Transpacific Borderlands Artist Shizu Saldamando Pays Tribute to Camp Survivors in Upcoming Craft Workshop

Shizu Saldamando, Ozzie and Grace, 2014. Colored pencil and spray paint on paper.
All images courtesy of the artist.

Born to parents of Japanese and Mexican descent, Shizu Saldamando creates exquisite drawings in which she investigates the variety of social constructs and subcultures seen in Los Angeles’ backyard parties, dance clubs, music shows, hang-out spots, and art receptions. By focusing on the subtle details that define different scenes, she captures the unexpected influences at work in America’s social spaces. Saldamando’s work is currently on view at JANM as part of the exhibition Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo.

This Saturday, December 2, Saldamando will be giving a Members Only Artist Talk as well as leading a craft workshop titled Paper Flowers from the Camp Archives. We sat down with her via email to learn more about her family background, what shaped her practice as an artist, and how she came to develop her paper flowers workshop, which pays tribute to one of the ways that her family—and others—found to deal with the trauma of the World War II Japanese American incarceration.

JANM: I’ve read that your mom is a community organizer and your dad is a human rights lawyer. Your family life must have been filled with social and political awareness and dialogue. Do you think that influenced your artwork?

Shizu Saldamando: Growing up in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1980s, I was very much influenced by my parents’ work as well as by the Chicano art centers in the area, all of whom were heavily informed by activism, the United Farm Workers, the Central American wars that were happening at that time, and other pressing issues of the day. It was the era of Reaganomics and the Cold War, so a lot of the artwork that was being produced in my neighborhood was heavily loaded and spoke about human rights and issues affecting low-income and immigrant communities—the same issues we are dealing with today.

JANM: The Japanese side of your family was incarcerated during World War II. How did that history influence you growing up?

SS: My mom helped develop a curriculum for the schools in San Francisco that taught about the Japanese American concentration camps, so I was able to make connections between their experience and that of other immigrant communities. I saw the various ways that immigrants and people of color are easily scapegoated and targeted in order to further whatever agenda the current administration is seeking to implement. In my community, I was exposed to artists who used their work to re-contextualize and assert an alternative narrative to what was playing on the news, and that was very influential.

In my own practice now, a lot of my work is not overtly political in that there are not many slogans or protests signs. However, I choose to depict friends and family who occupy a space outside of mainstream circles and who consciously construct their own creative communities. These people are the legacy of many historical struggles; they have, out of the need for survival, created their own supportive spaces.

Shizu Saldamando, Raquel’s Lunchbox, 2017. Graphite and spray paint on wood.

JANM: Yes, you’ve said that your art is about “subculture and perseverance.” Perseverance, of course, is one of the cornerstone themes of Japanese culture and Japanese American history, as embodied in the popular saying gaman (“bear the unbearable with patience and dignity”). Can you talk some more about your experiences with subcultures?

SS: In the mid-1990s, I moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA’s art school. There, I was also very influenced by many different musical scenes. Every week, I would go to various punk shows and dance clubs that would be playing anything from gothic industrial music, rock en español, punk, or British pop. Being part of these different scenes in Los Angeles was very special in that most of the people who inhabited them were Chicano/of Mexican descent. There was always a large queer presence as well. Being politically conscious and active was a given within these scenes, especially in the ’90s, so they became very comfortable places for me to inhabit. I made a lot of friends and chose to depict them in my artwork.

I like to think of the community of Japanese Americans who survived the camps as their own subculture as well. They are such a specific group of people, who all went through this awful historical trauma together, and whose descendants carry that weight whether they like to admit it or not. I know for a fact that my own family members who survived the camps all suffer different forms of PTSD in some way or another. Their coping mechanisms differ but I like to recognize one that is always close to my heart: communal crafting.

JANM: Was this the inspiration behind your upcoming workshop on paper flowers?

SS: Yes. Being very influenced by my aunt’s crafting circles and the different projects that she and her friends created, I thought it would be nice to give a nod to her and the communal crafting that happened at the camps. She was only a child when she was incarcerated in the camp at Rohwer, Arkansas, so I’m not sure if she worked with the same flower patterns I’ll be using in my class, but I still think of this workshop as an homage to her and her love of craft.

