Chiura Obata in Ken Burn’s “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”

Chiura Obata had only planned to stop by in America before going to going on to Paris to continue his career as an artist. He ended up settling permanently in San Francisco, California. His list of accomplishments as an Asian American follow that great Old West tradition of trailblazing. He drew some of the few onsite sketches of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He also co-founded the first Japanese American baseball team on the mainland and co-established the East West Art Society to promote multi-cultural art. He was invited to teach at UC Berekeley and taught tourists painting at Yosemite. Sadly, in 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Obata and his family were detained at the Topaz, Utah internment camp for three years, along with over a hundred thousand other Japanese Americans across the nation. However, that didn’t stop Obata.

At Topaz, he founded a Topaz Art School, encouraging his fellow prisoners to draw strength and peace from nature during their imprisonment. He never stopped producing art while unlawfully held by the American government, publishing Topaz Moon, a book full of his compositions during his internment. One of his paintings was given to Eleanor Roosevelt in appreciation for her speaking out against the internment.

Like many great naturalists and artists before him, Obata was drawn to Yosemite and the endless beauty of America’s national parks, and his art, what he calls an expression of his gratitude toward great nature, are staples at America’s National Parks. One of his famous ones is Obata’s Yosemite. Below is a picture I took of his art available at the Manzanar National Historic Site gift shop.


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