Mine Okubo: Celebrating Art

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Picasso once said that we all are born as artists, until someone tells us that we aren’t. Every one of us has drawn seascapes with crayons in kindergarten and acted in plays in elementary school. But by the time we graduate from high school, most of us have been socialized to find a more “practical” career. Even worse, in a culture that glorifies slick commercialized art over the art that comes from artists involved in the realities of our communities, not enough of us open our checkbooks to buy the art of our own community artists when holiday shopping begins. It is a vicious circle because community artists don’t get the support they need to develop their craft, and then their craft doesn’t rise to a level where it can make an impact on the broader society.

Artists who are Asian American have a doubly difficult time because immigrant parents tend to want their children to go into secure professions such as accounting, or prestigious ones such as medicine. For example, coming from a family of professionals, playwright/songwriter/moviemaker Philip Kan Gotanda felt he had to get his law degree before launching his first musical, The Avocado Kid, Or Zen in the Art of Guacamole at the East West Players in Los Angeles two decades ago. Poet/playwright Velina Hasu Houston was encouraged to go into law after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Kansas, but she moved to Los Angeles and persevered as an award-winning writer and teacher.

In 1912, over 88 years ago, a Japanese American artist was born and managed to defy all the odds and remain true to her art over a long, milestone-filled career. Still living in a canvas-filled apartment near New York’s Greenwich Village, she is a shining example of how someone can rise to the highest levels of both craft and community concern. Her name, which should be known everywhere young artists look for encouragement, is Mine (pronounced MEE-NEH) Okubo.

Mine had a gift for sketching that was recognized early. She got an undergraduate degree from Riverside College (now U.C. Riverside) and a master’s degree in fine arts from U.C. Berkeley, class of 1938. She did some work for the Depression-era Work Projects Administration (WPA) and, like other promising artists of her day (most of them men), she went to Paris and studied under the famous early 20th century avant-garde painter Fernand Leger. She was perfectly credentialed and experienced to embark on a promising artistic career when the internment of all Japanese Americans cut things short in December of 1941.

Like a true artist, however, Mine did not let her forced confinement in Tanforan Assembly Center and Topaz “Relocation Center” (in the west-central Utah desert) stop her dedication to her art. She sketched scenes from daily life in the camps, and was one of the co-founders of Trek, one of the few literary magazines started in the camps. She ended up publishing the sketches and her commentary as the first book on the Japanese American internment experience Citizen 13660 in 1946.

What is beautiful about Citizen 13660, winner of the 1984 American Book Award, and the reason it is still in print and used in college classes all across the country today, is that it combines detailed, evocative sketches with simple, elegant prose. A 1946 New York Times Book Review called it, “A remarkably objective and vivid and even humorous account.”

Without fiery rhetoric, Okubo describes the daily indignity of being forced to use smelly public latrines, or the difficulties of raising children in a place encircled by barbed wire. The pained expressions on the faces of the internees in her book did as much to help the case for redress four decades later as the mountains of legal briefs or the hundreds of hours of meetings with members of Congress.

While Okubo has had a hard life in some respects, she also has lived long enough to receive some acclaim for her work. She became a nationally recognized artist in the post-World War II era. She received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991 from the Women’s Caucus for Art, and is listed in Distinguished Asian Americans: A Biographical Dictionary edited by Hyung-chan Kim. She is one of three artists featured in a 1996 video by Betty LaDuke, Persistent Women Artists. Major retrospectives on her work have been shown on both coasts, and her art is found in museums and shows in many cities.

When I searched the Web for mentions of Okubo last week, I was surprised to find 119 entries. Her book is used in courses taught by teachers throughout the country about female artists, artists in war, and ethnic artists.

Okubo’s health has been poor this past year, but she continues to inspire new generations of artists of all backgrounds. Hopefully these younger artists, as well as Asian Americans in general, will study her work and honor this artistic pioneer with retrospectives of her work, honorary degrees, and purchases of her book and paintings.

To contact Mine Okubo, you can write c/o JASSI (Japanese American Social Services, Inc), 275 7th Avenue, 12th floor, NY, NY 10001.

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