Paper flower wreaths from Shizu Saldamando’s workshop at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality, May 2016. Visible behind them are instructions from a Woolworth’s catalog that was found at Manzanar.

JANM: I understand that your research on this topic actually stretches back several years. Tell us how it all came about.

SS: One day, I was walking through JANM’s Common Ground exhibition and I heard one of the volunteer docents talking about how, in the photos of funerals at the camps, the funeral wreaths were actually made out of paper. Real flowers were not available at the camps since most of them were located in harsh, remote environments. When people passed away, the community would come together and make paper flowers for the funerals.

Later, I was asked to make an altar for Día de los Muertos and I chose to do a piece in honor of my aunt’s husband, who had been incarcerated at Manzanar and passed away around 2000. I decided to make a paper flower wreath as a nod to camp tradition. I wanted it to be historically accurate, so I made a research appointment with one of the archivists at JANM. The archivist provided me with a huge amount of material. She wheeled in carts of flowers made out of scrap wood, flowers made out of shells, flowers made out of pipe cleaners, you name it, along with several files full of information.

Among those was a book that documented the excavation of the gravesites at Manzanar, providing a complete rundown of all the people who passed away there, how they died, and what was found at their gravesites. There were photos of wire remnants that were once paper flower stems, photos of broken glass jars that once held paper flower bouquets, and photos of people making flowers in the camps. In addition, she found a small catalog insert from an old Woolworth’s catalog that was an instruction manual on how to make paper roses. I made copies of that manual and used it to make the wreath for my altar.

I keep revisiting this project in different forms. When I was invited to participate in the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality in May 2016, I chose to do an interactive wreath-making workshop to call attention to the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment that is running rampant with our current administration. Tragically, the paper flower project remains pertinent and timely not only because of the current political climate but because now, so many camp survivors are passing on and taking that history with them. I think it’s important to keep their legacy alive and always in our minds.

There are still a few spaces left for Shizu Saldamando’s flower-making workshop on Saturday, December 2. If you are a JANM member, you can also sign up for the Members Only Artist Talk she is giving earlier that day. Visit janm.org for more info and to RSVP.

Also check out JANM’s short video on Saldamando’s practice, made to accompany the Transpacific Borderlands exhibition.

A Young JANM Volunteer Shares Her Impressions of the 2017 Pilgrimage to Manzanar

Joy Teruko Ormseth at JANM. Photo by Carol Cheh.

JANM recently welcomed Joy Teruko Ormseth to its volunteer ranks. Born in 2000 in Los Angeles and currently a student at Arcadia High School, Joy is, at 16 years old, one of our youngest volunteers.

This past April, JANM volunteers and staff organized a bus tour to join the annual pilgrimage to the site of the American concentration camp at Manzanar, where thousands of people of Japanese ancestry were confined during World War II. Joy, who had only briefly visited Manzanar as a child, decided to join the group. She graciously agreed to an interview, in which we learn about Joy’s family background as well as her impressions of Manzanar.

JANM: Why did you go on the Manzanar pilgrimage this year?

Joy Teruko Ormseth: I wanted to understand better about the whole situation because it was really hard for me to conceptualize what the people who were interned were going through. I obviously have never experienced that, and so it was hard for me to imagine having to go through that.

The JANM contingent poses for a group photo during the Manzanar Pilgrimage.
Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: What’s your family’s background?

JTO: My grandma was interned in Poston as a child, and my great-grandpa on my grandfather’s side was interned at Heart Mountain. But my grandfather was kibei [a Japanese person born in the United States but educated in Japan], so he was still in Japan during the war. I’m half Japanese, so this is all on my mother’s side of the family. My dad is Norwegian.

JANM: When you were growing up, did your grandparents share any memories of their time in camp?

JTO: Not my grandfather, since he was in Japan during the war, but my grandmother would always tell me about the dust storms at Poston, how they would wake up and there would just be sand everywhere. She also told me that her mother—my great-grandmother—was from an upper-class family in Tokyo, so the other mothers would kind of look down on her because she spoke a different dialect of Japanese. Also, other families were put off by our family because grandma’s elder brother Tom volunteered to serve in the 442nd [Regimental Combat Team].

Evelynne Matsumoto (née Watanabe), Joy Ormseth’s grandmother, in the 1950s.
Photo courtesy of Evelynne Matsumoto.

