The paintings are in muted browns, greens, and beige. Asian eyes — eyes like mine – – stare back at me from behind barbed wire and in barracks. They were my parents and my relatives and all their friends.
In this case, art imitated life — the life of over 1 10,000 Japanese-Americans who were evacuated from their West Coast homes, farms, and businesses and forced to spend World War II within the confines of hastily-assembled “relocation centers” in the wastelands within Wyoming, Arkansas, Colorado and other interior states. The event went down in history as one of America’s biggest civil liberty errors — the evacuation and internment of an entire civilian population from the Western states, based on race. These centers became known as “America’s concentration camps.”
Interned with the evacuees were a number of reputable painters and illustrators. Some had worked on W.P.A. murals in the San Francisco Bay Area in the Thirties. Others had exhibited their works at prestigious museums and galleries throughout the United States and in Europe and Japan. For many, art was not their occupation but their calling; they survived by working menial day jobs as gardeners, cooks, and laborers.
These artists formed art schools in the camps as one of a number of activities to battle the boredom and maintain some form of normalcy for the residents. They, along with farmers, physicians, housewives, and gardeners who became amateur artists in the camps, created works in captivity that later became the core of the Japanese-American National Museum (JANM) exhibition, The View from Within.
First displayed at UCLA in 1992, The View from Within had a successful four-month run at the San Jose Museum of Art . The venue was appropriate, as San Jose was home to many Japanese- Americans who farmed and worked in the area and who were forced to relocate in World War II.
Looking for a Few Good Docents
As a way of supplementing the San Jose Museum of Art’s regular crew of volunteer docents, and to provide a unique perspective of the internment experience for visitors, the JANM recruited “community docents” from its San Jose-area members. Twenty Japanese-Americans, a mixture of camp survivors and younger JANM members, signed up for training sessions.
Although I wasn’t even a gleam in my father’s eye when the relocation occurred (and I had no formal art training), volunteering my time was a way for me to better understand my parents’ camp experiences. And the works in the exhibit really put the hook in me, projecting powerful images of camp: the barbed wire, the guard towers, the overcrowding, and the dust — always the dust — that filtered through the walls and floors of the cheap tar-paper barracks my parents and thousands of others lived in.
The Heart of the Matter
We trained alongside the museum’s regular docents. Exhibit curator Karin Higa, a third-generation Japanese- American whose parents were interned during World War II, flew up daily from her JANM office in Los Angeles to direct the sessions.
Important to the success of the exhibit was a session on race and discrimination, held by the JANM directors Nancy Araki and Mary Worthington. They stood side-by-side in front of the class and asked us to detect any differences between them. No one would mention the main difference until Ms. Araki broached it herself. She was of Japanese ancestry. After that, there were discussions between Japanese- American trainees and the mostly-white docents about our experiences with race and discrimination. By evening’s end, I think each group had a better understanding of the other — and deeper feelings for the art we were about to explain.
My Rough Debut
Some of the community docents chose to stay away the first week the exhibit opened, worried that they weren’t yet ready to face the crowds. I wasn’t fully prepared to discuss the 130 works in the exhibit, but signed up for the opening night gala anyway. It turned out that I was the first docent to show up and that I would lead the first group to go in — a group that seemed to grow in volume as the tour went on. I learned the hard way that you can’t “wing it” as a docent. My copious notes helped, but my presentation was rough and my voice didn’t survive the tour. I felt awful.
While my art presentation remained somewhat weak, my historical presentations became stronger as I began working more shifts. I used graphics in my tours — photocopies of camp diagrams and evacuation posters. I could feel the emotion welling up in me as I described scenes such as: Japanese- American soldiers leaving their families behind in camp to serve in a segregated U.S. Army unit and fight and die on a hundred battlefields (and liberate another camp they had not known of . . . Dachau), and to become one of the most-decorated units in Army history; the furor between young and old internees over government-demanded loyalty oaths; and the frustration at not being recognized as “good” Americans.
One thing that surprised me was the interest taken in the exhibit by student groups. Tours were given for elementary and high school students, and quite a few students and instructors came on their own.
An entire art history class at the University of California at Santa Cruz chose to make The View from Within its term project. Some of those students drove 40 miles over a winding mountain highway to San Jose. They were touched by the exhibit and told me so. When I asked why, they said the internment had not received a lot of ink in school history texts and that the pictures presented by the exhibit, coupled with docent presentations, gave new meaning to the issues involved.
Classroom teachers apparently felt the same way. They questioned me about names, dates, events that had occurred in the camps, materials, and where I had obtained my graphics — information they could use in future lectures. It was a good thing that I had done some research on the internment. The many books I had previously collected on this subject provided me with useful facts and recollections. I knew the internment was important for Japanese-Americans to remember, but knowing that it would be given so much attention in our schools made me proud that my docent contribution might make a difference some day in explaining how freedom will always be taken for granted until it is lost.
The older Community Docents in our group were content to discuss their camp experiences. Their vivid recollections provided much insight for exhibit visitors. Regarding a painting of coyotes roaming a camp in the Utah desert, a survivor recalled that, as a child, her mother not-so-jokingly told her she would be fed to the coyotes if she didn’t behave. Overall, the response from visitors to The View from Within and to our docent group was overwhelmingly positive.
Near the end of the exhibit’s time at the museum, I escorted my mother on a special tour of The View from Within. She marveled at the works on display, particularly those of her camp in Wyoming, and was happy that I had become involved in my own heritage. For me, this was a beautiful reward.
Bruce Iwamoto is a paralegal with the United States Department of Justice in San Jose. California. He was a Community Docent at the San Jose Museum of Art during the Spring 1994 presentation of The View from Within.
Iwamoto, Bruce. “The Community as Teacher: A View from Within,” The Docent Educator 4.2 (Winter 1994-95): 8-9.