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Carved From Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He went away and hewed to the line. He came back and carved a life.

That’s what happened when Gardena celery farmer Heishiro Otani was shipped off to an American internment camp during World War II.

To while away the time, Otani whittled. A half-century later, he’s still at it.

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But don’t think for an instant that the 84-year-old is some old codger rocking on the porch, lazily putting knife to stick.

He works on a grander scale. And his works have a look of grandeur.

Otani can turn a hunk of discarded power pole into a lifelike image of Sho-ki, an ancient deity said to ward off bad spirits. A smooth piece of walnut becomes an intricately detailed castle. A slab of mahogany changes into an elegant, four-masted sailing ship plowing through the waves.

He has created 230 highly detailed wood sculptures since his first piece--a flower fashioned from a foot-long piece of driftwood picked up at the Rohwer relocation center in Desha County, Ark.

Otani was among 8,000 West Coast residents of Japanese descent who were moved to the encampment in the isolated bayou country of southeast Arkansas.

He had been a 29-year-old farmer with a thriving celery-growing business at the start of the war. Like most, he went willingly when U.S. authorities--still jittery over Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor--started rounding up Japanese Americans in the spring of 1942.

“I accepted it,” Otani remembers. “That was the situation at hand. I had no control over it.”

The camp routine was one of monotony. But things took a turn for the better six months into his confinement when he peeped in at an art show set up by another camp resident.

“It was a small carving exhibit done by Mr. Koizumi. He was a woodcarving teacher. I decided to learn,” Otani said.

“Arkansas certainly had an abundance of wood.”

Otani sent off for mail-order carving supplies--chisels of varying widths and a mallet that could be used to drive them through the hardest of woods.

His first carving was modest: He formed a roughly hewn camellia from the driftwood and then sanded it smooth. His friends were amazed. Otani was hooked.

He signed up for drawing classes taught by another detainee, artist Henry Sugimoto. After that, Otani’s hands were never idle.

Despite the camp’s harsh and unfamiliar surroundings, Otani’s art was filled with beauty, not bitterness.

“There was no anger. When I carve, there’s a feeling of serenity,” he said. “It’s a good feeling.”

Otani left the camp behind in August 1945. But he never set aside his passion for wood.

Back home, he returned to growing celery and added strawberries as a crop. In time, Otani owned eight acres at Prairie and 190th streets in Torrance and leased another 70 from the Edison Co.

For years his serious carving was limited to rainy days when his fields were too muddy to work. He resumed sculpting in earnest when he retired 18 years ago.

These days, he has reserved a spare room at his Palos Verdes Estates home for carving. Other rooms are used for the display of finished pieces. Many are inscribed with the carefully carved name of his wife of 55 years, Chisato.

Although he has given pieces to their son and daughters, Otani has never sold a sculpture.

“Selling them is not my reason for carving,” he says simply.

Twice in the past 10 years Otani has been coaxed into publicly displaying his art. Each time he selected about 30 pieces to show. But on May 18 and 19, his family helped him gather 218 of them for an exhibit at the Gardena Buddhist Church.

More than 1,000 people filled the church social hall to view his life’s work. Some had tears in their eyes when they greeted Otani.

“It would take me a lifetime to do just one of these,” said Alan Braun, an aerospace worker who brought his 6-year-old daughter, Kayla, along.

Church board chairman John Murakami was taken by Otani’s earliest carvings.

“What impressed me was that he pursued something that kept him at peace in the concentration camp,” said Murakami, of Torrance.

Daughter Keiko Otani, a Redondo Beach resident, said there is something spiritual about her father’s work.

“He studies each cut. He carves things that bring out positive feelings,” she said.

Naomi Murakami, Otani’s other daughter (who is unrelated to John Murakami), has a garage door-size carving at her Palos Verdes Estates home. She said she was shocked to learn that her father’s love of art came from a war relocation camp.

“I never even knew about the camps until I was 8 or 9 and it was mentioned in school,” Murakami said.

“My mom and dad would talk about their camp years. But I always thought they were talking about Boy Scouts or summer camp.”


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