JANM: Did the other mothers look down on your great-grandmother because most of them were working class?

JTO: Yeah.

JANM: Why were they put off by the brother for joining the 442nd? I thought that was considered the height of honor and patriotism.

JTO: Grandma said the other families didn’t understand why he would volunteer, because they were put in camp [by the same government].

A replica of one of the barracks that once filled the Manzanar camp site. Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: Your grandmother sounds like she has an amazing memory.

JTO: Yeah, she remembers a lot. She has a really good memory. She even remembers stuff from before the war!

JANM: Was she your main connection to this history?

JTO: Yes, she was. Out of all her siblings, she’s the one who talks about it the most, and she’s the youngest. She also knows a lot because she became a teacher and she likes to research everything.

Interior of the recreated barrack. This structure is much safer and more comfortable than the original barracks were, due to the necessity of accommodating visitors. Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: Tell me more about your grandmother’s memories of Poston.

JTO: I know that my Auntie Mary, her sister, had a baby in camp who died because there wasn’t proper medical care. She had also lost a baby right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (My grandma had several siblings, and the oldest ones were a lot older than she was.)

JANM: Oh my God, that’s horrible. Were there any babies born who did survive?

JTO: Yeah, there was one daughter who’s still alive.

JANM: What did your grandma think of the food in camp?

JTO: Great-grandma worked in the mess hall. She always demanded that the family eat at least one meal together per day, to keep the family together. I think grandma said they ate a lot of Spam! She also told me that creamed chipped beef on toast was often served, which the inmates referred to as “SOS” (sh** on a shingle).

Representatives from the other camps made their presence felt with colorful banners.
Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: In total, who all from your family was in Poston?

JTO: My grandmother. Then there was Uncle Jack, Auntie Mary, and Uncle Tom, who joined the 442nd. My Uncle Harvey was the oldest of the siblings and he was already in the military—he was drafted before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and served in military intelligence. Another auntie, Alice, worked as a secretary in Minnesota during the war.

JANM: Did they find other families that they could get along with?

JTO: They never talked that much about other families. My grandmother did say that since she was so little, she never really considered the severity of the situation—she was just happy that she had other kids to play with. Before the war, they lived in Central California, and I guess there weren’t as many children around there. So when she went to camp she was like, there are all these kids here to play with!

Taiko drummers helped to kick off the ceremonies at the 2017 Manzanar pilgrimage, which was attended by more than 2,000 people. Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: How did you get connected to JANM?

JTO: My mother used to volunteer at the Little Tokyo Historical Society, so I grew up knowing a lot about Little Tokyo and JANM because my mom loves history, like my grandma. I just figured that I would like to volunteer here.

JANM: What volunteer duties are you taking up at JANM?

JTO: I’m still a trainee, so I’m still figuring out what I want to do. But last week, I volunteered at the HNRC (Hirasaki National Resource Center) and it was so cool! We have access to ancestry.com, and I didn’t know how many documents there were on that website. One of the other volunteers was showing me how to research everything. I find all the dates so interesting—it’s all just right there, right in front of you, but it happened so long ago.

JANM: What were your impressions of Manzanar?

JTO: It was really hard for me to visualize all the barracks, because obviously they’re not there anymore, but [the trip] did help me to understand a little better the thought process of the Issei, what they were thinking. It made me realize that they came to this country believing in the American dream—if you work hard, you can succeed—and when we were there, it was so isolated, so barren, it was like, is this the American dream that they came for? That made me really upset and frustrated, and helped me understand just a little bit what they were going through.

A barren landscape. Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: Was there anything from the ceremony that stuck out for you?

JTO: Well first of all that song “Sukiyaki”—I really liked it because it was a musical connection to the past that kind of made it more real. Also, Alan Nishio’s talk was very inspiring.

JANM: Are you interested in going on any more pilgrimages?

JTO: I’ve heard that Poston is really difficult to get to, but I might want to go there one day.

Camp Pilgrimages Are in Full Swing—And Historic Camp Newspapers Are Now Available Online!

The monument at Manzanar serves as a memorial to those who died there. The inscription reads “Soul Consoling Tower” in Japanese characters. Photo by Carol Cheh.

