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History Through an Internee’s Eyes

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.

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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.

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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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Sugimoto himself characterized the place as a “snake-infested swamp.” But he continued his work, says Madeleine, “because there was a sense of trying to use time in a productive way.”

His sketches and paintings document the transition from freedom to imprisonment. To tell his story, he turned to a narrative style. In “Attacked Pearl Harbor,” a worried Japanese American couple read a newspaper account of the attack, while their son listens to the radio. In “My Papa,” a farmer is being taken away by an FBI agent while his child and dog run after him. A surreal touch is evident in “Evacuation (One Dollar for a Nice Icebox)” as a mysterious hand emanates from the wheel of a cart, holding a $1 bill--clearly an offering for the depicted GE icebox and a reference to the fact that interned Japanese Americans were forced to sell off their property at bottom-dollar prices.

Then there are scenes of camp life: a family working together to push a wheelbarrow of logs in “Our Winter”; men and women washing dishes, clothing and babies in “Wash Room”; or standing in line under a hot sun in “Line Up for Lunch.”

“There were no cameras; we didn’t have things like that,” says Madeleine, “so for my father, this was a way of recording our life.”

The exhibition is able to show some of the subjects sketched, then painted, then painted yet again as Sugimoto continued to revisit the scenes and themes that haunted him for decades afterward.

After the war, Sugimoto wanted a break with the past, as well as a chance to live in the center of the American art world, New York. To make a living there, Susie took a job as a typist, and Henry eventually found work transferring designs to textiles. He still painted, and he was exhibited a few times, but he kept his day job for nearly 25 years. Finally in 1962, he retired to devote himself to art.

“I felt that this was the time to stand up,” he wrote in his unpublished autobiography, “and if I didn’t do this now, I would be dragged down . . . and my life would continue without meaning until I grew old and my life ended.”

With Susie’s approval, he traveled back to France alone for a year, then revisited his hometown, Wakayama, after an absence of 40 years. After his return to New York and his family, he regularly sent works to Japanese exhibitions.

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In the 1980s, he donated a number of works to public buildings in Wakayama, including a set of murals to the Civic Library. The latter, whose dates are unclear, depicted the camp experience, reworkings of smaller paintings. The Japanese American National Museum has been able to borrow seven of these murals, painted on canvas and measuring up to 6 by 8 feet.

“They consider these their big-time treasures,” Higa says of the officials in Wakayama. “This will be the first they’ll be exhibited in the U.S.”

Asked if her father ever expressed any bitterness about the incarceration, Madeleine is philosophical. “The experience interrupted his career in California,” she acknowledges, “but he could see that it was beyond anyone’s control. Maybe that came from his Japanese background--to make the best of what is handed to you.”

Japanese American National Museum associate curator Kristine Kim has written an illustrated biography of Sugimoto published by Californiana specialist Heyday Books. “There’s a critique in these paintings,” she notes. “You see in his artwork a continual reassessment of those issues.”

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“HENRY SUGIMOTO: PAINTING AN AMERICAN EXPERIENCE,” Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. 1st St., Los Angeles. Dates: Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Prices: $6, adults; $5, seniors; $3, students and children. Phone: (213) 625-0414.


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