UMFA acquires works by leading Japanese-American artist, including images from Topaz internment camp in Utah


Chiura Obata was among the thousands of people incarcerated during World War II because of their Japanese ancestry.

(Chiura Obata | Utah Museum of Fine Arts) Chiura Obata’s 1943 watercolor “Topaz War Relocation Center by Moonlight” is now part of the permanent collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, which is part of a gift from the artist’s estate.

The works of a prominent Japanese-American artist – including images he made while imprisoned in the Topaz internment camp in Utah during World War II – join the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts -arts of Utah.

The estate of Chiura Obata, considered one of the most important Japanese-American artists of the 20th century, has donated 35 of his works to UMFA at the University of Utah, the museum said on Friday.

Kimi Hill, a granddaughter of Obata, said the family were “thrilled” that Utah art lovers could see and study her works.

“Because so many of these works of art were created in Utah, we hope people will be inspired to learn the history of wartime incarceration and visit the Delta Camp site as well as the museum. Topaz, ”Hill said in a statement via UMFA. “Obata never wavered from the inspiration he found in nature and his faith in the power of creativity. The solace Obata found in the beauty of Utah’s desert landscape was profound. “

The 35 works that the Obata estate donated to UMFA were produced between 1934 and 1943, and include many works he created during his incarceration in Topaz. Many of these works were exhibited at UMFA in 2018, in the traveling retrospective “Chiura Obata: An American Modern”. Her work was also featured in the 2015 exhibition “When Words Are Not Enough: Works on Paper by Topaz, 1942-1945”, the inaugural exhibition at the Topaz Museum in Delta.

(Chiura Obata | Utah Museum of Fine Arts) Chiura Obata’s 1943 watercolor “Very Warm Noon Without Any Wind. Dead Heat Covered All Camp Ground”, depicting the Topaz Relocation Center during WWII, made now part of the permanent collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, part of a gift from the artist’s estate.

Obata’s stay in Topaz influenced his style, said ShiPu Wang, professor of art history and visual culture at the University of California at Merced and curator of the traveling exhibition “American Modern”.

“Before the war his brushstrokes were very measured, methodical and almost calm,” Wang said in 2018. “After the war they seem to open up a bit.”

UMFA Executive Director Gretchen Dietrich and Senior Curator Whitney Tassie have been working with the Obata family since this exhibition to integrate some of Obata’s works into the museum’s permanent collection.

In addition to the 35 works from Obata’s estate, UMFA has purchased three other works by Obata. The museum already had – thanks to a previous donation from the estate – two drawings Obata made on the University of Utah campus, drawn when he was allowed to briefly leave Topaz to speak at the ‘U.

Chiura Obata (1885-1975) was born in Japan and emigrated to America with his family in 1903. In the 1920s, he established himself as a major figure in the Californian art scene, known for his landscapes of the places of the ‘Golden State – the most famous of Yosemite National Park. He was for many years an art professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

(Chiura Obata | Utah Museum of Art) Chiura Obata’s woodcut “Upper Lyell Fork” – one of the images he created from Yosemite National Park in California – is part of the collection permanent exhibit from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, purchased with funds from the William H. and Wilma T. Gibson Foundation.

In 1942, when he was 56, Obata and his family were uprooted from their California home by Executive Order 9066 of President Franklin Roosevelt, which forced thousands of Japanese Americans living in the coastal states from the Pacific to move to internment camps.

After being jailed for the first time in a camp on a California racetrack, the Obata were sent to the Topaz Relocation Center near Delta, Utah. Chiura Obata continued to make art – drawings and watercolors – to record life in Topaz. He also administered an art school in the camp.

After eight months in Topaz, the Obata moved to the St. Louis area with their eldest son, Gyo, who was studying architecture at the University of Washington. Gyo Obata and two of his Washington U. classmates, George Hellmuth and George Kassebaum, founded what has become one of the world’s largest architectural firms, Hellmuth Obata and Kassebaum, now known as HOK. One of HOK’s recent works is the new terminal at Salt Lake City International Airport.

UMFA curators plan to add some of Chiura Obata’s work to its US and regional art galleries in the fall of 2022, after a brief evaluation period.

“We are very grateful to the Obata family for recognizing the Utahns’ deep feelings for this incredible artist and for entrusting these wonderful items to UMFA,” Dietrich said in a statement.


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