“That’s my Great Auntie Fumiko. That’s my mom—or is it Frank? That’s in Bainbridge Island,” said Ken Matsudaira as he scrolled through pictures of his family among hundreds and thousands of people of Japanese ancestry on their way to or in incarceration camps. Matsudaira would later use those pictures to create posters advertising a Day of Remembrance event at Seattle Central College.
Matsudaira has been a curator at the M. Rosetta Hunter Art Gallery since 2000. The gallery, located across the dining area of the college, houses nine exhibitions during the school year and one in the summer. More than just a rectangular space with framed objects on the wall, Matsudaira said that the gallery provides opportunities for students to expand on the dialogues they are already having in their classes across different disciplines.
“The art gallery is kind of like chemistry lab where you get to see concepts you’re learning about in different classes put into action,” said Matsudaira. “For me, bringing in works that have social significance is part and parcel. It’s one of the primary missions for the exhibitions.”
The gallery’s operating budget is small, Matsudaira said. After taking out professional staff and student employee salary, it runs on about $8,000 for the whole academic year. The student government at Seattle Central—the Associated Student Council—fully funded the gallery, which Matsudaira said is a good thing. “It would have been cut a long time ago otherwise,” he said.
The gallery usually has from a dozen to 20 artworks on its wall on any given show, with an exception of the end-of-year Student Exhibition where he tries to fit 30 to 40 works. Matsudaira said that it does not take a lot of pieces to create an interesting, meaningful dialogue. The inspiration for those dialogues themselves come from the Seattle Central community.
“For a lot of that I’m kind of just looking out into the campus. What’s going on campus? We’re constantly having folks come in with ideas for shows and oftentimes they do develop into things that end up on the walls,” he said.
When he is not developing exhibitions a year in advance, or working on a grant request for the next academic year in April for the gallery, Matsudaira works on personal projects and guest-curating projects in the Greater Seattle Area. He said that he has not made art for the public in over 20 years, but lately he said he has been thinking about facilitating inter-generational conversations about the Japanese incarceration camps—a not-so-easy part of history for families to talk about.
Then he realized something: he wants ghost stories.
The idea for the independent project he titled Minidoka Ghost Stories came about from his journey in the summer to Minidoka Wartime Relocation Center in Idaho, where over 9,000 people of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned. Being in the former incarceration camp with a camera in hand and nobody else around, Matsudaira said he felt disconnected from the site.
“It took me a while to figure out why I was feeling disappointed and not connecting: for me these sites have always been about people and there were no people there,” he said. “There were just stuff. As night fell I kind of got the idea, why not bring the spirits back?”
The underlying goal for this project is to give yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese Americans, an alternative entry way into asking about this chapter of their family’s history to their elders.
“Because of the age of folks who were in the camps then, they might not know what it was really like, they were probably children at the time and didn’t have a great understanding of what was going on or the overall ramifications,” Matsudaira said. “But they certainly can tell you a ghost story. Things that their siblings told them to scare them.”
Whether Matsudaira is monitoring the gallery in weekday mornings or outside chasing ghosts, he believes that art is central to understanding life.
“I think that we tend to think of art as something that’s separate, or a luxury—something extra. But the advantage on an academic gallery is that you’re able to really go deep and talk about issues in ways that are incredibly different than reading about it or hearing a lecture,” said Matsudaira. “Art has the ability to bypass a lot of our screens and hit us in a much more visceral level.”