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Index to the Kimi Kodani Hill Lecture and Interview

Introduction to the Lecture and Interview with Kimi Kodani Hill

By Philip Chin

This lecture and interview was given at Sturge Presbyterian Church in San Mateo, California on September 9, 2000 by Kimi Kodani Hill, granddaughter of famed artist and UC Berkeley professor of art, Chiura Obata (1885-1975). Mrs. Hill's role as family historian has resulted in two books about her grandfather including "Obata's Yosemite" and the present work, "Topaz Moon: Chiura Obata's Art of the Internment." Chiura Obata's art is on prominent display at the De Young Museum in San Francisco and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C..

The first part of the transcript is the text of the lecture and slide show that Mrs. Hill presented. The following interview was necessarily truncated since the elder with the keys to the church doors was very patiently waiting for us to finish so that he could lock up.

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Excerpts From the Lecture and Interview


So, it's a pleasure to be here today. I have been giving talks, lectures on my grandfather for the past several years now.

I'd like to... bring this concept of my grandfather's idea of dai-shizen, this is how he talked about nature, not just shizen, not just nature but dai-shizen, Great Nature. This is how he taught his students. This is the inspiration on a spiritual and artistic level that he worked with for his entire life painting the landscapes, particularly in the High Sierras.

And the philosophy that he would teach his students, because he was a professor of art, follows along these lines. I will give you an example. Here he is lecturing and you can see he's written the words, wa, kei, sei, jyaku. These are... a philosophy most closely associated with tea ceremony, the Japanese tea ceremony. But he would explain these words, harmony, respect, purity, serenity in these terms. This is a quote from him, "Harmony should include the family, the town, and the country. Without it much trouble comes. We must respect what nature provides; fire, water, earth, sun, even the simple weeds. Often if we take these away we make much trouble. Cleanliness means that we must purify the senses that nature gives us so that we can appreciate the pure sounds and colors that she provides. Tranquility is important. If your mind is not smooth and calm you miss so many things."

I just grew up taking my grandparents for granted. I thought everyone had a grandfather who painted and a grandmother who did ikebana, flower arrangement. It wasn't until after he passed away, he passed away in 1975, and then I began to be the primary caretaker, living with my grandmother, from the age of... when she was 87 to when she died at 97 years old. During that time I went through the house, looked at photo albums, asked questions. I did hours of oral history with her.

It was this period after my grandfather had died that I finally felt I had gotten a sense of who he was. This is what I'm presenting to you today is partly what I discovered... Basically the text of "Topaz Moon" is based on the archival material in the family and the interviews and oral histories I was able to do. Very very lucky I was able to do all these things. This was about 15 years ago.

We'll start in Japan. He was born... Obata was born in 1885. He was actually the youngest of a very large family and even as a young child of 5 he showed a natural inclination for drawing, so he was adopted by his older brother, to be the only son of this older brother... He was a very interesting artist. He learned the classical sumi, Japanese ink and brush style of painting and manga, which was a Chinese style of painting.

Yet, he also was trained in Western art, so this is an example of the training he had as a student in Tokyo in the 1880's. And, he continued to paint throughout his life with the Western influence... He was a prolific artist. He insisted on painting a sketch or painting everyday of his life.

Obata was training from age seven with a master painter in the art of sumi painting.

As it turned out he was a very headstrong child. He had a lot of conflicts with his father and his family. He ran away from home at age fourteen to avoid being put into military school. He was determined to be an artist. He managed to become apprenticed under this particular artist, his name is Tanryo Murata. And his father did finally give approval. So Obata spent three years in an apprenticeship in Tokyo. He was studying with other students.

So he left the apprenticeship at age seventeen.

Now he also, around the same time, received a very prestigious award, an art award in Japan, in Tokyo. And he told his father that Japan was such a small country to have given this prestigious award to such a young artist. He really wanted to see the world. He told his father, "The greater the view, the greater the art, the wider the travel, the broader the knowledge." And he was able to get permission to travel. His goal actually was Europe, Paris, because a lot of his compatriots were already studying art in, you know, the capital of the art world, which was Paris at the time. But he planned to get there via America by earning some money and then continuing.

