Chiura Obata’s American Landscape Art

The Chiura Obata Papers were the source for an assignment created in the Archives of American Art’s Teaching with Primary Sources workshop

Watercolor image of mountain scene with a cloudless blue sky, trees and boulders in the foreground, and the artist’s stamp in the bottom left-hand corner.
Chiura Obata, El Capitan, n.d., watercolor on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Obata Family, 2005.17.1, © 1989, Yuri Kodani

When forty University of Michigan-Ann Arbor students arrived in my “Landscape Art” course in September of 2021, they brought their preconceptions of the landscape genre. A year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us back in a physical classroom for the first time, I was struck by the words they associated with “landscape” gathered during an in-class poll including soothing, serene, and peaceful. In their first in-class writing exercise, students were asked to describe a resonant landscape that they had experienced personally. Many chose to write about popular vacation sites in Michigan, others gravitated toward more remote experiences. Every description was positive, but what was most striking was how frequently students framed their experience of landscape around the pandemic. Hometown walks became spaces of refuge from endless virtual classes; one student submitted a detailed description of the trees outside her window, a reassuring constant in a year spent in almost complete isolation. While these overwhelmingly positive associations with landscape were noteworthy, they were not unexpected. I created this wide-ranging course about landscape precisely because it is popular. I wanted students to learn about global landscape traditions that stretch their definitions, from ancient wall paintings to early modern Hindu manuscripts. I also wanted them to learn that seemingly benign nineteenth-century painting served as a tool of colonialism and Indigenous land dispossession in the Americas.

Those goals drove my syllabus planning in the preceding summer when I was also a participant in the Archives of American Art’s Teaching with Primary Sources workshop. I structured the course so that midway through the semester, we would shift to a month-long “case study” of landscape in what is now the United States. I knew that my Archives assignment would fall during this case study when my students (many of whom were new to art history) had developed skills like slow looking, visual analysis, and compare/contrast; visits to the University of Michigan Museum of Art and the Clements Library also introduced them to firsthand encounters with artworks and archival material. For weeks leading up to the Archives assignment, we discussed the Hudson River School and the development of art historical “canons;” we spent time with Thomas Cole’s dire warnings for Jacksonian America and we grappled with Thomas Moran’s paintings of Yellowstone that worked to both establish the National Park and facilitate its theft from Native peoples. We talked about Robert S. Duncanson (born in nearby Monroe, Michigan) and the differing art historical interpretations of nineteenth-century Black landscape painters. We read Jolene Rickard’s powerful case study “Arts of Dispossession” that presents nineteenth-century Tonawanda Seneca artist Caroline Parker’s beadwork as a Haudenosaunee “landscape” that breaks open the restrictive boundaries of the genre. At this point in the semester, the idea of Euro-American landscape as a “soothing, serene, peaceful” genre seemed a distant memory.

Gray scale image of adult man teaching a children’s art class while other children on a bridge in the background look on.
Photograph of Chiura Obata teaching a children's art class at Tanforan Art School, 1942 / unidentified photographer. Chiura Obata papers, circa 1891-2000, 1942-1945. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Enter Chiura Obata. I chose Obata as the focus of my Archives assignment for practical and artistic reasons. Artistically, he fits comfortably into the landscape genre, with a vast oeuvre of stunning paintings and prints. Yet his style and background can also complicate the assumptions of stereotypical American landscape art. Pragmatically, his fully digitized papers are accessible for students with typed documents and transcriptions of handwritten pages. Furthermore, though the documents we read were produced many decades ago, there is also a feeling of chronological proximity for students. That relative proximity is also powerful because of the context for some of Obata’s landscape paintings: Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, and Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. An immigrant to the United States from Japan, trained in the rich tradition of Sumi-e, Obata’s American landscapes quickly resonated with my students. His love for what he called “Great Nature” is evident in his writings, paintings, and prints, many of which feature locations familiar to U-M students, like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. When I explained that Obata often mixed paints with water on-site, materially incorporating the landscape into its depiction, I could sense that we were shifting back to the positive words that they associated with landscape in our first lessons. But, as mentioned above, it is impossible to separate Obata’s American experience from his incarceration, along with over 100,000 Japanese Americans, under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, signed on February 19, 1942.

