire and are on both the inner and outside of the wall and have apparently no end and provide no answers to the state of madness the mother and child are left in.
Most of the works in the exhibit are not as dramatic as “Mother and Child” but still depict the unsettling circumstances of the internment centers. The majority show the immediate surroundings of Topaz, and though some may appear as somewhat prosaic, the setting gives many a charged undertone. The trees, barracks, two figures, and collared dog of Charles Erabu Suiko Mikami’s watercolor, for example, are all straightforward and non-threatening, but the title — “Watching over the camp, Dog with Collar” — gives the work a touch of irony when seen near Chiura Obata’s “Guard Towers and Mt. Swasey.” Setsuko Nagata Kanehara’s “Block 7,” with its lack of fences or guard towers and its light, attractive colors, could almost seem idyllic. But another work by the same artist, “Laundry,” is a no-nonsense representation of concentration- camp life. This is no summer holiday or vacation resort but a severely regimented institution, one in which there was strict and absolute rule and regulation, and a no-nonsense attitude toward life.
Though the physical aspect of the camp and its immediate surroundings were the subjects of many of the works done by the detainees, the Topaz artists were also well involved in expressive abstraction and the themes of the camp were well internalized by the artists and made powerful subjects. Okubo’s “Poles and Fences Part 1” is a hauntingly brilliant expressive abstract work that uses bright color with westernized symbols to create a bold statement. Her colors are bright and she uses various tones of green, pink, and taupe to create a canvas that in and of itself suggests very little other than abstract color and vertical spaces, but when we see the same telephone poles that appear in her “Mother and Child” drawings arranged in a crucifix-like pattern, the effect is transfixing.
As might be expected, some of the more sophisticated approaches to the camp experience can be seen in the many images by professor Obata. In his “The Distant Camp” there is a harmonic rendering of a purple mountain far in the distance, and a mystical haze that seems as if a reminder of traditional landscape, a reminder of the peaceable home life and tradition; this is disturbed, though, by the semblance of the jagged form of the camp and the piece’s title Painted in 1942 when Obata first arrived, the painting may express the anxiety of the unknown, connecting the peace of traditional Japanese landscape with the ugliness and contradictory state of existence that is the internment camp.
His “Guard Towers and Mt. Swasey” also harks back to a long history and tradition. It is hard to imagine any mountain in and around Delta, Utah, looking more like Mount Fuji than Mount Swasey does in this painting, and it is hard to imagine any Japanese painter, while painting Mount Swasey, painting it without some allusion to the most painted mountain in the world. But again, we find a painting that reads on many levels. Here we see what is ostensibly an allusion to the artist’s native land, but what is being realized is a crossroads in culture, in reality, in the reality of art and humanity. That the days of tradition and harmony are no longer, that the days of painting Mount Fuji, whatever the modern condition, are long past .
The reality of injustice, told in this history, is what the Topaz Museum seeks to preserve and to propagate. The opening of this important museum, and its inaugural exhibits will provide a hope that the truth of this blemish will not be forgotten, and that life where unity of community and respect for cultural difference will always find value.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.