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Artist Chiura Obata and His Time in the
Elmwood Neighborhood

By Burl Willies

Community Newspaper of Berkeley - Friday, December 22, 2000

Late artist's work on exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco

The Berkeley Voice was happy to hear for Burl Willies, author of "Tales from the Elmwood," a book featured in our arts section recently. Mr. Willies notes that the works of the late Chiura Obata (1885-1975), who lived in the Elmwood, are on display at the De Young Museum in San Francisco through Dec. 31, [2000].

Mr. Willies graciously offered the chapter from his book that recalls Chiura and Haruko Obata for our readers to enjoy. As he points out, "Readers might enjoy reading about the artist and his regular visits to Dream Fluff Do-nuts."


Kimi Kodania Hill's family has left a legacy of art that spans the globe. Her grandparents, Chiura and Haruko Obata, were artists celebrated in both California and Japan. While Chiura Obata received the Order of the Sacred Treasure, 5th Class, from the Emperor of Japan for his paintings and woodblock prints, his wife Haruko was awarded the Order of the Sacred Crown, 6th Class, for her Ikebana arrangements. For Kimi, the memories of her grandparents are rooted in the Elmwood, where they retired in 1954.

Although Kimi grew up in Oakland, just across the Berkeley border near Woolsey Street, she frequently visited her grandparents' neighborhood. When the Obatas were not conducting tours in Japan, they hosted Sunday night dinners for the entire family. Kimi also remembers walking to the commercial district with her grandfather. Chiura would buy donuts on Ashby Avenue, and Kimi would visit the five and dime store. "It was a great place for kids because we could actually afford to purchase something there. I remember hoe the clerks used to putter about." Kimi was especially enchanted by the selection of European toys. "I loved the little doll furnishings. It was a great splurge when I could buy a toy telephone or hutch for my dollhouse."

Kimi recalls the meditative, Japanese-style garden that wrapped around her grandparents' modest stucco house as the focus of their retirement. Chiura painted the black bamboo and Japanese maple, and Haruko used them in her exquisite Ikebana arrangements. Her busy teaching schedule, however, required more materials than her small garden could produce. Fortunately, the lush Elmwood was a perfect place for collecting flora. Neighbors gladly shared clippings of their wisteria and plum blossoms. Occasionally she and Kimi would scavenge branches from the trees lining Telegraph Avenue.

As artists who drew their inspiration and materials from nature, the Obatas suffered terribly in the barren Utah desert during the wartime internment of Japanese Americans. Chiura continued to paint, finding beauty even in the bleak world of the camps. He organized an art school at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno and, after another relocation, served as director of the Topaz Art School.

The Obatas had shared their gifts through teaching before the war as well. Chiura had joined the art department faculty at the University of California at Berkeley in 1932, and Haruko offered Ikebana in the back of their art supply store on Telegraph Avenue. The shop was the target of a gun shot after the Pearl Harbor attack, and eventually the Obatas were forced to close it and cancel all classes. The relocation order brought more grief. Unable to bring his many paintings and woodblock prints with him, Chiura organized a large sale. With the same generous and transcendent spirit he would demonstrate again at Tanforan and Topaz, he donated the sale profits to a campus student fund. University PResident Robert Gordon Sproul, an Elmwood resident and friend of the Obatas, offered to store many of the remaining works in University House. Recently retired Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien continued this tradition of hanging Obata paintings in the official campus residence, and several are no on display in the chancellor's office in California Hall.

When Executive Order 9066 was finally lifted in 1945, Chiura was invited to resume his faculty position at the University. The Obatas knew the difficulties facing returning Japanese Americans. Housing was scarce, and war-heightened racism had created a tense environment. H. L. Dungan, the art critic for the Oakland Tribune, allayed their fears with a warm invitation; he promised that there would always be a welcome sing on his door for them. So the Obatas stayed in this steepled attic apartment on Oakvale Avenue until they purchased their own house in the Elmwood in 1950.

From her grandparents' old neighborhood, Kim works to share her grandfather's art with a wide audience. Funded by a grant from the state of California for the creation of education materials about the internment, her current project is to document her family's history during the war. "Topa Moon: Chiura Obata's Art from the Internment Camps," focuses on her grandparents' relationship with friends back in Berkeley and their efforts to assist the Obatas. Besides giving lectures, Kimi has also consulted on several books about her grandfather, including a biography, a children's book called "Nature Art with Chiura Obata," and a collection of his letters and art from a trip to the High Sierra entitled "Obata's Yosemite."


Willies, Burl. "Artist Chiura Obata and His Time In the Elmwood Neighborhood."
     The Berkeley Voice. Reprinted from "Tales From Elmwood."
     (Friday, December 22, 2000).



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