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History Through an Internee's Eyes

The WWII order to detain Japanese Americans forever changed Henry Sugimoto and his art.

March 18, 2001|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is a frequent contributor to Sunday Calendar

"A rising artist, whose achievements are the results of unceasing endeavor, strong will power and perseverance," was how Henry Sugimoto was characterized in a brochure accompanying his one-man show at San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1933. At that moment, the graduate of the California School of Arts and Crafts seemed well launched into a thriving art career. And in the years to follow, his work was exhibited from Oakland to San Diego.

An admirer of the French Post-Impressionists, he created still-life and landscape sketches and paintings. He had traveled to France, and his subjects included quaint villages, the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, and himself in a beret, looking jauntily artistique.

But then, back home in California, he was caught in a special kind of war zone. Three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Executive Order 9066 sent some 110,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to detention centers. The U.S. government saw them as potential threats in the war against Japan.

Like the others, Sugimoto quietly packed up his family--his wife, Susie, and daughter, Madeleine--left behind the bulk of his worldly possessions and ended up in one of 10 "relocation" camps. But compliance did not mean acceptance. Sugimoto faced the tenuous position of being a racial minority in the United States, and his art changed forever.

That change is the focus of "Henry Sugimoto: Painting an American Experience," opening Saturday at the Japanese American National Museum, the first retrospective of the artist's works since his death in 1990.

Conveyed in two parts--thematically at the museum's new Pavilion and chronologically at its historic building across the plaza--the show includes some 100 pieces created over five decades. Woodcuts, paintings and wall-sized murals are supplemented by sketchbooks, photographs and other documents.

"This is the largest and most important exhibition of a Japanese American artist that we've done to date," says Karin Higa, the museum's senior curator of art. "Sugimoto was an artist on the rise in the prewar period, and he was transformed by the war years." Furthermore, the fact that he left behind such a large body of work "really makes a difference."

Indeed, the museum has had a built-in advantage in studying his oeuvre and in mounting this exhibition. When the artist died in 1990, he bequeathed 142 works to the future Japanese American National Museum--which did not became a reality until 1992, with the new wing added in 1999. Eighty percent of the art in this exhibition comes from that bequest, with the remainder on loan from Sugimoto's daughter and a library in Japan.

The museum curators only got a look at the work in Madeleine Sugimoto's possession two years ago. Visiting her in New York--where the family settled after the war--they discovered that she kept her father's studio and storeroom intact, and there the curators found not only paintings, but archival material, including an autobiography he had written.

Sugimoto, born and raised in Wakayama, Japan, came to the U.S. in 1919, at age 19, to join his parents, who had settled in California's Central Valley, in the town of Hanford. After attending art school in the Bay Area, he spent three years studying and painting in France before coming back to the Central Valley to marry his hometown sweetheart, Susie.

Then came the order to evacuate. Madeleine was only 6 when her parents packed her up and left for the Fresno Assembly Center, not far from home. There they ate their packed lunches on park benches with hundreds of other families.

"I said to my parents it was like a big picnic," she recalls, speaking by phone from New York "and I just wondered when we'd be going home."

In fact, one of her father's 1943 paintings, "When Can We Go Home?," captures the moment--a child looking at her mother to ask a simple question. The canvas is split by diagonals--the main one being a lightning bolt that zigzags from upper left to middle right, then back to the lower left corner. The upper right corner shows the reduced world of the Sugimotos--a guard tower overlooking camp barracks; the left shows Art Deco buildings and a speeding train, a view of life before incarceration.

"Even though we could only take two suitcases each," Madeleine recalls, "my father took a few brushes and tubes of paint." Throughout the next three years, he maintained small, pocket-sized sketchbooks of pencil drawings. It was about six months before the Sugimotos were permanently placed--in Camp Jerome, Ark. There Sugimoto taught art at the camp high school.

With access to supplies at Camp Jerome, he also began painting regularly on canvas.

"My father, if he did paint, he would do it outside," Madeleine says. "It was kind of a bleak area; there wasn't much around."

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