Artist Unidentified, Interned at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Camp Scene, wood, paint. Collection of the Japanese American Museum of San José. From “Art of Gaman” by Delphine Hirasuna, 2005. Photo credit: Terry Heffernan.

The plain gray cardboard box with a dated design of Christmas ornaments belied the treasures within – a dozen or so exquisitely carved and painted birds in miniature, meticulous to the tiniest of feathers, all carved by my Japanese grandfather during his internment in the Arizona desert in WWII. My journey to Washington DC to see the “Art of Gaman” at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery began with that box which my Nisei mother gave me some twenty years ago.

Delphine Hirasuna’s journey, the show’s curator, was not accidently similar. She found a carved bird among her mother’s affects, which began her quest to create “Art of Gaman.” “Gaman” is a Japanese word, something akin to patience, but in situations where normal patience is impossible or nearly so. Hirasuna has sought out creators and holders of the art pieces that came out of the suffering in America’s internment camps.

Those locations were mostly desolate desert locales, often Indian reservations, and were void of not only beauty, but things of everyday necessity. Faced with this, the internees created from scrap and from scratch things to fill the void, from utilitarian items to fine art.

This exhibition is the culmination of first a book, then an earlier show in San Francisco. The current showing has been expanded and now includes additions by well-known Japanese American artists, such as Asawa, Sugimoto, Mirikitani, and Noguchi, and significant pieces by lesser known and unknown artists. The collection of some 120 objects is handsomely housed in the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Art Museum, conveniently one block away from the White House.

“Gaman” is a testament of the need to create beauty, and the fullness of that beauty created under hardship and in isolation. Using all types of materials – threads from unwoven onion sacks and rewoven into baskets, or glass to improvised sandpaper – the most mundane materials became the seeds for art and for the tools to create them. A discarded sewer pipe is unrecognizable as a flower vase with its beautiful engravings; crates were transformed into all manner of things from butsudan (home religious altars) to furniture, and even an evacuation order notice, the very one that put people into these camps, supplied much needed paper for paintings. Like the dessert blooms of cactus, whose flowers are bold beyond their usual understated guise, these art objects found their way to be brilliant.

But the exhibition is not just about the creative urge that found voice in laborers and farmers – it’s also about need and the healing power of art to express deep feelings, including pain, loss, identity and nostalgia. An anonymous painter, created a classical Japanese watercolor landscape, with a majestic Manzanar mountain in the background, and lush, billowing, and decidedly non-desert trees in the foreground. Yet in the dreamlike middle ground, caught in a kind of purgatory, are the faint wash of images of a barrack city with two laborers working the land, leaving viewer wondering – which is reality and which is fantasy? Every piece in the show seems to have a story, some known, others forever lost. A father’s wooden box sent to his daughter Ruth Asawa (who would become a notable sculptor) then outside the camp, shows a Cezanne-inspired still life of a kitchen table carved in relief, all seemingly serene – but the prominent picture window suggests a dreamy memory of the freedom of the outside world. Although the father could not escape, his box, daughter, and his imagination could.

Like Asawa’s father, and even my own grandfather, most of the pieces were created by older Issei (first generation Japanese) in the internment camps, whose hands were long accustomed to daily work and not to idleness. Younger people put their energy into new social relationships, or found ways to escape the confines of camp.

Thus, the wisdom of these working class hands created works of beauty, and infused them with the collected, but distant, memory of Japanese culture, and equally blended them with a newer love and respect for America. Symbols are important, and become even more so under siege. A pen drawing by Fuji Nakamizo, of whom so little is known, shows a classically perched eagle atop a tree. The Japanese style is unmistakable, yet it is a bald eagle screeching, perhaps cheering on the American war planes flying in the background.

Back to that box of birds my mother gave me – yes, they are beautiful specimens of American birds, just like those in this Smithsonian show; but dominating my boxed flock is a bald eagle – the biggest and boldest of all. I will never know if these birds represented missed beauty or the imagined freedom of flight … yet I do know my grandfather loved and cherished America, and this love fueled his Japanese tempered “gaman.”

“The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946” is presented at the Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C., with the cooperation of the Japanese American Citizens League, San Francisco Chapter. The James Renwick Alliance, Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, Nion McEvoy, and Cary Frieze provided support for the exhibition. Through January 30, 2011.

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