Saturday, August 27, 2011

Riverside's Mine' Okubo

Mine´ Okubo, internationally acclaimed artist, illustrator, and author, was born in Riverside, California, in a rented house on Eleventh and Kansas Streets, on June 27, 1912. The site of her birth is now part of Bobby Bonds Park, but while Mine´ was growing up, the house was surrounded on three sides by citrus groves. She loved playing in the water of the groves’ irrigation ditches, found pollywogs there, and sometimes brought them home in a pail, just to watch them swim. Hers was a world of fragrance and color, in a city founded by idealists and dreamers. Like many other residents, her parents crossed an ocean to build a new life.

She was the fourth child in a family that would number seven. Her father, a scholar of Japanese history and philosophy, named her after the Japanese creation goddess Mine, [pronounced mee-neh], a great honor. However, most people in her hometown, unfamiliar with the creation goddess, called her “Minnie.”

Mine´ Okubo attended Riverside schools: Longfellow Elementary and Poly High. Her parents offered to send her to Casa Blanca’s Japanese language school, too, but she declined, saying, “I don’t need to learn Japanese! I’m an American!”

She learned Japanese culture at home, anyway. Mama taught her calligraphy, and Father endowed her with the Japanese philosophy of the Four Noble Truths, a guide to ethics.

In 1931, when Mine´ enrolled in college, she rode her bicycle past citrus groves and smudge pots, down the arroyo, then back up the hill, to the not-yet-completed Riverside Junior College, where she studied with the school’s first generation of teachers.

Richard M. Allman, Professor of Art, quickly recognized Miss Okubo’s potential. She had talent and had learned discipline from her artist mother, who assigned her, early on, to paint a different cat every day, making sure to capture the cat’s personality, as well as its shape and color.

Dr. Allman encouraged the shy, quiet girl to illustrate for the school’s newspaper and become art editor of her class of 1933 yearbook. He said she should also pursue advanced study, preferably at the University of California at Berkeley. Mine´ didn’t know where Berkeley was, and didn’t think she or her family could afford it. Dr. Allman recommended her, anyway, Berkeley accepted her, awarded her a scholarship, and,with her part-time jobs, she could afford to study among some of America’s finest art teachers. John Haley, founder of the Berkeley School of Art, became her friend for life.

Mine´ distinguished herself at Berkeley, but missed Riverside, especially Mama. When Mine´ felt lonely, she pictured Riverside as she remembered it, then painted what she loved most – a serene image of Mama, seated in front of her neighborhood church, Bible in her lap, a cat at her side. That painting, “Mama with Cat, featured in exhibitions, books and magazines, now rests in a place of honor at Oakland Museum.

Graduating from Berkeley in 1937 with a Master’s degree in both Art and Anthropology, Mine´ won their prestigious Bertha Taussig Traveling Art Fellowship, to study art in Europe. The frugal Miss Okubo chose to take a freighter across the Atlantic, rather than travel via passenger ship, saying there weren’t many passengers on board the freighter, but plenty of grain!

She bought a used bicycle as soon as she got to France, rode it all over Paris, and parked by the Louvre, where she could study original art by The Great Masters.

In France, she learned new art perspectives in social realism, and she came to know those helpful guides to pronunciation, French accent marks. She quickly appropriated one for her own name, and, from then on, signed her work with an accent mark.

As she traveled throughout Europe, she often packed lunch and art supplies into her bicycle’s big basket, pedaled to a place that interested her, and stopped to internalize what she saw. Then, she created her own image of the place’s meaning, its artistic truth. She traveled in over a dozen different European countries while on fellowship.

By September, 1939, however, war was coming to Europe. Friends urged her to go home, where it was safer, but she continued to work, until the day she received a telegram from Riverside, saying Mama was very sick. Mine´ should come home right away.

She had little money with her in Switzerland, her belongings were back in France, and the Swiss-French border was already sealed. Leaving seemed almost impossible, but her Swiss friends loaned her money to travel, and, somehow, she got back to France and worked her way aboard the last American passenger ship leaving Bordeaux, France. Along with terrified refugees hurrying to leave Europe before bombs started falling, Mine´ headed home, crossing an Atlantic full of unseen dangers. World War II in Europe was declared while they were still at sea.

Mine´ made it back to Riverside in time to see her mother alive, in time to share with her and give thanks, but Mama died in 1940. Her remains lie in Riverside’s Olive Wood Cemetery, beneath stone calligraphy designed and executed by family friend Tyrus Wong, the Chinese fine artist who illustrated the forest in the Disney film, Bambi.

After mourning her mother, Mine looked for work. In response to the Depression, America had implemented the WPA, a series of Federal employment programs. They hired artists. Mine returned to the Bay Area, where people knew her work. The WPA was happy to hire a person of her professional stature, and assigned her to create murals for luxury liners, frescoes for military bases Treasure Island and Fort Ord, and to work in conjunction with the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, in San Francisco.

Glad to be earning money as an artist on important projects, Mine´ was also pleased to be sharing an apartment with her younger brother, Toku, now a Berkeley student. It was good to be with family again.

