Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Art of Gaman

8/5/14 Diamine Chocolate Brown and Fuyu-syogun inks, Canson XL 140 lb. paper
My oldest brother was a toddler, and our mom was pregnant with my second brother when they and our dad were taken away to spend the duration of World War II in internment camps. Born quite a few years after their experience, I didn’t hear much about that period of their lives from my parents, who preferred not to dwell on the past. Most of what I know about that sad, dark part of U.S. history was learned the way everyone now learns about it – from books, recorded oral histories, documentaries and art exhibits like the one currently showing at the Bellevue Arts Museum: The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942 – 1946.

Imprisoned behind barbed wire in desolate locations, living in horse stalls or drafty, unplumbed barracks, more than 100,000 Americans had to learn to endure (the word gaman means “to endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity”). Many found that creating art or building functional pieces helped them endure, and this exhibit showcases 120 such artifacts. Toys, chairs, jewelry, paintings – the objects ranged from simple objects of utility to exquisite works of art. My favorite was a collection of letter envelopes, each with a small watercolor sketch that someone had made to decorate it. I also enjoyed peeking at a page in a sketchbook of someone who was learning the craft of bonsai – tiny sketches of tiny trees with neatly written notes. Sadly, many of the artifacts were attributed to “unknown.” (A cherished artifact in my own home is a wood tray my grandfather had made during that time.)

8/5/14 Pilot Iroshizuku Take-Sumi ink
I didn’t spend much time sketching at the exhibit because I was too busy reading all the placards and viewing the objects. I did sketch a small ironwood sculpture of a lion carved by Shigeo Naito, who was interned in Poston, Arizona. An informative documentary was playing on a video screen, so I also sketched a couple viewing it.

Updated 8/15/14: A similar exhibit in Portland, Art Behind Barbed Wire, includes a few pieces my grandfather and father made. My brother Richard is interviewed about the exhibit on the Oregon Public Broadcast's blog.


  1. That must be a great exhibit and an emotional one when you think about how people were forced to live at that time, but the light of art still lit their lives. How great that the artifact from your grandfather has endured.

  2. Truly a sad time in American history. I marvel at how well most endured with dignity.


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