It’s summer, and to many in the Japanese American community, that means camp pilgrimage season. To honor the experiences of their forebears (and in some cases, their own experiences as children) and to help ensure that they never forget the grave injustices committed against their community during World War II, Japanese Americans and their allies are paying visits to the sites of several American concentration camps where persons of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned without due process following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

The vast majority were held in ten main camps run by the War Relocation Authority and located in remote, desolate areas throughout the United States: Amache (Colorado), Gila River (Arizona), Heart Mountain (Wyoming), Jerome (Arkansas), Manzanar (California), Minidoka (Idaho), Poston (Arizona), Rohwer (Arkansas), Topaz (Utah), and Tule Lake (California). (Additional camps and detention centers run by the Department of Justice or other government agencies confined special populations or served as holding centers.) As of this date, five of the ten main camps hold formal pilgrimage events. The pilgrimages to Manzanar and Amache have already happened; below are links to complete information about the pilgrimages yet to come.

Pilgrimage to Minidoka (Idaho): July 6–9, 2017
Pilgrimage to Heart Mountain (Wyoming): July 28–29, 2017
Tule Lake (California) hosts pilgrimages every other year; the next one will happen in 2018.

While the other five sites don’t hold formal events, they are also open to visitors. Topaz, in fact, has just installed permanent exhibits, and will have a ticketed grand opening for their museum on the weekend of July 7–8, 2017. With the exception of Gila River camp, permits are not required.

Not able to make it out to a camp site? Last month, the Library of Congress announced on their blog that newspapers self-published by Japanese Americans while they were imprisoned are now available online. These newspapers are amazing historical artifacts, offering up-close, first-person glimpses into what life was like inside of a camp. You’ll find accounts of daily activities, official camp announcements, editorials about important issues, reports on the exploits of Japanese Americans in the US military, and more. More than 4,600 English- and Japanese-language issues published in 13 camps are available and can be accessed here.

On April 29, a group of JANM volunteers and staff organized a bus tour to attend the 2017 Manzanar Pilgrimage together. Check this space next week for an exclusive interview with one of JANM’s youngest volunteers, 16-year-old Joy Ormseth, who made the pilgrimage with us.

“Life in Camp” Display Offers Insight into Food Services in World War II Camps

Henry Sugimoto, Our Mess Hall (1942), oil on canvas. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Madeleine Sugimoto and Naomi Tagawa.
Henry Sugimoto, Our Mess Hall (1942), oil on canvas. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Madeleine Sugimoto and Naomi Tagawa.

 

After a bustling final weekend, Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty has come to an end. JANM is now in the process of de-installing that show in preparation for the next two exhibitions on our schedule—Sugar/Islands: Finding Okinawa in Hawai’i—The Art of Laura Kina and Emily Hanako Momohara, opening July 11, and Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito’s World War II Images, opening July 14.

Common Ground: The Heart of Community, our core exhibition telling the Japanese American story, remains on view during this time. And if you happen to be in the museum on a Tuesday, Thursday (afternoon only), Saturday, or Sunday, you can also see a special temporary display in the Hirasaki National Resource Center. Building on the theme of “Life in Camp,” the display focuses on mess halls and food services in the concentration camps where 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II.

Specially selected items from JANM’s extensive permanent collection comprise this exhibit. Featured is an evocative 1942 painting by Henry Sugimoto titled Our Mess Hall. A multigenerational group—an elderly woman, two mothers and their children, and a young man—is seen dining at a large table. The mothers try to feed their children, one of whom refuses his food, while the young man hungrily gulps down a bowl of rice. This close-cropped scene is punctuated by two signs prominently hung on the wall behind them—one reads “No second serving!” while the other reminds them “Milk for children and sick people only.”

The painting captures the busy, crowded feel of a mess hall, while reminding viewers that strict rations were in effect. This fact is reinforced by artifacts installed in a nearby display case, which include facsimiles of actual daily menus distributed in the camps, along with memos reducing rice allocations in response to serious shortages. Also included are a bowl and utensils salvaged from various camps.

In addition to the Sugimoto painting, the exhibit features a 1944 still life by Sadayuki Uno and a photograph of Japanese American farm workers at Manzanar camp, taken by Ansel Adams in 1942. Taken together, these artworks and artifacts offer an authentic look at the distribution and consumption of food in the WWII camps.