Topaz art exhibit: Rio Gallery in Salt Lake features artwork from detainees

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Dust wrapped around the confused young boy as he and his family were packed like sardines into the stifling train bound for the fairground.

He assumed his day was going to be filled with laughter, joy and carnival treats. But the armed guard next to him and his family cast a shadow of fear over him. The train stopped. The boy and his family were ordered out of the train by the guard. The fairground in Fresno, Calif., would  be his involuntary home for an indefinite period of time before he would be shipped to Arkansas and then Colorado. Not an average day at the fair.

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People look at artwork created by artist from Topaz, a Japanese American World War II internment camp, at the Rio Gallery in Salt Lake City on Friday.
This story of Lawson Inada, now a poet laureate from Oregon, and more than 110,000 others make up a part of U.S. history hardly heard of and less frequently taught. Japanese internment camps, like those where Inada stayed, were used during World War II to keep Japanese Americans and their families from the West Coast in “safe places.” The government declared the West Coast a military zone and ordered all Japanese Americans to be transported to these confining camps inland. Around two-thirds of those interned were American-born.

The Topaz internment camp near Delta was the home of the late Chiura Obata. Obata was an art professor at University of California-Berkeley before he was moved to Topaz in September 1942. Many of his students were interned with him. Through cooperation with the camp suppliers and local government, Obata and more than 600 others organized art classes as diversion from the rigors of daily life. Some two dozen subjects in art were covered by 16 instructors in subjects including oils, watercolor, anatomy and architectural drafting.

Through Feb. 10, the Rio Gallery in Salt Lake City will host “Topaz: Artists in Internment,” displaying some of the images of daily chores, local wildlife, landscapes, days of sorrow and days of joy, produced by Obata and his students.

Jane Beckwith, president of the Topaz Musuem, hopes the exhibit will raise awareness of this forgotten piece of history.

“There’s just so much we can learn from something like this,” Beckwith said, “and I just don’t believe we should ignore it.”

Steve Koga, a board member for the Topaz Museum, said art was the only way for camp residents to document the events in camp. The government enforced strict rules forbidding any writing or photography regarding the camp. Art seemed innocent enough.

Koga’s mother was interned in Topaz. He said she rarely spoke to him about the camp, and he learned through others the reason.

“(The houses) were just tarpaper barracks,” Koga said. “The living conditions were awful.”

Each barrack was sectioned into small quarters with a potbelly stove. In addition, Topaz was situated in the middle of a desert. Koga said poor furnishing resulted in scorching heat in the day and freezing cold at night. The total area of Topaz was only 1 square mile. More than 11,000 Japanese Americans were processed through the barbed-wire city.

Through the hardships and daily trials, most of the Japanese Americans remained hopeful. At the exhibit on Jan. 20, Inada read an excerpt from a poem written within the camp to the public: “Tomorrow will come.”

Sports leagues with local towns were formed since locals could come and go as they pleased. Boy Scout activities were frequent within Heart Mountain, a camp in Wyoming. Many took up new hobbies to fill time. Inada’s uncle brought a guitar with him to camp. Inada’s mother told his uncle he knew he could not play the guitar.

“Nope,” his uncle replied, “but I’m going to learn!”

Inada encouraged everyone to take up hobbies to keep themselves optimistic. He light-heartedly mentioned haiku as a fun way to write simple enjoyable poetry.

“Along with ramen, it’s one of Japan’s gifts to America,” Inada said.

Inada said it’s basically pointless to be negative about something you can’t change. He and his family always looked toward the positives. He even jokes about the time he spent in the Fresno Fairgrounds.

“To get into the fair, you had to pay admission,” Inada said. “We got in for free to the Fresno family prison!”

A free reading of “BLOCK 8” will take place in conjunction with the exhibit on Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple. “BLOCK 8” is a world-renowned play about a young Japanese man in Topaz who tries to prove his loyalty to America and will feature the original cast. Online reservations are recommended.

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