Chiura Obata’s Stunning Paintings of Yosemite
By Maria Popova
“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote in her breathtaking love letter to the mountain. Around the same time, across an ocean and a landmass, another poet laureate of place was serenading nature in a different medium and with a singular voice.
Called to art since childhood, Chiura Obata (November 18, 1885–October 6, 1975) was trained in the traditional Japanese ink and brush painting technique sumi-e from the age of seven. When his family readied him for military school at age fourteen, he ran away, left his home prefecture, and traveled four hundred miles north to Tokyo, where he apprenticed himself to a prominent painter for three years. Shortly before his eighteen birthday, Obata left for the United States and settled in San Francisco, working as a domestic servant while pursuing an arts education. He was soon supporting himself with illustration work for Japanese-language magazines and newspapers. But the American Dream was not on offer — instead, Obata was met with the era’s prevalent racial animosity toward Japanese immigrants, who were socially ostracized, denied entry into restaurants, hotels, and entertainment establishments, and legally prohibited from owning land.
Perhaps it was this anguishing disappointment with the human world, with its seething cauldron of xenophobia and racism, that made Obata turn his heart and his paintbrush to the natural world. On his first trip to the High Sierra in 1927, watching “beautiful flowers bloom in a stream of icy water,” Obata wrote to his wife, Haruko:
I only feel full of gratitude.
He spent much of the 1920s traveling, capturing California’s tessellated natural beauty — from its bays and beaches to its mountains and redwood forests. In his exquisite watercolors and woodblock prints, Obata deliberately employed a combination of traditional Japanese techniques rather than abiding by any one school.
By the end of the decade, his paintings had garnered considerable attention. In 1928, Obata received his first one-person show in America at a fine arts gallery in San Francisco — a small selection drawn from the ten thousand paintings he had painted over the previous twenty years. The exhibition catapulted Obata into a new stratum of recognition and established him as a central figure in the newborn California Watercolor School, which would go on to shape the sensibility of twentieth-century American art.
But neither Obata’s stature in the creative world nor his appointment as an art instructor at U.C. Berkeley protected him from the swarming hostility of the country he had made his home and the recipient of his rare gift. In December of 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, locals fired shots at the art supply store Obata and his wife owned in Berkeley. After continued harassment and threats, the Obatas closed the store and cancelled the popular art classes they had been hosting for the community. By the spring, Obata was detained at one of California’s internment camps for Japanese Americans, where he founded an art school using his own funds and donations from friends at the university. Six hundred of the interned became art students and went on to produce work of such quality that it was being exhibited outside the camp by the summer.
After WWII, the Obatas bought a modest house near their old art supply store. Obata was rehired at U.C. Berkeley, from which he retired in 1953 as Professor Emeritus. The following year, he was naturalized as a United States citizen.
Reflecting on his life’s work, he captured his governing ethos of art’s regenerative power:
My aim is to create a bowl full of joy
Clear as the sky,
Pure as falling cherry petals,
Without worry, without doubt;
Then comes full energy, endless power
And the road to art.
As a young man, Obata had lived through and drawn the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906 — a formative experience that seeded in him a reverence for nature’s might and the geologic grandeur of Earth. In 1927, under the spell of that fascination, Obata traveled to Yosemite National Park for the first time and produced one hundred brush-and-ink paintings that became a centerpiece of his first solo show. Enchanted, he returned to Yosemite over the next decade, painting a series of stunning watercolors and woodblock prints later collected in Obata’s Yosemite: Art and Letters of Obata from His Trip to the High Sierra in 1927 (public library).
Strewn throughout Obata’s descriptive and rather matter-of-factly letters from Yosemite to his wife are poetic bursts of reverie at nature’s majesty, generosity, and resilience:
The speed of the universe is surprisingly fast. The uproar of Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight is no comparison to nature… At a place where yesterday I thought the snow was three to four feet high, a type of flower that I had never seen before is already smiling today. Even the sky deepens its blue color every day, adding infinite thoughts to the morning sunlight.
In a passage evocative of Georgia O’Keeffe’s exultation at the Southwest sky, Obata writes:
Mount Lyell stands majestically, 13,650 feet high, clad in brilliant snow and towering over the high peaks of the Sierra — Tioga Peak, Mount Dana, Ragged Peak, Johnson Peak, Unicorn Peak, and Mount San Joaquin, which surround her.
The spotlessly clear blue sky that sweeps high up over the mountains changes in a moment to a furious black color. Clouds call clouds. Pealing thunder shrieks and roars across the black heavens. Man stands awestruck in the face of the great change of wondrous nature.
Also included in Obata’s Yosemite are the four surviving nature articles Obata wrote for a Japanese newspaper in California in 1928. He closes the final installment in the series with these words:
The old pine on the Tioga plain has borne avalanches, fought wind, rain, ice, and snow, and has suffered bitter times for several hundred years. Like a warrior at the end of his life, he embraces with his rough roots the young trees growing up and surrounding the fallen parent. When I see this I feel that man should be devoted and struggle hard to follow his own ambition without willful, selfish reasons.
I feel that to weep and to be caught in trivial emotions is impure, and I would be ashamed before nature. Now, I have come to Southern California to exhibit my work of the past twenty years to brothers and sisters and young people who are also working hard with similar thoughts in spite of different vocations.
I dedicate my paintings, first, to the grand nature of California, which, over the long years, in sad as well as in delightful times, has always given me great lessons, comfort, and nourishment. Second, to the people who share the same thoughts, as though drawing water from one river under one tree.
My paintings, created by the humble brush of a mediocre man, are nothing but expressions of my wholehearted praise and gratitude.
Published March 23, 2018