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Inspiration, at its most enduring

The Art of Gaman Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946 Delphine Hirasuna Ten Speed Press, $35

June 22, 2006|Bettijane Levine

These sculptures, carvings and paintings are extraordinary celebrations of humanity and nature. Without knowing where they were done, and under what circumstances, they command attention and exaltation. When you realize that this amazing and varied collection of arts and crafts was created by Japanese Americans while they were interned as "enemy aliens" during World War II -- and that all of it was formed from discarded scraps and bits of found materials -- the appreciation of this art becomes as painful as it is uplifting.

The Japanese word gaman means "enduring what seems unbearable with patience and dignity." The internees -- who were given only a week to settle their affairs, who were allowed to take with them only what they could carry and, who lost much of the property and assets they had accumulated before being detained -- went above and beyond gaman. They carved, whittled, weaved, made jewelry, furniture, figurines and paintings that celebrate what cannot be imprisoned: artistry and imagination.

An exquisite flower pin is made of sunflower seeds glued onto a milk bottle cap. A mesquite branch rescued from a firewood pile is whittled into a rattlesnake. Bits of burlap and gunnysacks are woven into rugs; scrap lumber and discarded packing crates are carved into tables, chairs, birds and bears.

The author, a third-generation Japanese American, explains that most of the work was done by individuals who had never had any art training, who had been farmers, shopkeepers, fishermen and gardeners.

As amateurs, they tended not to think of their work as art, and undervalued what they'd created.

They gave it away freely, unsigned and, with the passage of time, many of their names have been forgotten.

It is assembled here, however, in a book that is something of an artwork itself -- and a history lesson.

-- Bettijane Levine

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