Typewritten letter with a black ink and watercolor sketch of a sunrise in purple, yellow, orange, and red behind bluish-purple mountains. In the foreground of the sketch are buildings and trucks of an incarceration camp.
Chiura Obata letter to Mr. and Mrs. Galen M. Fisher, 26 Sept. 1942. Chirua Obata Papers, 1891-2000, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In April 1942, Obata and his family were forced from his home in Berkeley, where he was a professor of art at the University of California, to the Tanforan Assembly Center. After months in San Bruno, the Obata family was moved to Topaz in September. At both sites, Obata continued to draw and paint, he opened and led art schools for his fellow incarcerates. He and others produced images of the harsh desert landscape that rendered the site of their imprisonment beautiful, even serene. Moonlight Over Topaz, a 1942 watercolor on silk produced for the Japanese American Citizens League and gifted to Eleanor Roosevelt, is exemplary of Obata’s complicated work in this period. As ShiPu Wang notes in Chiura Obata: An American Modern, there are formal resonances with the artist’s prewar landscapes (including the medium), but critics could argue that the mist obscures the barbed wire, barracks, and watchtower, thus aestheticizing bleak and unjust living conditions. Despite this potential critique, students immediately connected to the idea of art (landscape in particular) as an escape, to the idea of art as therapy. But this connection also presented a pedagogic challenge because I did not want the resilience of Obata’s artwork and teaching to mask the real oppression and trauma experienced by incarcerates. Obata’s papers served as an invaluable teaching tool to meet this challenge. While the instances where Obata put a positive spin on the harsh conditions at Topaz stood out to students, I made sure we also considered the moments where he offered candid descriptions of the extreme temperatures and dust storms. An April 23, 1943, letter to Eleanor Breed is particularly potent because Obata attributes his attack by a fellow incarcerate to the bleak environment. I also found that documents describing the sheer bureaucracy of living under EO 9066 resonated with students, from letters about shipping art supplies for Topaz, to correspondence with UC Berkeley Provost Monroe Deutsch to arrange references for FBI and WRA (War Relocation Authority) forms and apply for sabbaticals to cover the period of incarceration.

Watercolor scene of pale blue mountains with a full moon against a blue sky washed out by dust. The brown and beige dusty terrain has black buildings and a fence in the distance. The piece is in a linen matte with wooden frame with gold accents.
Chiura Obata, Moonlight over Topaz, Utah, 1942, watercolor on silk. Estate of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Museum Collection. ©The Obata Family.

Ultimately, the goal of both the Obata papers assignment and in-class discussion was to help students dwell in the complexity of this American artist’s life and work. Obata loved the landscape of the country that treated him so poorly; at Topaz specifically, it was both a source of comfort and a constant threat. The Learning Lab assignment that I developed from my participation in the Archives workshop works toward that goal by providing students with a research dossier including a curated selection of Obata’s papers, Matthew Simms’s description of the papers in the Archives of American Art Journal, and selections from Chiura Obata: An American Modern. The original assignment asked students to read through all the material and then answer a series of prompts as the third part of a semester-length reading journal. However, I found that some students in this second-year course were still struggling with some basic concepts, like differentiating between archival material and catalog essays. My revised assignment comes in four parts: definitions, annotations, reading journal, and exhibition label. The first part asks students to explore the Archives website and other sources to establish working definitions of terms like archive, papers, and primary source. Meanwhile, the annotation allows students to spend sustained time with one document. The Reading Journal retains my original format, prompting students to answer some big picture questions about the sources they read and to provide specific examples of their choice. Finally, students write an exhibition label about one of Obata’s silk paintings, Lake Basin in the High Sierra or Moonlight Over Topaz. This final part asks students to coalesce information from the research dossier and their own visual analysis; they are also required to refer to an item in the Obata Papers. Ultimately, students come away from this assignment, which could easily be shifted to another artist in the Archives, seeing Obata as a complex artist and person, the type of understanding only available through archival material.

This essay originally appeared on the Archives of American Art Blog and was supported by funding from the Dedalus Foundation.