It took two weeks of travel by ship and the port of entry for Obata was Seattle.

This is a letter that he wrote back to his father looking through the porthole and seeing America for the first time. And he said in this letter, "How lucky I am that I can sleep on the pillow of a foreign pier. Is this god's gift or the spirit of man?" And he arrived eventually in San Francisco. He had some letters of introduction. The Pine Methodist Church helped him find lodging and he was able to work as a schoolboy.

So Obata was becoming part of American society, he wrote, "It is essential to learn American art and its spirit. Therefore, I'd like to free my future brushwork through the means of language study first." And he did. He tried seriously studying English wherever he could. Even... joining an elementary school.

The big, first big event in his life was the 1906 earthquake. He survived the earthquake. Apparently the chimney fell down in his room in Japantown where he was living and apparently the story is that a lot of the refugees ended up at Lafayette Park in San Francisco. He was asked... a group of men were asked to dig a hole for a latrine and when the Army officer returned, Obata was the only one still digging away and so he said, 'Oh, you're a good boy. I will reward you by giving you a job at the Grand Marshal's camp to wait on tables.' And they also gave him permission to go into the ruined section of the city to sketch and so we have these very rare sketches of the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake.

Earning money was pretty difficult for the immigrants at this time as you probably know. And he did take a job as a farm laborer at one point. This was in 1909 and he worked at the hops fields in the Sacramento Valley... It's hard to see but there is like a crescent moon that he painted in the sky there. And the moon appears again and again throughout Obata's career in his artwork. It symbolizes, I feel, for him hope and eternity and peace.

Now Haruko came to America in 1910... Her relatives, her aunt, was already running a boarding house in San Francisco Japantown. She was an educated young woman. She had finished high school. Her goal was to come to America to learn English and Western dressmaking/sewing... As it turned out she was wooed by my grandfather. They married in 1912.

Now Haruko, just to say something about her, because everyone says, 'Well you really should talk more about your grandmother,' and it's true. She was just as much an artist as my grandfather but her art was ikebana, so it was ephemeral, there's nothing that has survived from her art obviously, in contrast to all the paintings that have survived from my grandfather's long career. She made thousands of arrangements. She was one of the first teachers of ikebana in the San Francisco Bay Area. As early as 1915 she had an exhibition of her flower arrangements at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

Now, as you know the 1910's, 1920's, the blatant prejudice shown against the Japanese community was something that all the Japanese-American community had to deal with. And my grandparents were no exception. My grandfather had physical encounters on the streets of San Francisco because he'd be walking down the street and he'd be hit or attacked or spat upon simply because of his ethnicity. And yet ironically at the same time there was this interest in japonisme or the 'Oriental Arts,' and stores like Gump's and the City of Paris all commissioned Obata to decorate their Oriental rooms to sell their Asian arts. So there was... my grandparent's realized early on that teaching arts to the Americans was a way to teach about Japanese culture and they really strove through their whole lives trying to create a bridge of understanding between Japan and America, between the two cultures through teaching their art forms... And so as I mentioned, they realized that the Americans appreciated Japanese art. They only needed to be taught more about their culture.

Obata tried different techniques during his career as an artist but basically he worked with the traditional Japanese materials... And he created artworks really from his own studies. He tried to take a class in an American art academy, the San Francisco Art Institute actually, and he was so, you know, horrified by the lack of discipline shown by the students that he felt he could learn much better on his own and he did. He studied art virtually on his own for his whole career and he did try different styles.

You know my grandfather would visit other Japanese-American communities so he had like good friends in Pescadero and the Kodani family down in Monterrey. That's how my two families known each other, have known each other. And there are probably farmers in the Santa Cruz Mountains that he was visiting and they would stay and do sketches of the landscape.

Now in 1927, was a key event in Obata's life as an artist, his career. It was the first meeting of Obata with Yosemite, in particular the High Sierras. He was invited by Worth Ryder, who was a professor of art at UC Berkeley. They had become friends. Different American artists were getting to know Obata's work and through his exhibitions. At the time Obata was 42 years old, so this was his perfect moment in time, his ability as an artist had fully matured. He even said that this experience of this trip... He said, "This event was the greatest harvest for my whole life and future in painting." And what he did is he also wrote letters back home describing for my grandmother who...of course she's at home with four kids while the husband is out having this artistic experience. And these letters form the text of 'Obata's Yosemite,' the other book that we have brought for you to look at today.

