Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Surviving Through Art: Lily Havey’s Personal and Creative Odyssey

Watercolor painting depicting a train station scene with a solitary figure walking alongside tracks, overlaid with red splashes.

Lily Havey, “Training of Patience,” watercolor

Lily Yuriko Nakai Havey began her journey in Los Angeles in 1932, where and when she recalls feeling she was an American. She would soon learn, however, that her Japanese family background marked her in ways she did not understand, and she still refuses to accept. Forced at age ten to relocate inland, and incarcerated in what she now realizes was an American concentration camp, she found herself suspended between two cultures, a chasm she eventually bridged with a lifetime of study, teaching, art making and writing. Had she been born a few years later, she might have been too young to comprehend what happened to her; had she been born a few years earlier, she might have learned to forget. But instead, the child grew into a witness throughout her life to worlds most people overlook, and she set out to record what she has seen.

The thing that most perturbed her then, and continues to do so today, is that no other group was singled out, purely on the basis of how they look, to have their loyalty questioned. In her opening remarks of her current exhibition, in the Crescent Gallery at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center, she pondered why, when most nationalities have the option of not hyphenating their identities, she is among those whose status as Americans is automatically diluted: she is still Japanese-American.

Elegant stained glass screen depicting cranes in a stylized nature scene, framed by rich wooden panels.

Lily Havey’s stained glass screen featuring cranes

It’s not impossible that this awareness of how important, and how easily misjudged, appearances can be is what eventually drew her to visual art. After the war, her family settled in Salt Lake City, an historical place of refuge from official hostility. Then in the 1970s, when the venerable medium of stained glass became uniquely accessible in the United States, its lack of academic or vocational history drew numerous lay persons to try it. With her background, Havey was better prepared than most: Asian art had always featured calligraphy, and she saw, in the focus of the West Coast movement’s emphasis on graphic characteristics, a way to combine the two.

Minimalist artwork in black and white within a wooden frame, depicting abstract figures, suggesting a fluid and emotive form.

Lily Havey, “Calligraphy Circles,” glass

Samples of her stained glass works comprise the centerpiece of the current exhibition. Despite their contrasts, the three-panel, room divider screen and the three hanging panels that surround it share the earmarks of the West Coast Glass Movement that began in the 1960s. Key parts of the images, such as the Cranes, are fused rather than leaded. Much of the glass has been textured by softening in the kiln. Instead of the relatively passive lead line, the work is assembled using copper foil, which produces the look of a hand-drawn line, while the alternation of opaque and transparent glass reproduces the contrast between sumi-e brushwork and raw paper. In her first art, the characteristics of ’70s glass melded with the look of Asian scrolls.

If the 20th-century Studio Glass movement proved anything, it was that while glass does well enough at conveying narrative content, expressing emotions is not its strong suit. Havey’s Cranes say more about the vitality of living with Nature than they do about Hope, their symbolic meaning. Aware of these limits, and alerted by Vietnam veterans’ discovery of Post Traumatic Stress to a new understanding of her own wartime trauma, Havey felt moved to take up painting, particularly watercolor, for its greater range of emotional content. This work takes up two wings of the gallery, divided between her two major subjects: her experience in the camps during the war, and the very different life she’s observed in the decades since. Both are characterized by direct witness, sophisticated composition, and skillful control of spontaneous watercolor effects.

On one side of the gallery, she recollects the events that overtook her when, as a naive, patriotic child, she was swept up in a war by those she thought were on the same side, and would arguably have been if her family had just lived more than 60 miles from the coast. These paintings possess strong, characteristic passages that capture a child’s disoriented experience. Telltale differences of scale are everywhere: sometimes her fellow incarcerated are tiny, and menaced by fragmentary giants. Elsewhere, children that may be self-portraits loom large, suggesting the importance of her personal perspective and memories. The blood-red searchlights of “Towers of Arcadia,” bear down on the skeletons of those who died in detention, or may represent the suffering that continued throughout their lives. Time is also contorted: in “Training of Patience,” with its double-edged title, we see her mother, years after the war, leaning on a staff, still walking towards the symbolic train. For many Americans today, trains of that vintage are associated with the cattle cars that hauled the Nazis’ victims to extermination camps, but here are other trains, closer to home.

Scene of a crowded street with many figures, mostly in muted tones, under the shadow of green trees.

Lily Havey, “Parade,” watercolor

On the other side, Havey celebrates the beauty and joy of life since the war ended. Even here, the point of view is her own. In “Parade,” she leaves Kyoto’s Jidai Matsuri parade to the viewer’s imagination, focusing instead on the everyday people who come to see it. It’s in this third body of work that she begins to stretch out and take wing, painting bedding hung out to air, children with bright yellow umbrellas, and the contrast between rich and poor living close together. In the witty “Year of the Rooster,” the title bird crows his successful egg production while the hen resigns herself to doing most of the work. On the one hand, it’s clear that Havey saw a whole universe that might have appeared in her art; on the other, there is the question of whether, without her memory of the camps to motivate her, she might have chosen another calling entirely.

At each crucial point in her life, Lily Yuriko Nakai Havey seems to have taken a new path. Asked to explain her paintings, she eventually wrote a memoir, Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp: A Nisai Youth Behind a World War II Fence, which was published by Utah Press in 2014. A copy can be found in the Crescent Gallery, completing the retrospective of a career that might have been unbelievable, if the evidence weren’t right here.

A female figure in traditional Asian attire, set against a backdrop of industrial chaos and floating symbols.

Lily Havey, “Promise,” watercolor

My Name is Lily Havey …and Sometimes I Use Yuriko Nakai, Crescent Gallery, Utah Cultural Celebration Center, West Valley City, through July 8

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