Review: In Auburn museum, handmade objects speak silently of Japanese camps

Side table made of sagebrush by Jack Natsuhara at Tule Lake camp.
Side table made of sagebrush by Jack Natsuhara at Tule Lake camp. Courtesy

At first glance, it doesn’t look like much: A twisty bit of wood holding some reeds. It’s rough, misshapen. Then you look around the other side and realize the vase has the subtle form of a waterfowl, low and lean. And then, when you read the label, you realize just what it actually is — a sculpture, carved from scavenged materials in the face of bleakness and fear.

It was made by an Auburn man who was suddenly forced, like hundreds of other Japanese Americans, to leave everything behind and live in a World War II internment camp. The sculpture is part of a new exhibit at White River Valley Museum about how they countered deprivation and humiliation with handmade beauty.

“Handmade in Camp” might be just a single room in this Auburn history museum, but it’s a slow, powerful journey through three dark years of American history. While half the exhibit — curated by artist Ken Matsudaira from the museum’s own collection and loaned works — consists of handmade objects (furniture, art, decorations), it’s also a thoughtful story of photographs and quotes, along with video interviews and more via the online app STQRY.

The journey begins with a replica front page of the Seattle Daily Times from Dec. 8, 1941, covering the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Immediately opposite is the proclamation of May 15, 1942, advising all persons of Japanese ancestry in the Auburn area to be ready to evacuate in one week. They were to gather bedding, clothes and personal supplies into something they could carry themselves. Everything else would be left behind.

The proclamation was an order authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt, ostensibly for “military necessity,” which was later proved false by congressional commission. Through quotes and video interviews, the entryway tells of the fear, hostility and worry of that week. The wall continues with the arrival of hundreds of Japanese Americans (two-thirds of them citizens) at processing centers and camps like Tule Lake, Oregon, and Minidoka, Idaho — of filthy toilets with no privacy, horse-stall beds, long lines for food, barbed wire.

Densho, a Seattle nonprofit that preserves information about the Japanese American WWII experience, uses the term “concentration camp” or “incarceration camp” rather than “internment camp.” They say “internment” refers to enemy aliens rather than U.S. citizens, who made up two-thirds of the imprisoned population.

The gray emptiness of the photos and words is filled, on the other side, by the richness of texture and color. A small assembly of blankets, vintage suitcases and wool clothing shows just how little each person could bring of their lives, farms, houses and businesses. The only things they received at camp were an army cot, a stove, a light bulb and a blanket partition.

So they made the rest by hand.

“My father told me that in camp, if you saw a piece of wood, like on a fence, people would hack it out,” said Charles Natsuhara, 61, whose father, grandfather and two uncles were held at Tule Lake. One of the uncles made the twisted waterfowl vase. “Wood was a commodity. They needed it to make practical things, like drawers and tables.”

Those drawers and tables speak volumes. Finely sanded (by hand), with elaborated carved handles, inlay tops and tripod legs astonishingly balanced despite the twisty sagebrush, they speak of craftsmanship, time and hope.

“It was all about staying busy, fighting off the boredom,” said Natsuhara, whose father spoke occasionally about his life in camp with his wife, parents and (eventually) Natsuhara’s sisters, who were born there. “And about keeping up hope.”

Other practical things were made in camp: clothes, suitcases, scrap quilts, lamps. Some made games, like a board for shogi or dolls in delicate red kimonos and sage-green skirt-suit made from scavenged toilet paper and silk. There’s a leather wallet painstakingly worked with a camp scene by a shoemaker and two carved toy dogs.

In the section on religion, a Buddhist altar made by Natsuhara’s uncle, Jack, glows with love and care, with intricate architecture inside the 2-foot-tall cabinet and wood painted to look like gold or black lacquer. Inside are scrolls and objects carefully packed from home by Natsuhara’s grandmother, a devout Buddhist. Natsuhara grew up seeing it as the family altar. Only in 2011 did he learn where it was made.

But it’s the art that speaks loudest. Objects that had no practical purpose were made from precious materials and tools snagged from the workshops, just to express beauty and civilization. Landscape scenes of owls and mountains worked in embroidery, watercolors of gardens, intricate corsages made with tiny shells dug up by internees from dry Tule Lake. One of Natsuhara’s uncles made a vase from a chunk of firewood, sanded and varnished. Ironically, many of the objects have an intentional aesthetic about them, a kind of wabi-sabi that belies the bleak situation in which they were made.

It’s getting more common to see books, poetry and memoirs about the Japanese American prison experience in WWII: the reality of the hardships, separation, military guards, then distrust and even hostility when they were allowed to return home in 1945. Many found their homes and farms owned by others. Many didn’t return.

Japanese Americans made up one-third of the Auburn community in 1942. After they were set free from prison camps in 1945, many did not return.

But what’s unusual, and important, about “Handmade in Camp” is the tactile, visual window into this world given by these mute objects that speak so loudly. Around one-third of Auburn’s population in 1942 was Japanese American. Just one year short of the 75th anniversary of the incarceration, it’s vital that we get a clear look through this window to understand just how it was and why it shouldn’t happen again.

“It’s very emotional,” said docent Pam Salsman, of the exhibit. “I cried when I first saw it.”

“This exhibit is important for people to understand first that the camps existed,” says Natsuhara, whose family moved back to Auburn, where they’d had a farm and shop. “There are still people that don’t realize that, or how it worked. People think the government gave people furnished apartments. … Then it’s important to understand the practical things they (did) to stay active … to keep up hope.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Handmade in Camp: What we couldn’t carry

What: Items of necessity and beauty made in Japanese American internment camps in WWII.

Where: White River Valley Museum, 918 H St. SE, Auburn.

When: Noon-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 6-8 p.m. first Thursdays through Nov. 6.

Events: 1 p.m. Sept. 17, film screening and curator discussion; 1 p.m. Oct. 1, Japanese kite workshop.

Admission: $5 adults; $2 seniors, children; free 2 and younger.

Information: 253-288-7433, wrvmuseum.org.