So they traveled on the Old Tioga Pass Road, which is Highway 120, for those of you who know the pass through Yosemite. And they were traveling in a Model T Ford on the old Tioga Pass Road, which was a dirt road, so this was truly an adventure.

He said also, "I felt keenly that the education of children was not in school but in letting them contact great nature such as this." Another quote. He said, "This morning I woke up at 2 o'clock and I saw the moon shining in the woods, on the river, and in the meadow. It evoked in me the days of the gods."

There was a third member who was camping with the group, a young artist named, Robert Howard. He wrote of camping with Obata and said, "Afterwards, before turning in for sleep, Obata would bring forth his philosophies of life. How to remain young. How to appreciate every minute of existence and time. How right it was to be happy, and cheerful, and productive. How wrong to shed tears, do nothing, and waste time and strength. That to be an artist was the best of all things."

The first exhibition Obata had for American audiences was in the following year, 1928. You can see that he is sketching on the... doing a painting demonstration on the ground with Haruko assisting him. And as it turned out the last day of the exhibition his father passed away in Japan, which entailed that the entire family would go back to Japan, Obata being the only son of this family.

So the family returned to Japan. Here is Obata, Haruko, oldest son Kim, and Gyo, there's my mom, Yuri in the Sendai house. Kim was already a high school student. He didn't want to go to school in Japan and he left the family soon after they arrived, about several months later to come back to San Francisco and continue his high school education at Galileo in San Francisco. While Obata was in Japan, it became a two-year sojourn, he created woodblock prints from many of his watercolors, particularly of the Sierras... Actually it seems to me that the woodblock print colors are more vivid. There's a different quality to them. They're really beautiful.

After two years.... And here is Haruko, the Western looking one, with her friends in Tokyo saying goodbye. They returned to San Francisco and this period, from 1930 was Obata's introduction to the California art scene. He had many exhibitions. They were very successful. This was an article in the Oakland Tribune and this was an exhibit that he had in 1931 at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, a big exhibit with both his work and the work of his father, Rokuichi.

In 1932, Obata was invited by his friends at UC Berkeley to lecture at the art department, which led to a permanent position as a professor of art at UC Berkeley. This is Telegraph Avenue. I know there are several UC grads here, or people who went to UC. But this is Telegraph Avenue and the Sather Tower. While they were living in Berkeley, Haruko had her own busy schedule teaching ikebana.

He also enjoyed painting the Berkeley scene. This is looking across....this is the Golden Gate Bridge and Mt. Tamalpais from the Berkeley Hills. The campus.

He said in the late 1930's, "I always teach my students beauty. No one should pass through four years of college without being given the knowledge of beauty and the eyes with which to see it." He was a very popular teacher. A former student...actually several students have told me that he was not just teaching a style of painting, the sumi painting style, but he taught a way to observe, a way to see and appreciate the beauty of nature. He always brought his students to the out of doors on campus to paint and sketch. This is...these are a quote from his lectures. He said, "Anything in art is like yourself. In the long run it is a way of living. Many things come. Many things happen. You make happiness, morning or evening, sunny morning or dark night. You know how you felt. How is the emotion felt? What kind of feeling of harmonization did you have? Feel deeper what kind of step it took toward harmonization. If you took too short a step next time take a longer step. Use a deeper stride. Take steps like a cow. Don't fall down so easily."

The students just responded so positively to his classes. They were very popular. This is another quote. He said, describing talking to his students, "I said I would go to the Santa Cruz Mountains to watch the autumn moon. My students said, 'If you just want to see the moon, you don't have to go that far, you can see it from here.' So this is the point. You go to the Santa Cruz Mountains and in those deep mountains you wait for the sunset and you hear the sounds of the bellsinger cricket and then slowly from behind the woods the moon emerges. That atmosphere is beyond expression. I feel this is the blessing of Great Nature."

