Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Powerful Moments at the Museum

Continuing my walk through the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, NM:

In the Museum's Gallery of Conscience was a very moving exhibit entitled: The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946.

"The Art of Gaman showcases arts made by Japanese Americans in U.S. Internment camps during World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, all ethnic Japanese on the West Coast—more than two-thirds of whom were American citizens by birth—were ordered to leave their homes (often with no more than the clothes on their backs) and move to internment camps for the duration of the war, including a camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Art making became essential for simple creature comforts and emotional survival. These objects—tools, teapots, furniture, toys and games, musical instruments, pendants and pins, purses and ornamental displays—are physical manifestations of the art of gaman, a Japanese word that means "to bear the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience" (

Four works that captured my attention are shown here. Jitsuro Hiramoto was a farmer in Lodi, CA, who was interned at age 55. His work is entitled "Cranes" and is made from mesquite and scrap lumber.
And, ironically, while Mr. Hiramoto was interned, his son was serving in the United States Army.

S. Kawamoto, interned in Santa Fe, created this painting of the camp on a wood slab, a wedge of fence post, and paint.

"Brothers Gentaro and Shinzaburo Nishiura were carpenters who had all their tools taken away before internment. Even without their tools, they found a way to carve this intricate butsudan—a shrine used for Buddhist religious practices—during their internment.

"Since interned families were limited to what they could carry with them to the camps, many were forced to leave their butsudans behind.
To keep their religious practices however, many Japanese Americans created their own shrines from whatever materials were available. Thus, these phenomenally elaborate yet beautifully simple shrines indicate the importance of maintaining art and religion in the most dire of circumstances.

"The Nishiura brothers, renowned artists and craftsmen, had been trained in Japan and had designed major structures, such as the Japanese Pavilion of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco" (

The artist of the drawing below was dedicated to an elderly man approaching a coyote (or dog, in some accounts) that he had befriended while interned. The man, who was deaf, did not the warning to return inside the fenced area. Since he did not respond to the warning, he was shot and killed.

This quote was written on the wall near the exit of this exhibit:
"Everything was lost except the urge to create" -- Delphine Hirasuna.

In an adjacent room was space dedicated to the goal of preparing a gift of 1000 origami cranes to be sent to Japan.
I did not learn more about the project and the designated recipients, but I did learn the meaning of 1000 cranes: An ancient Japanese legend promises that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by a crane or some stories believe you are granted eternal good luck, instead of just one wish, such as long life or recovery from illness or injury.

With the above images and stories in my mind, the remainder of my walk through the Museum focused on the visual and less on the emotional.

Some of the items in the Folk Art of the Andes exhibit are shown below:

A woman's side saddle stirrup from Argentina (left) and another from Bolivia (right).

A trunk made from rawhide, 19th century, Peru (next two photos).

Wooden stirrups, Chile, 19th century

Carved gourds, Peru, (l. to r., late 19th century, 1921, and 1968)

Roof ornaments from Peru

I returned to the Girard Wing of the Museum before leaving. Here was the first storyteller figure. Helen Cordero produced this figure in the 1950s when she was in her mid-forties. She was not satisfied with producing pots, but her "little people" were very successful.

In fact, one of the first times Helen showed these figures at a Santo Domingo feast day, folk art collector Alexander Girard of Santa Fe bought all of the "little people."

Girard then asked Helen to make an even larger seated figure with children. The result of early attempts led to this grandfather figure with five children--the first storyteller. As a portrait of Helen Cordero's grandfather, it is a self-portrait as well, since she is one of the children. That was 1964.

Today, as many as three hundred potters in thirteen pueblos have created storytellers (

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