But on December seventh, 1941, Japan launched a surprise bomb attack on Pearl Harbor. Many Americans, stunned, no longer trusted anybody of Japanese heritage, even those formerly known personally as good neighbors. War changed everything.

People were edgy. Violence against Asians made headlines. A series of Presidential decrees ordered people of Japanese heritage to register, then to settle their affairs, prepare for mandatory evacuation from their homes. They must dispose of all belongings, pack as if going to camp, and bring only what each could carry. Nobody knew how long they would be away.

Mine´ and her brother were given three days’ notice to report. At their Berkeley assembly center, they were assigned collective family number 13660, and were never again referred to by officialdom by their given names. Under armed guard, with other evacuees, they boarded a bus and were driven over a bridge to San Bruno’s former race track, Tanforan, now an assembly center, where they lived for six months, in a horse stall.

Cameras were forbidden to internees, but Miss Okubo, knowing Americans wouldn’t believe what was happening unless they saw it for themselves, determined to document every day she spent behind barbed wire. Carrying her sketch pad throughout the camp, she carefully recorded all she saw and experienced.

After six months at Tanforan, she was shipped to Topaz, an internment camp in the high, alkaline desert of central Utah. Behind another set of barbed wire, she meticulously committed to paper all aspects of internment. She also taught art to interned children and illustrated covers for the three issues of Trek, the newsmagazine produced by and for the camp’s internees.

From her first week in internment to her last, she kept up extensive correspondence with friends outside. She even entered a Berkeley art contest by mail. She won! That brought her to the attention of editors of Fortune Magazine, in New York City, who were planning a special April 1944 issue, featuring Japanese culture. They offered Miss Okubo a job, illustrating their special edition. They asked her to please come to New York City within three days.

To leave Topaz, she had to undergo extensive security and loyalty checks. When finally cleared and en route to New York City, she reflected on her years of incarceration and regimentation, and wondered how she’d be able to adjust to open society again.
Fortune Magazine’s editors welcomed her, helped find an apartment, and put her right to work. When they saw her camp drawings, they were so impressed they dedicated a full-blown illustrated article on internment camps, the first published in a national magazine.

After the special issue came out, the most trusted man in news, Walter Cronkite, gave his entire nationally-televised CBS program to his interview with Miss Okubo. The shy girl from Riverside had become a national phenomenon.

Urged to publish her camp drawings as a book, Mine´ added short captions and called the book Citizen 13660. Columbia University Press published it in 1946, to great reviews, after which Mine´ toured the country, telling her story, exhibiting her art, making a special stop to see friends at Riverside Public Library.

She taught art at U C Berkeley for two years, then returned to New York to devote full time to her own art. Her commercial illustrations appeared in major magazines, newspapers and scientific books, and her fine art was exhibited from Boston to Tokyo.

She hosted memorable salons in her third-floor Greenwich Village apartment. Artists and intellectuals from Harlem to Stuttgart flocked there, to discuss the latest artworks.

In 1981, she testified on behalf of internees at New York City’s Congressional hearings of The U. S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, presenting commissioners a copy of Citizen 13660.

Miss Okubo received many honors for her work and her commitment. In 1973, Oakland Museum hosted a major retrospective of her work; in 1974, Riverside Community College named her Alumna of the Year; in 1987, The California State Department of Education featured her as one of twelve California women pioneers in The History of California (1800 to Present), on their large classroom poster, California Women: Courage, Compassion, Conviction, and in An Activities Guide for Kindergarten Through Grade 12; in 1991, she received Washington, D. C.s National Museum for Women in the Arts’ Women’s Caucus for Art Honor Award; in 1993, Japan featured her in their 2006 National High School yearbook, used in all Japanese schools; and in the same year, Riverside Community College paid her tribute by renaming a street on campus after her and featuring the original play, Mine’: A Name for Herself, at their Landis Performing Arts Center. The Smithsonian Institution later selected that play for its 2007 Day of Remembrance, and sponsored its performance in Washington, D. C.

Mine´ Okubo dedicated her life to art. Using Great Masters’ principles, she portrayed truth and beauty with integrity, and she did it with such simplicity that a child of seven could appreciate and understand her renderings. Betty La Duke, Professor of Art at University of Southern Oregon, describes her later paintings as “serene, Buddha-like.”

When Miss Okubo died on February 1, 2001, obituaries appeared in newspapers from New York to New Zealand. Memorials were held in New York City, Oakland, and Riverside. She left a legacy of courage, discipline, and love.
Her work continues to enlighten and to challenge. Her artwork hangs in major galleries and is treasured by collectors worldwide; her book, Citizen 13660, continues to be studied in classrooms across America and Canada. Recently, The Hague, in Holland, selected it as their choice for their summer discussion series.

Recognizing the lasting value of art over the ages, Mine´ Okubo bequeathed major pieces of her art and personal belongings to her first alma mater, Riverside Community College. Students and the public will have access to selections of the Okubo Collection at the College’s new Museum of Social Justice, scheduled to open June 27, 2012, the hundredth anniversary of Miss Okubo’s birth.

Mary H. Curtin

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