The newest edition of Kit Hinrichs’ and my “Obsessions” book series is on the arts and crafts made by Japanese Americans held in U.S. concentration camps during World War II. All That Remains is a sequel to my 2005 book titled The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942–1946. While working on that book, I spent many hours reflecting on why people banished by their own country to barrack encampments fenced in by barbed wire and guarded by soldiers with rifles pointed at them would take up art with such a fervor that it became an obsession to them. They scrounged for scraps of paper, bits of lumber, empty bottles and cans, and cardboard packaging to use for their art projects and scoured the desert terrain for stones, driftwood and shrubs to carve into new forms. Art served a need far beyond the aesthetic. Although two-thirds of the 120,000 ethnic Japanese forced into camps were American citizens, the older immigrant generation especially, who were in their 50s and 60s, embraced the creation of art as a lifeline. Given less than 10 days notice to turn themselves in and told they could only bring what they could carry. the adults knew their businesses, homes and all their possessions would probably be gone when they were freed to return to the West Coast. In fact, that turned out to be true.
What amazed me is that they chose artistic endeavors as a way to pass the time. Most of the prisoners were farmers, gardeners, shopkeepers, etc. with no formal training in art. Yet they produced lovely, imaginative pieces that would be admired even by those of us in the creative arts field. The internees even held art shows in the mess hall to admire each other’s handiwork. When the camps were finally shut down four years later, most internees had to look for ways to survive and didn’t have time for seemingly frivolous pursuits like art. Most never picked up a paintbrush or carving tool again.
The title All That Remains is meant to be a double entendre because to the families of internees (including my own), these artifacts represent all that remains from those lost years. I have also come to understand that for the elders especially who had suffered the indignity of being robbed of their livelihood and rendered powerless over themselves and their families, creating things was all that was left to them. Artistic expression provided a way to hang onto their sense of self and show that they were still the masters of their own imagination. I deeply admire them for that.
Copies of Obsessions No. 2: All That Remains are available through the Studio Hinrichs website.