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An Artist Settles Into a Lifelong Pattern : Momo Nagano was attracted early to the Navajo art form of weaving. Eventually, it helped her appreciate her own ethnic heritage.

August 14, 1994|MOMO NAGANO

Momo Nagano, 68, of Silver Lake, a second-generation Japanese American, grew up near Jefferson Boulevard and Western Avenue. As part of the wave of anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II, Nagano and her family were sent to the Manzanar internment camp in the Owens Valley in 1942. After finishing high school at the camp, she was allowed to leave and attend Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where she earned a bachelor's degree in history. Nagano eventually returned to Los Angeles, married, raised a family of four as a single parent and embarked upon a career as a weaver. For more than a decade, Nagano also has worked in the gallery at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo. Though she says her job has yet to influence her weaving style, the experience has increased her appreciation for her own ethnic culture and made her see the need to keep alive its traditional art forms. Nagano was interviewed by Tommy Li.

I was 16 years old when my family was sent to Manzanar. The first few months, for those of us who had no jobs, there was not a lot to do, so when the U.S. government decided to set up a camouflage net factory in camp, I immediately signed up.

Though the project did not last long, I found that I loved the process of weaving burlap strips through the netting. Ironically, that may have influenced me to go into weaving seriously over 20 years later.

After finishing college, I studied ceramics at a local art school in Los Angeles and became a potter in the '60s. I moved on to weaving after reading a library book on Navajo weaving. I took a weaving course to learn the basics and would go home from class each week to weave hangings with bright colors and every new technique I had learned.

I don't think my weaving looks particularly Japanese, because I make up the abstract designs as I weave. I've studied other techniques like African weaving, South American weaving, but I had little exposure to Japanese weaving.

I fell into this job at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center accidentally. The gallery secretary asked me if I would take her job temporarily because she was going to have a baby. She never returned from her maternity leave, and my temporary part-time job became a permanent full-time position.

The job has always been interesting and quite educational for me, learning about the tea ceremony, flower-arranging, Okinawan stencil-dyeing, netsuke (miniature sculpture) and so on.

I didn't know that there were all the different schools with many different ways to do the flower arranging or the different approaches to the tea ceremony ritual.

I've learned about contemporary art and graphic design and photography in Japan and in the Japanese American community. The more you learn about something, the more you can appreciate it.

When I was young, I wanted to join the Girl Scouts and go camping, but my mother wanted me to be more ladylike and tried to encourage me to study the Japanese tea ceremony or flower arranging instead, a suggestion I totally rejected.

My parents didn't mind that there was a rejection. With the first-generation Japanese, they wanted the second generation to really appreciate all these cultural arts.

But at the same time, they were quite concerned that their children become Americanized, to fit into the American culture successfully.

In spite of their precautions, we still did things in our family like celebrate Japanese Boy's Day, where large cloth carp were flown for sons, and Japanese Girl's Day, where doll sets were displayed for daughters, and the traditional New Year's feasting. In that way you're absorbing Japanese culture without realizing it. So a few aspects of our culture were being passed on.

People as they mature get interested in their culture, and then that will keep some of the traditional arts going. There's no way you can force it.

That's where the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center becomes a valuable resource, especially for children of third-generation Japanese families.

The center offers special workshops during the summer for children ages 4 to 12. For four days, they are immersed in aspects of their culture that don't come up in their own homes. Center staff take them on a tour of Little Tokyo, to one of the Buddhist temples and to the Japanese American National Museum.

The children learn that many art forms are really beautiful in themselves. Traditional Japanese arts bring self-discipline, serenity and peace of mind to people who practice them.

For the first time at the center, I did a basic weaving workshop for the kids, ages 7 to 8.

I tried to relate it to the Japanese culture. I was going to have them weave the moon shape and talk about the traditional moon viewing, in which the Japanese gather during the summer in a garden to admire the moon and write poetry about it.

But they were a bit too energetic and too young to get the cultural lesson across, though they enjoyed the basic weaving. Only two of them managed to complete the moon shape.

If sessions were longer and I had more time to spend with each child, I wouldn't mind doing it again next summer.

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