by Roberta Carasso, for Irvine World News
Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz turns the horrendous into the beautiful, hardship into healing. As a Japanese American artist she recalls, in a series of 61 very fine watercolor paintings, the three years during World War II when she and her family were confined to an internment camp. The exhibit runs Aug. 9 through Sept. 1 at the Irvine Civic Center.
In 1942, America was at war with Japan and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. Its purpose was to round up Japanese Americans and isolate them in camps. The reasons given were to protect Japanese Americans from other Americans who might do them harm and to protect America from the possibility that Japanese Americans might be disloyal and become spies. With this questionable backdrop, the Sugita family left everything they owned in Anaheim and was uprooted to Poston, Arizona.
Prior to the camp, de Quieroz’s mother bore nine children, two of whom died. Then Mrs. Sugita passed away shortly after Chizuko, the youngest, was born. Consequently [due to the war relocation], Mr. Sugita and his seven children were forced to sell his plant nursery stock, pack up some belongings, and move to where they, along with thousands of others, lived in a semi-prison. In the desert, loyal Japanese Americans – often born in America and some, having brothers who were fighting for America – were herded into camps to become outcasts.
De Queiroz (her married name) almost put these years aside. When the war ended in 1945, her attention turned to her love of art. She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine art, became an art teacher at Walton Junior High School in Compton, and then at Palos Verdes High School where she became head of the Fine Art Department. She went on to teach art and art history at El Camino College, West Los Angeles College and the famous Chouinard Art Institute.
However, childhood memories refused to be forgotten. In 2003, she realized that she could not judge what happened over 50 years ago by contemporary standards, but she could use her artistic abilities to tell the story of a group of Americans who were also Japanese. In de Queiroz’s art, we see through the innocent eyes of a 9-year-old child who suddenly was transported to cramped quarters, limited facilities, inadequate schooling and play areas, and who had to eat and shower in communal places with strangers.
Most vivid of all was her realization that everyone in the camp was Japanese. To her young mind, and those of her little friends, their self-image concluded that they were taken away and placed in a prison-like situation because they were bad people. Along with wartime slogans such as "Kill the Japs," de Queiroz became aware that the world judged her and her people by their external characteristics and ignored their cultivated internal abilities for kindness, beauty, friendship and love. It was her first lesson in racial discrimination.
The paintings are in sequence to convey each event as it happened. Among the first paintings is a scene of the family plant nursery. Mr. Sugita sold his stock to Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm for $200 with a contract to buy them back at the same price when they returned. After the war, all the stock was sold as no one believed they would ever come back.
Prior to leaving, there is a family portrait with everyone wearing a degrading large number on his shirt. As they wait to board open trucks, the faceless crowd is conveyed by de Queiroz in a moody atmosphere when people, in free America, are herded like animals at a round-up. Another painting tells of a demoralizing sandstorm that greets them at their arrival to camp life. She captures the force of the wind, as people attempt to protect themselves from the violent weather and the anticipation of suffering to come.
Their comfortable homes behind them, the people are issued canvas bags and straw to make mattresses. They are sent into a small barren room in a quickly constructed wooden army barracks where they live for the duration of the war.
One of the most poignant paintings is of a guard, rifle in hand, shouting "Halt" to an elderly gentleman who does not understand and keeps walking. De Queiroz shows the guard moments after the frail body falls to the ground dead as shock runs through the camp.
People, no matter what the situation, always seek normalcy. Mr. Sugita and his older sons find scrap lumber to make furniture and shelves for the bare room and transport the drafty base into a home. Among the rare and brighter moments is when de Queiroz discovers the library and the many stories she could read, or her fourth grade teacher allowing her and a boy to paint and hanging their work in the teacher’s dining room.
There are so many touching paintings. De Queiroz has a knack for making the past come to life. Far better than photographs, the artist tells the story, through color and design, which many people forgot or never knew. One important painting depicts a dark day when rain poured down out of the sky. Her father says, "The heavens are crying with us."
The paintings have also been exhibited at the Sandstone Gallery in Laguna Beach, the Japanese American Cultural Center, and at Phoenix City Hall for the Matsuri Festival.
The artist will be at City Hall on opening day of the exhibit Monday from 10 a.m. to noon. A reception for de Queiroz will be held at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 24.
Contact the Artist at firstname.lastname@example.org
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