He returned to Yosemite Valley again and again, camping there in the summer. This is right above the falls. His students would come and follow him up there and paint and have classes in the outdoors. And he also loved to paint the sequoia trees. They were a great symbol to him... this great vertical line connecting heaven and earth. And symbolized also the life of the issei, who had to endure so many trials and storms of life and yet had such spiritual beauty and strength. He also painted Point Lobos, a very favorite area.

September 1941, Kim, the oldest son married... Anyway, this wedding was September 1941. Of course two months later there was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Everything changed immediately. This painting you can see, very different from the other works you have seen. Its very expressionistic. Obata titled this "Landslide." And he's depicting his family huddled together while this vortex of war is destroying the foundations of their life.

They... as with all families of course, were allowed to bring only what they could carry in this climate of this racial hysteria that was going on.

The departure for the Berkeley Japanese, there were about 1200 who left Berkeley, the departure happened at what was called the First Congregational Church, ironically the church where Kim and Masa Obata had been married a few months before.

And this is the first of the series of the internment camp paintings that appear in "Topaz Moon," was the period of registering and a few days later departing from this church. So you can see this tower this appears in grandfather's paintings in his sketches. He wanted to record what was happening. People were not allowed their cameras so he was working on sketches about this big just making quick sketches and then he would later develop them into completed larger paintings.

And landing in the horse stables at Tanforan with all this mud that had been created cause of these rains. The Obata family walked into their designated barracks which was a converted horse stable. There was nothing there accept the cots and the lightbulb and my grandmother apparently sat down on this cot and just cried. My mother never saw her mother cry ever before in her life.

From the very first day that Obata was in Tanforan he conceived of an idea to create an art school. He firmly believed in the power of creativity to raise the spirits of his fellow internees. And what he was able to do was to get his fellow artist friends, Matsusaburo Hibi for one, who were in the camps, interned in the camps, and the recent UC graduates or people who had not even graduated yet who were in architecture or art classes. And within a month they were able to create an art school that had 600 students. They had no funding from the government. They did it entirely with their own money and with donations from the outside from friends from UC Berkeley. This is a children's class that he was teaching in Tanforan. And the school was so successful that they were able to exhibit the artwork outside the camp just a month later in July.

And as was mentioned earlier, the transfer from Tanforan to Topaz happened right about now, this time of year, end of September into October.

And yet these works are very repetitive in recording what is going on and yet they are also making these little political statements. Here he was careful to include... They are still building the barracks as people are arriving to the camp. And the barbed wire fence which was one of the first jobs the internees had when they arrived at the camp was to finish building this barbed wire fence that would enclose them for the next three years.

The dust storms in Topaz. I grew up always hearing about the alkali soil of Topaz and I had no idea what that meant. And I went to Topaz for the first time last year to do research and I brought some of the soil of Topaz back. Let me just pass this around. And I understood what alkali soil is, it's like a powder. And so when they build Topaz they tore up all the natural vegetation to build the camp and nothing was keeping this down and that's why they had these tremendous horrible dust storms... conditions were very very harsh.

This art school continued at Topaz. It thrived very well even though the internees had virtually no materials to work with.

I have a quote that Obata gave to the art school for a New Year's address. This would be 1943 "Have we noticed the beautiful mountains surrounding us that have existed for thousands of years? They show heaven and earth their greatness. They can't be moved no matter how many people try. The sun and the moon have been shining for tens of thousands of years blessing the world. The mountains, moon, and sun never try to explain. When dark clouds hide the sun the clouds will shine with the golden color of the sunlight. At night they will be blessed by the moonlight decorating their edges with a silver line. We only hope that our art school will follow the teachings of this Great Nature and that it will strengthen itself to endure like the mountains, and like the sun and the moon, emit its own light."

Now in the Spring of 1943 was the very tense time in the camp with the signing of the controversial loyalty oaths. My grandfather was attacked because of this period. He was seen as pro-administration because he worked so closely with the administration as director of the art school. He walked out the shower one night and was whacked in the head. He stayed for two...two weeks in the Topaz Hospital and then he was immediately released by the administration who wanted to be sure he would be safe.

