.SALT LAKE CITY — Chiura Obata knew a lot about restraint.
As Luke Kelly, curator at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, tells it, Obata’s first art teacher would have the young Obata, only 7 years old at the time, spend a few hours every day simply holding his brush and doing a plain stroke or a circle. This went on for three years. At age 10, he was finally allowed to paint other shapes. Using color? That was out of the question.
Seeing the 150 works displayed in Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ new Obata exhibit — which works span some 70 years — Obata’s restrained origins become manifest. The detail, the patience, the curiosity and, above all else, a kind of tranquility that often feels astounding, permeates Obata’s catalog. Life’s grandeur was never lost on him — and it never conquered him, even at its most chaotic.
And boy, was it chaotic.
Born in Japan in 1885, Obata moved to America in 1903, eventually becoming an illustrator for various California newspapers, according to the Obata bio from Sullivan Goss gallery. He became an art instructor at the University of California, Berkeley in the early 1930s. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Obata and his wife, Haruko, were forced into American internment camps for a year, including a stint at the Topaz War Relocation Center near Delta, Utah. At Topaz, Obata was attacked one night, receiving a blow to the head that required many stitches and a two-week stay at the internment camp’s hospital.
“I think like any sensitive human, he felt the isolation probably more than we would. They were in the middle of nowhere,” said Dr. James Ferguson, an art collector, avowed Obata fan and the exhibit’s sponsor. “And the comment he made to somebody, ‘The only way we’re going to get through this is through art,’ that was the salvation. To see salvation through the art was just unique.”
Obata’s internment period drew attention and some increased notoriety during his life. His colleagues and peers in the California arts scene, including Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, wrote Obata letters of encouragement and sent art supplies while he was interned. During that time, he was also commissioned to paint a piece that was given to Eleanor Roosevelt.
He started an art school while in Topaz, and he and his wife were permitted to leave the camp and give art presentations at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, the Sullivan Goss website explains.
“His belief was always that for cultures to understand each other better, you have to show, not tell,” said ShiPu Wang, the exhibit’s curator. Wang, who teaches art history at the University of California, Merced has studied Obata for a number of years.
Spearheading this current Obata exhibit, which will eventually travel to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, has been a large undertaking. Obata wasn’t a household name during his lifetime, and he purposely avoided having art galleries or outside institutions represent him and his work.
“He felt that if you are creating art with the intention of selling it, then that art is not good,” Wang said.
Obata also created a lot of art over his 70-year career. Tracking it down hasn’t been easy. Wang said he looked through approximately 800 Obata pieces for this exhibit, even helping other institutions catalog their previously unorganized Obata collections.
Looking at this retrospective exhibit, it’s hard to believe it all came from the same artist. Obata’s skillset was vast, as were his subjects. Traditional Japanese ink paintings rest along innovative woodblock pieces and large paintings of Yosemite National Park. Obata also combined these techniques in ways that are equal parts inspiring and confounding. It’s made Obata a difficult artist to classify. It’s also what made him so good.
“It’s not Japanese art. It’s not American art. It’s Obata art,” Kelly said.
“We call him an American artist,” Wang added. “In a sense, that’s also a challenge to what do we mean by American art? It’s as if there is a defined style, or even prescribed subject matter, in American art. But when you look at just the 20th century, it’s so diverse.5 comments on this story
“In terms of stories of immigrants, who gets to be called American?” he continued. “How long do you have to stay here? How many contributions do you have to make in order to be called American without the ethnic qualifier or identifier always following your name?”
If you go …
What: “Chiura Obata: An American Modern”
Where: Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Dr.
When: Through Sept. 2
How much: $12.95 for adults; $9.95 for youth (ages 6-18) and seniors; free for children under 5, UMFA members and University of Utah students, staff and faculty, students at public Utah universities, Utah Horizon/EBT cardholders and active duty military families