Late artist's work on exhibit at
the De Young Museum in San Francisco
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, .
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."
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.
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.
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
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."
Burl. "Artist Chiura Obata and His Time In the Elmwood
The Berkeley Voice. Reprinted from "Tales
(Friday, December 22, 2000).