The family then moved to St. Louis where Gyo, the middle son, was already going to architecture school. This is my mom and my grandmother in their rented home in the suburb of St. Louis.

So he returned to Berkeley. He was immediately reinstated by the University in 1945. The Obata family was very lucky that the relocation back home was not as difficult as many many families had coming back to California. He stayed with friends before they could finally find a little apartment. He is around sixty years old when he's teaching at Cal again.

And Obata returned to his favorite places to paint. To Yosemite. To Point Lobos. This beautiful painting of Point Lobos. Thinking I am sure of his many issei friends who did not survive the war years. For instance, Mr. Hibi, died soon after the war. Many other friends.

Haruko was busy doing her ikebana again. Here she is in San Francisco giving a demonstration, around 1950.

When he retired in 1954 from UC Berkeley he began this whole new career of leading Obata tours. He did this for about fifteen years, well into his eighties. And again the goal was to introduce Americans to the traditional arts and culture of Japan. So here they were in 1954, less than ten years after the two countries had been at war. And here they are at Mt. Fuji. And during this so-called retirement they were very very busy. I have very clear memories of this crazy household. People coming and going. My grandmother demonstrated and taught ikebana up until the end of her life. Her last demonstration... public demonstration in Golden Gate Park she was 93 years old. Very genki and her ikebana was enshu-ryu very classical. Three points: Heaven, Man, and Earth in all of her simple beautiful ikebana. And she died in 18... sorry, in 1989 at age 97. And my grandfather also did painting demonstrations near to the end of his life.

And Topaz, well for you who have already been there, because you were forced to be there, for me it was a really extremely interesting fascinating trip to go there and see this site. There's nothing there in that you have to interpret what you see. There's nothing higher than your knee level. It's all in the ground. But there is a lot you know... It's amazing. So, if not yourself, encourage your family members to see this history. It's still there after sixty years.

I'm going to end with one quote, one more quote. This is from an oral history by Obata when he was eighty years old. "For me I have a strong desire to contribute to a peaceful life through painting. The peace of humankind, this is something really precious. This is something of the utmost importance not just for me but for everyone else. It goes without saying that America is very rich in natural resources. In other words natural blessings. So what can Americans leave for future generations? I'm talking about something the whole of humanity can aim for. Some kind of big objective. After all a real spiritual awareness has to be built in order to build peace. In many ways America is largely wasting what nature is providing us. The great teaching of our Japanese ancestors is do not disobey nature, always go with nature anywhere in any circumstance with gratitude. In the High Sierras in the evening it gets very cold. The coyotes howl in the distance. The moon arcs across the sky. The trees are standing here and there and it is very quiet. You can learn from the teachings within this quietness. Well, you can learn from many things. Some people are taught by speeches or talking but I think it is important that you are taught by silence. Immerse yourself in nature, listen to what nature has to tell you in its quietness so that you can learn and grow."

Thank you. I know I went very long here today but thank you very much. You're a great audience.

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The Interview

After a wait while Kimi (KKH) signed her books for the audience, Leonard (LC) and I (Philip - PC) sat down for our interview with her. Leonard, who was handling the tape-recorder, started it in mid-sentence as we were beginning our talk. Florence (FH) joins us a little later on in the interview.


PC - What we both thought was missing was you.

KKH - I hate talking about me. (Laughter) No, yeah, I understand.


LC - Well in any case, the way I was thinking about framing that question was since this is going to be transcribed and put on the Internet, I wanted to get you to talk about things you'd like to tell people about the book and yourself.

KKH - OK. I never never dreamed I would ever write a book and I think that's kind of important. And I never thought I would be a public speaker. I never thought I would be a family historian. If someone said these were career goals after I got out of college I'd say no to every one of them. But you know life just sorta took me on this path.

LC - What were you? What were you planning on...?

KKH - My training...I was... I was... I had studied visual design and art and I was out of school for awhile and went back and did couple more years at a college, California College of Arts and Crafts to actually study art. But what happened is that because I was living with my grandmother as her primary caretaker that became my job. In a way I've just become a professional volunteer. I always seem to find my way into these positions where there is not usually pay involved. But there...

