Woman Uses Artistry to Tell Story of Internment Suffering
By John Sammon
Judy Shintani is an artist of rare talent.
Able to assemble actual artifacts collected from a former concentration camp that once housed Japanese Americans during World War II, her sculptures not only teach through word and image, but evoke emotion bringing alive a tragedy that happened 73 years ago.
“Some of the people who have seen the works have tears in their eyes,” she said.
Shintani’s artwork is featured in an exhibit titled the “Art of Resilience and Identity, Installations and Sculpture.” The exhibit is on display through Oct. 30 at the Peninsula Museum of Art in Burlingame, 1777 California Dr. in Burlingame.
One of her artworks titled “Pledge Allegiance,” recreates an American flag. The piece consists of wood taken from an actual barracks building at the former Tule Lake Concentration Camp that once housed Japanese Americans during World War II.
The prisoners were guilty of nothing other than their ethnicity.
Originally housed to shelter CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) government-sponsored laborers during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Tule Lake became a prison for 18,700 Japanese American prisoners at its peak. It was noted as a maximum security camp for prisoners who were deemed troublemakers, those who refused to sign loyalty oaths, protested their guilt or who resisted camp authorities.
The barracks building from which Shintani acquired the wood for her sculpture had been moved to a farm and had been scheduled to be burned as refuse.
She said a photographer friend (Kevin Miyazaki) told her of the existence of the barracks building remnants five years ago during an annual pilgrimage by visitors to the former site of the Tule Lake Camp in Northeastern California.
“We found the materials in a field on a farm but it was in a rural area,” she said. “The place was hard to find. My dad and I, all we had to go on was a hand-written map on a napkin provided by my photographer friend.”
Another new museum exhibit titled “Innocent Dreamer,” portrays a prison cot with a straw mattress and metal springs upon which a seven-year-old girl is sleeping. In the early days of the war Japanese American families including children and the elderly were imprisoned in temporary holding pens before being transferred to camps like Tule Lake. One such temporary prison was the Tanforan Horse Race Track in San Bruno.
“The prisoners were housed in horse stalls,” Shintani said. “My exhibit creates an actual prison cot used for the prisoners and in this case small children.”
A total of 15 of Shintani’s artworks are on display at the Peninsula Museum of Art exhibit.
Shintani’s father Kazumi spent his teen years as a prisoner in the Tule Lake Camp. However, her mother Doris had grown up in Hawaii and escaped incarceration, though her father was held at Sand Island (Hawaii) for a year. Paradoxically even though Hawaii was much closer to the Pacific Theater of the war, fewer Japanese Americans were imprisoned in Hawaii than those living along the West Coast of California. During the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 1941, Shintani’s mother saw Japanese bombers on their way to attack the U.S. Fleet.
“Before the war my father’s family had raised oysters and for 20 years they lived on a houseboat in Washington State in Puget Sound,” Shintani said.
Kazumi Shintani was later drafted into the U.S. military during the Korean War. Afterward he studied broadcasting on the G.I. Bill and attended the RCA School of Broadcasting in New York. There he met Doris and the couple married. The family moved to Ames, Iowa, where Shintani was born in 1958.
A year later they moved again to Lodi, California. Kazumi took a job working in Stockton in production (behind the camera) for television station KOVR Channel 13.
Her mother Doris made history locally.
“She became one of the first Asian American women in the area to teach elementary school,” Shintani said.
Shintani grew up in Lodi and said she developed an interest in art early-on.
“My mother tried to get me started in ballet but I was horrible at it,” she recalled. “So Mom started taking me to art classes and it’s been my passion ever since.”
Attending Delta College (Stockton) and then San Jose State University, Shintani said her parents encouraged her to become a biologist or an engineer.
“I studied graphic design,” she said. “I worked for Atari and Intel as a graphic designer and marketer of communication.”
However she had also achieved a Master’s Degree in “Transformative Art” at John F. Kennedy University at Berkeley. She transitioned into becoming an artist.
“In Transformative Art you use art as a process in a community,” Shintani said. “You work with people and you become a narrator of culture. You use the (communication) mediums best suited to tell a story.”
Mediums used include videotaping and live performances, readings before an audience, or sculpture, to develop social engagement, something interactive so the viewer can have an experience.
“Another way of explaining it is that you become a caregiver of stories,” Shintani added. “You take unique stories and experiences and incorporate them into art. In that way recounting history goes beyond for example just reading it in a textbook. It’s not just dry dates on a calendar.”
The idea of the exhibit “Art of Resilience and Identity, Installations and Sculpture,” Shintani said was to get people immersed on a more personal level with what happened to Japanese Americans in the World War II camps.
“I think of myself as an educator and a narrator,” she said.
In some cases exhibits can be touched and felt by museum visitors.
Shintani said her works also have a larger purpose.
“What happened to Japanese American during World War II can reoccur to other people,” she said. “We’re seeing reactions in this country today against Muslims and there are issues with Native Americans. We want to make certain that what happened during World War II to Japanese Americans never happens to anyone again.”
Shintani teaches art at Foothill College (Los Altos); works with disabled adults and has an artist studio in Half Moon Bay. She said she has been moved seeing the reaction of visitors who have glimpsed her works and added that she hopes young people will come to the museum and learn about the internment.
“People develop empathy and sorrow,” she said. “I’ve received letters from people who saw past exhibits of my work and told me how much they were moved by it.”
Shintani did a survey on Facebook and through email to the descendants of camp prisoners asking for their comments on the World War II period and got 200 responses.
“I used the responses to create three works of art,” she said. “There were so many comments I plan to create more artworks from them.”
Art of Resilience and Identity—-Installations and Sculpture by Judy Shintani runs through Oct. 30 at the Peninsula Museum of Art, 1777 California Dr. in Burlingame.
In addition two future events are planned at the Peninsula Museum of Art in which Shintani will take part.
On Oct. 2 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. three Japanese American women (including Shintani) will discuss how they depict history using different communicative techniques. Speakers at “Beyond the Textbook, Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration,” also include author Delphine Hirasuna and Jill Guillermo-Togawa, founder of the Purple Moon Dance Project (integrates western and non-western dance forms).
On Oct. 22 from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Shintani will conduct “Shining the Light on the Remembrance of Art Making,” a lantern-making workshop to commemorate loved ones who have passed on.
For more information go to www.judyshintani.com or www.peninsulamuseum.org.