Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Obata's Yosemite: The Art and Letters of Chiura Obata from His Trip to the High Sierras in 1927

Bonnie and I missed Ken Burns' The National Parks: America's Best Idea television series when it first ran on PBS last fall because we were off on our Australian adventure. We finally saw it in March on DVD and now long to see more of the western U.S., especially Yosemite. The documentary series featured the history of the majestic California park throughout its six episodes. I was particularly drawn to the story of the devotion of Japanese painter Chiura Obata to Yosemite. So I ordered two books through interlibrary loan.

I first received Nature Art with Chiura Obata by Michael Elsohn Ross. More than just a quick look at the artist's life, this children's book also has recommendations for nature study and art projects. Kids and adults can get a quick introduction about sumi-e, a style of Japanese ink painting done with special brushes (Obata made his own), but they are advised to seek their own sensei or master teacher to truly learn the way of the art. Ross advises us to pronounce the artist's name as CHOOL-rah, a name meaning "a thousand bays" given to him by his sensei in 1899. Readers also learn that the artist was born Zoroku Sato in 1890, that his last name was changed to Obata in 1895 when he was adopted by his older brother (who had changed his name to honor his wife's ancestors), and that Chiura immigrated alone at age fifteen to San Francisco in 1903.

Burns' PBS program told about the highlight of Obata's artistic career, a summer spent in the woods, plains, and mountains of Yosemite, a time in which he painted over 100 scenes. Obata's Yosemite: The Art and Letters of Chiura Obata from His Trip to the High Sierras in 1927 documents this adventure with essays from art historians, the letters that Obata wrote to his wife and children, and articles that Obata wrote telling about his experiences. Best of all, the book is filled with drawings, watercolors, and woodcuts illustrating the beauty of Yosemite.

I discovered that I had learned about Obata before on an episode of The History Detectives. The artist and his family were among the thousands of Japanese living on the West Coast who were sent to live in internment camps in 1942, just after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Making the best of an awful situation, Obata started an art school in the desolate camp in Utah to which he was assigned. The History Detectives story was about his paintings documenting that experience.

I have nothing but admiration for Chiura Obata and wish more people would study and follow such positive, peaceful figures. Thanks to libraries for having these books and DVDs.

Obata, Chiura. Obata's Yosemite: The Art and Letters of Chiura Obata from His Trip to the High Sierras in 1927. Yosemite Association, 1993. ISBN 0939666677.

Ross, Michael Elsohn. Nature Art with Chiura Obata. Carolrhoda Books, 2000. ISBN 1575053780.

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