FH - Sounds familiar. (Laughter)

KKH - Yeah, non-profit is another way to saying a volunteer, right? But it was a really important thing for me to do and that I had a close relationship with my grandmother for me is the heart of this book, because I didn't know my grandfather that well. I knew him as a child knows someone and the last five years of his life he had a series of mild strokes. So he spoke English really well, I mean he was a professor at Cal. But when he started having the strokes he reverted back to his Japanese so... and I never learned to speak Japanese well. So the last five years of his life when I'm going from a teenager to an adult we really couldn't communicate and I feel like I really didn't know him. But because as an adult I lived with my grandmother for ten years I feel like I really got to know her and I really appreciated what she had done, and her life, her story as an issei. Of course her life is so intertwined with my grandfather's life so its like hearing her story is hearing the two of them together and... and then also simultaneously was the gradual rediscovery of my grandfather's work from historical groups.

So the Smithsonian Institution began the research for their exhibition at the Museum of American History. In 1985 they began their research and they were literally calling up and saying we're looking for some paintings. We heard there's some Obata paintings. Well, because I'm here living with my grandmother I became the source of information. Before it was sort of my mom's sort of job to help, you know, keep records straight, or just help in taking care of the artwork, and it just started to fall to me instead cause I was physically there, but also I realized how interested I really was in just finding out who was this grandfather. I never really knew him. And it was a way by talking to friends, fortunately who were still alive, both Japanese and American, white friends, that this idea of who he was started to grow more toward me. I really appreciate what he was saying.

I mean his main message to his students was to learn and appreciate nature and the natural environment, especially in California. And I think its such an important message for all of us, for not just Japanese-Americans, but for everyone to learn to appreciate the beauty of the natural world and then work in some ways toward preserving it. So... that's my main hobby in life, camping and hiking. I go to Yosemite two, three, four, five times a year So his philosophy just goes parallels with mine. So in a way when I give these presentations and I'm talking up the wilderness ethic and its also coming from me too because I completely believe in what he was talking about. And I've hiked and camped in the same areas that he was into which is a wonderful experience.

But anyway, because an institution like the Smithsonian Institution was so interested in my family's history they were asking me questions that I didn't know and that forced me to go through the documents, to interview people, and I just realized how much history is not recorded, not written. I've always encouraged people. Have you done family histories? Have you recorded all this down? Because it gets lost so easily. Yeah, it's almost scary. And who would have thought that just because I did this research for the Smithsonian fifteen years ago, fifteen years later it becomes a book? And its published by people. People all over the country are now reading this book. And that's remarkable. It's really remarkable. It certainly wasn't my goal when I started but it evolved to this point and its very satisfying. Yeah.


LC - At what point did you start conceiving that there would be a book?

KKH - I thought the "Obata's Yosemite" book was very successful and that people really responded positively to it. I did a lot of lectures, more focused on the Yosemite story. Similar to this but more about Yosemite. And people consistently over... when was that book published? 1993. For a good five years after that I was still requested to do talks and presentations. So I knew people were very interested in his story, his philosophy, this immigrant story, his teachings. You could just hear whenever I'm talking about, 'Oh then he was camping and then he... then he was in this internment camp!' You could just feel in this audience that they were reacting to this and that was a crucial part of this story that this family had to suffer this experience. So I felt that it was a very interesting part of his life in his own collection of how he kept the artwork, cause he gave or sold a lot of his artwork. But fairly intact were the series of paintings from that 1927 trip which was the 'Obata's Yosemite' book and the camp paintings. They were the only two areas of his life where he actually kept most of the artwork from these two periods. So I think, for him in his mind, these were very crucial parts of his life, very big experiences. So along those lines... and also there is a writing that I found... a letter that he wrote, "Someday I would like this to be a book so that people can learn about what happened during the war and to work towards understanding and a greater peace" is to have his book published. Of course he never did it cause he was a busy guy. He just never stopped painting and lecturing. He never had the time. But there was... I just had this feeling that it was appropriate, that he would approve of a book just on the camp art, and that there would be the interest. But interestingly when I tried to approach a couple publishers on the project they said no. And this was maybe three years ago. UC Press...

