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.
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.
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.