Estelle Peck Ishigo’s Life and Work Contrast Beauty with Despair

Now through December 31, 2018, the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center in Wyoming is staging the first significant showing of Estelle Peck Ishigo’s work in nearly 50 years. The Mountain Was Our Secret: Works by Estelle Ishigo includes ten watercolors by the artist on loan from JANM’s Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection and several of the artist’s pencil sketches, courtesy of the Bacon Sakatani collection.

 

Born in Oakland, California, in 1899, Estelle Peck was raised by a series of relatives in Southern California. In her twenties, Peck attended Otis Art Institute where she met and fell in love with aspiring Nisei actor Shigeharu Arthur Ishigo. Due to anti-miscegenation laws at the time, the pair were unable to marry in the United States, so they wed in Mexico in 1929.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many businesses fired employees of Japanese descent. Estelle, because of her marriage, lost her position as an art teacher. When her husband was forcibly removed and incarcerated at Pomona, and later Heart Mountain, Estelle opted to go with him.

Because of her background as an art teacher, Estelle was recruited as a documentary reporter for the US War Relocation Authority. With this job, it was her responsibility to record the Heart Mountain experience in illustrations, line drawings, and watercolors. As evidenced in her art and writing, Estelle took her official work as a documentarian for the WRA seriously, making sure to accurately document the miserable conditions at the camp. Many of her pieces illustrated the lack of privacy and comfort in living quarters and latrines. Like many Heart Mountain artists, Estelle’s work often depicted the mountain itself, an imposing figure in a desolate landscape.

“Untitled,” painted in November 1943, depicts Heart Mountain and the rough landscape of the camp.

Estelle first began documenting conditions in the camp by using watercolors. However, she admitted to being frustrated by watercolor’s inability to fully capture the conditions in which Japanese Americans were forced to live, calling the medium too “clean and untroubled.” To remedy this shortcoming, Estelle created more charcoal and pencil drawings, many of which are in JANM’s online collection.

When she was released from Heart Mountain in 1945, all the art that she had created was considered the property of the government and seized. She managed, however, to smuggle out many pieces by hiding them between her and Arthur’s clothing. After the war, the Ishigos returned to Southern California and lived in a trailer park. They struggled to find steady employment. Arthur died in 1957, and Estelle lived hermetically until 1972 when her artwork was rediscovered and included in a California Historical Society exhibition. That same year, she worked with the Hollywood Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League to publish a book, Lone Heart Mountain, which recounts individual stories as well as shared realities of persons of Japanese descent before, during, and after incarceration.

In 1983, filmmaker Steven Okazaki heard of her story and sought to make a documentary about Estelle. While doing research for his film, Okazaki discovered Estelle was living in poverty and residing in a Los Angeles basement apartment. When he told her about his project, Estelle said, “I’ve been waiting for someone to tell my story. Now I can die.” She passed away in 1990, just before the release of the film, Days of Waiting, which went on to win a Peabody Award and an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject).

“Recital of Piano Students, Heart Mt.,” painted March 1944, shows the incarcerated participating in the arts.

Through her work, Estelle showed the duality of the American concentration camp experience. She had the unique ability to capture both the quotidian, tedious activities required for daily survival as well as scenes of respite, brief moments of joy amidst trauma. An excerpt from her book, Lone Heart Mountain, notes this binary experience: “Gathered close into ourselves and imprisoned at the foot of the mountains as it towered in silence over the barren waste, we searched its gaunt face for the mysteries of our destiny: and some spoke its name with the same ancient reverence, felt for their own mountains in Japan.”

The Mountain Was Our Secret is included with admission at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, which is $9 for adults and $7 for students and seniors. Children under 12 and members of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation are free. More information is available on their website.

Eaton Collection Display Seeks Answers and Provides Inspiration

One of the postcard-size watercolors on view as part of Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection.

On Sunday, JANM opened Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection, a special display of art and craft objects created by Japanese Americans during their World War II incarceration in American concentration camps. These are the same artifacts that dedicated Japanese American community leaders and activists saved from a controversial attempt at a public auction in 2015. The collection now resides at JANM for safekeeping, and has been conserved, photographed, and catalogued with key support from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites grant program.

