This Japanese-American Internment Camp Life

We finally made it to the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco last weekend. I'll see a Sheeler show any time, any place, but except for a nice population of Diebenkorns and the well-stocked Oceanic galleries--oh, and Gerhard Richter's disorienting photomural commissioned for the atrium, and a few other little pieces I photographed and may post later--I'm afraid the de Young's Herzog & de Meuron building left more of an impression on me than their collection.

With two notable exceptions: there was a painting that looked like a charcoal drawing and dated 1944, which appears to have been done in the Japanese American internment camps. I've been armchair-fascinated--and since 2002, increasingly outraged--by the camps and how my country managed to incarcerate its own citizens--over half of them children--in the name of defending freedom.

But except for Ansel Adams' photos of Manzanar and portraits of its internees, I hadn't seen art that had been created in the camps. And I've been stalling for two paragraphs because I can't remember the artist's name... Danny...

Anyway, the permanent installation of sculptor Ruth Asawa's ethereally minimalist work was great, too, but I wish we'd been able to see the full Asawa retrospective [which left the de Young in January, and is at the Japanese American National Museum in LA until May 27.] I didn't know but should have that Asawa was interned as a girl; at Santa Anita, the horsetrack-turned-prison camp, Asawa began taking drawing lessons from older artists who had worked at Disney before Pearl Harbor. Black Mountain was a far greater influence on her aesthetic, perhaps, but the experience in the camp is a piece of her puzzle as well. Getting up to speed on her work and career is on my shortlist.

And for another, more surreally quotidian look at life in internment, there's Densho, the primary source/oral history initiative which has just put online a massive collection of newspapers published within the camps. The LA Times has an article about it today.

"MRS. Arikawa received a wire from Washington saying her son had been killed in action in Italy, but no one in the block knew of it for the whole day. She and Mr. Arikawa ate their meals unobtrusively and as usual at their table in the mess hall, he with his omnipresent cane laid against the bench and she quietly leaning over her plate…. Made homeless and their security jeopardized by the very agency to which they have given their sons, they must wonder what their reward will be." — Manzanar Free Press, July 29, 1944
A movie about daily life in the camps has been brewing in my head for years now, and I'd always been seduced by the rich tones and contrasts of Ansel Adams' photos, relying on his outsider's eye to capture the insidiously banal contradictions of loyal Americans stripped of their rights and property and rounded up into prison camps. But obviously now, that's because I haven't read enough of the Manzanar Free Press. Which, despite its title, was one of the more rigorously censored camp papers around.

Previously: I Mean, Just Look At How Happy They Were!

Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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first published: May 3, 2007.

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