If you go

What: “Witness to Wartime: The Painted Diary of Takuichi Fujii”

When: On exhibit Saturday through Jan. 5, 2020

Where: High Desert Museum, 59800 S. U.S. Highway 97, Bend

Cost: Free with museum admission

Contact: highdesertmuseum.org or 541-382-4754

Takuichi Fujii was 15 in 1906 when he set sail from Japan to begin life in the United States. By the 1930s, he was a successful businessman and artist living with his family in Seattle.

Like so many other Japanese-Americans, however, Fujii’s life was thrown into upheaval by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, triggering America’s entry into World War II. In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which targeted Japanese-Americans, enabling the Army to exclude and relocate anyone deemed a threat from military areas, which included California, Oregon and Washington.

Fujii became one of the 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry uprooted from their lives and forced into internment camps.

One thing war could not take from Fujii was his artistic ability, which in 1936 had landed him among 10 artists invited to represent Washington state at the First National Exhibition of American Art in New York. While confined for more than 3½ years, Fujii documented camp life in watercolors, oils and an illustrated diary.

“Witness to Wartime: The Painted Diary of Takuichi Fujii” will open Saturday at the High Desert Museum in Bend, offering a window into life in an internment camp. This is the exhibit’s first Oregon stop and features Fujii’s realist depictions of his surroundings and life in the camps: first at a temporary location at the state fairgrounds in Puyallup, Washington, and then, from August 1942, at Minidoka War Relocation Center — now Minidoka National Historic Site. In the High Desert of south-central Idaho, Minidoka housed 13,000 Japanese-Americans over the three years it was open.

“Part of what is unique about Fujii’s account is that you see things like the guard tower, like the barbed wire, some of the things that in the official government portrayal of the camps you don’t see,” said Laura Ferguson, curator of Western history at the museum. “So you really get a sense of what life was like, and it really highlights the hardships. … When you get this first-hand account, you really can see a lot more of what life was like.”

Along with his visual account of the camp and its barracks, Fujii offers a cubist depiction of the mess hall, and scenes of everyday beauty such as a still life of sunflowers in a vase.

Fujii wasn’t alone in turning to art for solace or expression, Ferguson said.

“Art was such an important avenue for self-expression and a way that people connected with their life before the war, and was a source of strength and gave people, I think, hope,” she said. Some of the art was more utilitarian — dressers and desks made from shipping materials.

“People worked with the materials available to them, so they worked with sagebrush and made beautiful sculptures,” Ferguson said. There were 10 camps scattered across the Western U.S., and at the one in Tule Lake, California, shells were plentiful, “so people would make flowers out of those shells. So there was a whole range of art that those who were imprisoned created.”

About 400 pages long, the illustrated diary Fujii left is vanishingly rare, she said. “It’s a really deep and unique look at life in Minidoka.”

That deep look is a recent development. After the war, Fujii and his family resettled in Chicago, his visual diary and paintings squirreled away in boxes only family members were privy to.

Unboxing history

Seattle art historian Barbara Johns, author of “The Hope of Another Spring: Takuichi Fujii, Artist and Wartime Witness,” curated the museum exhibit. She describes finding Fujii’s work and being able to bring it to public attention as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an art historian.

Johns became familiar with Fujii and some of his fellow Issei (Japanese immigrant) artists of the 1930s when she worked at the Seattle Art Museum in the 1980s. She later independently curated a show of work by Issei artist Paul Horiuchi, and in 2011 she wrote the book “Signs of Home” about Issei artist Kamekichi Tokita. Johns went on to write a 2014 dissertation on Fujii, Tokita and another of their 1930s art colleagues, Kenjiro Nomura; she’s in the process of writing a book on Nomura now.

“There had been many others of this immigrant generation, but (due to) the Depression and other things, the others had moved on,” Johns said. “So it was (these) three who were particularly well-known. Fujii was the least-known of the three, and then seemed to have disappeared after the war — no further word of him.”

Then in the fall of 2011, she was introduced online to Sandy Kita. An art historian himself, Kita also happens to be Fujii’s grandson and heir.

“He was in the process of translating his grandfather’s diary,” Johns said. “I was very fortunate getting to know Sandy Kita. Sandy is not only related, but he grew up in his grandfather’s household in Chicago, where they moved after the war. And they were quite close.”

Kita was 14 when his grandfather died in 1964. “Sandy knew his grandfather’s voice. It’s rare to have a translator in which that’s the case,” Johns said.

That intimate knowledge made him uniquely qualified to translate the text that accompanied his grandfather’s diary illustrations. The Densho Encyclopedia, which is dedicated to information about the Japanese-American experience during World War II, describes the accompanying text as poem-like: “Rather than a daily account of experiences, Fujii’s diary, like poetry, is a means of conveying thoughts and emotions one would not reveal in other circumstances.”

Kita and his wife live in the Washington, D.C.-area, where Johns was heading to do research. She arranged to see their collection of Fujii’s artwork.

As it turned out, Kita had two boxes of his grandfather’s wartime work, which the family had stored for three generations, and some more of his postwar pieces hanging on their walls.

“He and his wife have so much work, it took the three of us a good part of the day just to take snapshots of what they have,” she said. “I proposed an exhibition. I know none of us at the time imagined the work would turn out to have the importance it has come to hold.”

Reconstructing Fujii

Not much is known about Fujii’s early years. Kita had some memories of his grandfather’s life, but Fujii left behind few personal papers, making it difficult to construct his life story, Johns said.

However, he once said in the 1930s that he’d had two years of private watercolor study, and she was also able to suss out more information on his life based on a 1943 loyalty survey prisoners at Minidoka had to fill out.

“From that document, I can see the names of his grade school in Japan … gleaning pieces of information and then constructing the story,” Johns said.

Fujii crossed the Pacific unaccompanied, and she learned from the ship manifest that his father was already stateside and would meet him once the ship landed.

“The common early pattern was for men to come here, earn money and return home. They were called sojourners,” she said. “That was commonly the first wave of immigration. And then they began to settle, such as Fujii.”

A mid-1930s mention of Fujii in a Seattle newspaper referred to him as a former fish merchant, “which says he probably went out of business, given the time,” she said. Around 1937, Fujii moved to Chicago. She wasn’t able to learn why he moved, but assumes it, too, had to do with the Depression.

He lived there two years, and owned a restaurant.

“His (art) career was interrupted by that, because he was scheduled to have a one-person exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, and canceled that with this pending move,” Johns said.

But Fujii continued to paint while living in the Midwest. Like many museums at the time, the Art Institute of Chicago held an annual exhibition of local artists, “and Fujii’s work was accepted in that the very first year he was back there, an indication of his recognizable artistic strength,” she said.

After they moved back to Seattle, Fujii’s wife, with whom he had two grown daughters, opened a floral shop. Fujii worked alongside her, “but she was the lead, so that he had time to paint,” Johns said. Fujii exhibited in two more of the Seattle Art Museum’s annual exhibits of local artists, the second of which closed in November 1941 — not long before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Subsequent to writing her book on Fujii, Johns discovered letters from Fujii’s younger daughter to one of her father’s artist friends, written during their time in the camps.

“In there, she talks about how at Puyallup her dad is just going around sketching everything,” Johns said. “It’s quite wonderful, as you might imagine, to find such direct evidence of his activity — and a little touch about his attitude.”

Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com