It’s a thrilling experience to examine the display, which has been meticulously laid out in the museum’s Hirasaki National Resource Center (HNRC). The entire collection consists of over 450 pieces, most of which are historic photographs—copies of these photographs are collected in a series of thick binders labeled by location. All of the three-dimensional objects, which include wood carvings, jewelry, and pins, along with most of the original two-dimensional objects, such as paintings and watercolors, are on display. Some that were too fragile for display, such as the calligraphic scrolls, appear in facsimile form.

The first thing one notices when exploring the collection is the exquisitely high quality of the craftsmanship that went into these artifacts. The carved wood panels as well as the watercolors, both of which depict classical scenes from nature, rival items seen in art galleries and expensive antique stores. The second realization that occurs is how resourceful and creative these prisoners were while enduring remote and rugged conditions; the beautifully carved furniture and nameplates, fashioned out of scrap and scavenged wood, added personal and homey touches to otherwise bare-bones camp barracks.

Very little is known about the individual items in the collection. Who made it? Which camp did it come out of? Where are the creators today? A case full of rings and pendants made from semi-precious stones brings up the question, where did these stones come from? Eaton, author of the 1952 book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps, acquired much of this collection from inmates who passed them on when they learned he was working on the book. Now, the questions they pose are up to us to answer.

Facsimiles of ink scrolls from the Eaton Collection.

Contested Histories exists in large part as a fact-finding mission: the public, particularly camp survivors and their families, are invited to review its contents and assist our staff in putting the missing pieces of the puzzle back together. Forms are provided as part of the exhibition for interested parties to write down what they know. After its exhibition at JANM, the display will go on tour to diverse locations and venues, including museums and community spaces across the country, where it is hoped that more people with connections to the artifacts will come forward and share their stories.

Even if you are not a camp survivor, the Eaton Collection is eminently worth seeing as a testament to the ongoing resilience and creativity of the human spirit, even during the bleakest of times. For those who may not be able to see the collection in person, you can always visit our Flickr page of comprehensive, high-quality photographs (taken prior to conservation), where visitors can share information via the comment field beneath each image.

An Update on the Eaton Collection from JANM Board Chair Norman Y. Mineta

This letter from Norman Y. Mineta, JANM’s new Chair of the Board of Trustees, is an expanded version of one that appeared in The Rafu Shimpo earlier this month.

After a relatively short period of time, though an arduous journey, the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) has acquired the Allen H. Eaton collection of Japanese American art and artifacts. The Eaton Collection consists of some 450 items produced by those of Japanese ancestry and those who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II. The acquisition occurred after Rago Arts and Auction Center cancelled its scheduled public auction, which threatened to break up the collection and would have scattered the art pieces to numerous individuals and institutions.

The cancellation occurred as a result of thousands of people who raised awareness through social media, grassroots organizing, the threat of an injunction by the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, and a personal appeal by George Takei to David Rago, a principal of the auction house. Without a doubt, this was a victory for the total community.

In the rush to “wrap up” as quickly as possible, since the window of opportunity was short, the process was abbreviated and certain individuals and organizations were not contacted, to their dismay. For that, JANM apologizes.

The Japanese American National Museum, as its name implies, is the appropriate organization to become the stewards of these art objects. JANM is national in scope and outreach, with a curatorial staff to preserve the history of its collections while protecting and conserving their significant holdings. The Eaton Collection has just arrived at JANM, and it will require extensive conservation to preserve it and to establish a baseline for future care. JANM is the right institution to steward these precious artifacts on behalf of the Japanese American community and the total community for generations to come.

JANM has, and will continue to play, an active leadership role to involve multiple community stakeholders in shaping the collection’s future. As many are aware, there was a conference call on May 13, 2015 that was moderated by Dr. Franklin Odo that included representatives from the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, the Japanese American Citizens League, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, the Wing Luke Museum of Seattle, the Ad Hoc Committee to Oppose the Sale of Japanese American Historical Artifacts, JANM, and many other individuals and organizations to start the discussion for a positive and collaborative healing path for our community. This was the first of what will, no doubt, be many such conversations around the Eaton Collection.

As the conservation process and discussions progress on the Eaton Collection, we view it, along with all of our artifacts, as a shared community treasure of which the Japanese American National Museum is the guardian. As with many museums, there are ways to share the art objects through traveling exhibitions and long-term loans to other museums and institutions where the public would be able to see and have access to these artifacts.

We look forward to working with all of the community stakeholders to come to a positive, jointly shared solution.

Norman Y. Mineta
Chair, Board of Trustees
Japanese American National Museum