FH - As recently as that? That's amazing.

KKH - Yeah, UC Press and Washington... University of Washington Press. 'No, but maybe a whole biography on your grandfather.' And I said, 'No, I'm not going to do a whole biography.' (Laughter) So, it was just fate and the stars lining up that the California Civil Liberties Public Education Project, the announcements came out that they're giving grants. I didn't know about it. I didn't know anything about it. But the publisher called me and said, "I've been talking to Mark Johnson, he's the curator at San Francisco State University. He says that there's a great potential for an Obata book. There's a good chance you can win this grant." I said, "Oh, well we'd better find someone to write the book." And they said, "No, I think you can do it." (Laughter) So, like I said, just one thing after another happened. And we got the grant, and it was just a lot of work in a short time, but we did it. Great publisher. Small press publisher out of Berkeley. Heyday Books. They were so supportive. Whenever I needed help with anything they were right there. Did I answer the question?


PC - Describe your life in forty words or less. (Laughter) I mean... How does the camp experience affect people like you who were born after the war I presume? OK? Cause I saw your parents as teenagers so.... so I hope I'm not presuming. (Laughter)

KKH - Ummm hmmm.... Yeah you're right I was born in 1955, ten years after the war. Right, and I always heard about camp. There were some sansei whose family never talked about the camp or were very into the most lightest, would know nothing really serious, just the funny stories and actually a lot of my relatives are like that. My dad's side of the family, you can hear all the funny stories. But for me, my grandfather had these paintings and we always saw those paintings ever since we were young. And we knew that there was a lot of suffering involved. They weren't bitter. They didn't complain about the experience but it was like right there in black in white. So I never felt my family was trying to suppress anything. And it was a real surprise when I was becoming a young adult and you know Asian-American studies were really coming to the forefront and these stories were coming out about the younger generation had really been at such a disadvantage that they hadn't heard these stories. I was really surprised, I thought everybody were able to talk about it and then I realized that it is hard, it's hard to talk about things that happened to you that were bad. You don't want to think about this anymore. But speaking and writing is not the only way to communicate. Images do it too.

That's the real strength of my grandfather's work and that, as I mentioned, when I gave the slide presentations the people just had this... you could hear this uhhh! People gasp in the audience that they were very powerful. In a very simple way, its important to understand intellectually how constitutional rights were broken and so the political climate and this and that but there has to be I think an emotional reaction to anything to really achieve any kind of wisdom. Right? You can intellectually understand something but to really to have a wise understanding and be effective there has to be some emotion involved to and the artwork is a way to do that. And I feel that in any kind of experience this is what you need.

It's another reason why... and I mentioned that my grandfather's philosophy about nature dovetails my philosophy too. There's some way that you can see... you can know that you need to preserve wilderness but I think it has to begin with a true, you know, experiencing the beauty and the love, and just learning to love how beautiful nature is to care enough to try to preserve it and its something I do, maybe not on a huge basis, but certainly I'm always dragging my friends up to the mountains and introducing them to the Yosemite High Country. And I'm... and because of this, my volunteer work in this direction with my grandfather, I'm actually starting other work currently with a website project with the National Park Service trying to introduce wilderness and wilderness ethics to different ethnic groups in inner city high schools in California through telling the story of Obata's experience as an immigrant living here.

So I've become a kind of resource for information on my grandfather but I take it to heart because I understand the importance of these values that he's teaching and maybe that's what happens through the generations. The words... the wise words of your elders somehow come through the next generation as well and that's really what happened in a way. Yeah.

PC - What your grandfather said about nature seems to sound very Zen Buddhist. Was that a major part of his background?

KKH - You know I always hesitate to say that he studied Zen Buddhism because you know in Japan Buddhism has many different sects and Zen is just one. And it's not as if he went to the temple everyday and studied or did Zazen but Zen Buddhism just historically has been a part of Japanese culture. Its all from the samurai times time, the Edo period.

PC - Descended from Ch'an Buddhism.

