Because of construction to the White River Valley Museum’s main entry, all visitors are ushered into the museum through a side door. Open another door, and one is suddenly at the mid-point of the Handmade in Camp—What We Couldn’t Carry special exhibit in the Key Bank Gallery.
This slightly jarring welcome into a space filled with over 60 personal artifacts—painstakingly strung shell necklaces; a well-worn embossed leather wallet; and a Butsudan, a Buddhist altar often found in Japanese homes, all line that first hall—makes one feel for a brief moment as if they’ve trespassed into someone’s personal space. This brush with personal violation may not have been a curated experience, yet it is remarkably appropriate. It puts into acute context Executive Order 9066, which mandated the incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans to Concentration Camps, and robbed these White Valley residents—whose creations grace this exhibit—of their personal liberty.
The curatorial theme centers around the single suitcase each family was allowed to bring upon forced removal from their homes. “Allowed to bring only what they could carry in a suitcase,” says guest curator Ken Matsudaira, “Japanese Americans had to make do with very few possessions. Consequently, they made furniture, clothing, tools and many other items with materials found in camp.” There are paintings, needlework, a scrapbook, dolls, games, toys, and quilts on display, all borrowed from local residents, all made out of prison-scavenged materials, and most never before shown publicly.
Some of the interpretive signage (a copy of the Executive Order 9066, and a statement about it being an incarceration order as opposed to a more benevolent sounding but inaccurate evacuation or even internment) give grim reminders of the hardship Japanese Americans were unjustly placed into. These anchors will be necessary as one travels through the exhibit, as the intricacy and humble beauty of the craft on display, and the matter-of-factness of the personal quotes that accompany the items, almost threaten to make visitors forget what kind of harsh conditions these ordinary citizens were placed into when they made these items, and why they made them at all.
The exhibit follows six story themes. The first, “Leaving Home,” prominently features a display of two stacked wooden suitcases presumably used in May 1942. Neither measures much more than 2’ x 3’, poignantly underscoring the “What We Couldn’t Carry” subtitle of the show. Still, the cabinet upon which the suitcases are placed makes a far greater impression. Created out of scraps by Kiyoshi Takamoto at Tule Lake concentration camp, the cabinet is striking in its precise carpentry; its asymmetrical, tansu-inspired design; the patina on the small metal knobs; and its overall regal presence.
In the “Passing the Time” section, there’s a glass case featuring a photograph of women preparing shells for jewelry making. Each of these shells were dug up from desert sand, sifted through, cleaned, and sorted. Some of these shells were then painted bright marigold and pearlescent ivory with unknown material Mrs. Sugahara (first name unknown) managed to source at Tule Lake, and transformed into impressive corsages resembling camellia blossoms and flowering cherry branches.
Understatement is common in the quotes featured alongside the artifacts. “Since this is my day off, I made a chair …” writes Kashiro Mizuno, who was incarcerated at three different camps along with his wife Shizue and their four children, and kept a daily diary through his imprisonment. Arriving in the United States in 1914, Mizuno was part of the Issei generation, and settled in Christopher nearly three decades before World War II. The chair he refers to is both sturdy and elegant, suggesting no trace of his troubles.
There are photographic displays along with related artifacts for each of the six story themes, which also include “Food in Camp,” “School at Camp,” “Work in Camp,” and “The Barracks.” (Smartphone users are encouraged to download the Stqry app, where the museum has posted video interviews related to each theme).
Throughout the exhibit, the spirit of a common Japanese saying rings through: ganbare. Roughly translating to “hang in there” or “you can do it,” ganbare has an emphasis on the collective, a sense of being in a common predicament that together as a group, individuals will transcend. Matsudaira succeeds in demonstrating the ganbare spirit that permeated Japanese American community through the atrocity that was Executive Order 9066, and in this exhibit, each individual story told and each item made are indeed “a testament to human ingenuity, craft and courage.”
‘Handmade in Camp—What We Couldn’t Carry’ is open Wednesday through Sunday through November 6 at White River Valley Museum (918 H St. SE, Auburn, WA 98002. For more information, visit www.wrvmuseum.org.