KKH - Yeah, right. It's just in the culture, living in harmony with nature. Your approach to painting. Right? Your ego is not involved. You clear your mind so that it is pure and you can experience this painting. All this philosophy that he taught his students. Yes, it's deeply rooted in Buddhism and maybe Zen Buddhism in particular. But I think he also transformed it in his interpretation to his personal experiences in nature when he was painting in California, partly because there was such a contrast to how he was treated as a minority. He talked about one experience where he was traveling in the Redwood Country and there's the little towns in Northern California and he met with some... probably some guy who was calling them names or epithets and it was a very unpleasant experience.


KKH - ... For him to respond to this situation where he was basically helpless. There was nothing he could do about it, but he said that when he went into the forest and the redwoods. The trees were like beings were like spirits and they comforted him and they accepted him and they helped make him feel at peace again. So, yes, you know, it's... I feel like whether that's related to Zen Buddhism or just Japanese culture, which has this long history of living closely with nature. All the rocks and the trees and the rivers are gods and you know this kind of philosophy. He took it to heart and he created something more with it here in California cause that is how he taught his students. And just personally, cause you're trying to get me to talk personally that I would say that some of my own personal experiences of utter contentment and feeling at peace with the world happened for me also in wilderness, in the mountains backpacking or hiking.

Its so interesting that his paintings, what he was trying to achieve, is to introduce and lead people into that experience. Some of the paintings at the De Young are going to be big paintings, it's not just these little ones. There are big paintings of the wilderness and that... Its almost like you're just drawn into the experience. It's interesting because the culture now, people are responding to this message. Right? The last twenty, thirty years of environmental awareness. It's a message that the curator certainly picked up on it right away and that's how he's presenting it like it's environmental awareness and appreciation of our planet.


KKH - ... There's still a lot of interest in Topaz Moon. But yes, in the back of my mind I've been thinking that just from the reactions in talking to people of what they want to learn more about my grandfather and what material still hasn't been published is a lot of his... more of his teaching and philosophy that he taught at UC Berkeley. And I think that would be a great project.

LC - Would you be doing a book on that?

KKH - Yeah, I would think that people would find that... a big part of his life was as a teacher. We do have lecture notes. Yeah, so primary materials that could still be published because of the interest. I don't think I would have thought it was so important to do but obviously I get so much feedback from people and they really do enjoy hearing what he had to say.


KKH - ... There is one more point I'd like to make why I'm still going to focus on talking about Topaz Moon and talking about the story, the internment story in the context of Grandpa's life is that I am amazed how many people I talk to and they say, "I didn't know about this story, about the internment camps." Oh my Gosh! Still! And it's like a whole other generation who didn't learn. And also outside of California, because the book was printed in Utah, and here are these people who are living two hours from Topaz and he was like, "I've never heard of this before."

FH - That's also the reason why we do the work that we do because there's all these new...

KKH - There's a new generation. Yeah.

FH - Who don't know anything about it and our primary focus is we need to tell about the wartime internment, and the Asian-American part of it is just something that we fell into but our primary focus though still is telling about the wartime...

KKH - I'm just amazed. It's amazing. It still needs to be out there somehow. Having a book with so many paintings makes it more accessible than more scholarly works. That's the reason I think it's easier to introduce it to people. We'll just see what happens. I'm very interested in going beyond California and seeing what the reaction is.

FH - That's going to be interesting because everything outside east of California it's different. Let me tell you about it, I've done a number of teacher's workshops and things like that. It's just unbelievable once you leave California. What it's like out there

PC - You don't even have to leave California. (Laughter)

KKH - No. Pockets... we're in a pocket here. Yeah, yeah. And the other point is that and just to make one more point and this is just from my experience in giving talks I do have people come up and they're outraged about this whole story and they just want to tell me, "This is the most shameful thing that's happened in American History!"

PC - Not exactly.

KKH - Yes, but... Let's face it there's been a lot. Yes, but the point is that this book was funded by the State of California, it was the Civil Liberties grant. I'm very glad about that because it does show that democracy does work. Democracy is willing to say, 'we made a big mistake' and we are going to put money, hopefully $5 million eventually, to teach the next generation what their constitutional rights are and that this never happens again. And that is a real plus, a very positive experience to take something negative and make it positive. I think that's tremendous.



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