Chiura Obata Memorial Highway Resolution Passed

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Tioga Road at Ellery Lake, August 2019

Rafu Staff Report

SACRAMENTO — Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 112, which designates the Chiura Obata Great Nature Memorial Highway, was passed by the Legislature and filed with the California secretary of state on Sept. 14.

According to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest, ACR 112, introduced by Assemblymember Frank Bigelow (R-O’Neals), “would designate a specified portion of State Route 120 in the County of Mono as the Chiura Obata Great Nature Memorial Highway. The measure would request the Department of Transportation to determine the cost of appropriate signs showing this special designation and, upon receiving donations from nonstate sources covering that cost, to erect those signs.”

Robert Hanna, a descendant of conservationist John Muir, instigated the proposal to honor Obata’s art. “The story of Chiura Obata is one that continues to inspire people from all around the world, and I’m proud that his legacy will greet all who come to Yosemite through the Eastern Sierra,” he said. “I’m thankful to have been a part of this special effort.”

Kimi Kodani Hill, Obata’s granddaughter and family historian, commente, “It is not only unusual to have a memorial highway named after an Asian immigrant, but also an artist. Obata’s message to respect, appreciate and learn from Dai Shizen, or Great Nature, will hopefully resonate with people, especially when they see the awe-inspiring views of the High Sierra at Tioga Pass.

“I hope folks who visit the Obata Great Nature highway will enjoy exploring the stellar parks in this region, including Yosemite and Manzanar.”

Chiura Obata (1885-1975)

In 1968, Obata said, “Paintings must give to others the kinds of feelings about nature that Nature gives us. If we pass this along, not just to art lovers but to everybody, our friends, our community, our country, it is the best possible promise for peace in the future.”

The text of the bill: “Chiura Obata was born on Nov. 18, 1885, in Japan and raised in the city of Sendai; at seven years of age, he began his formal training in the art of sumi-e, Japanese ink and brush painting; at 14 years of age, Obata began an apprenticeship with a master painter in Tokyo, and in 1901, he received a prestigious art award in Tokyo …

“In 1903, Obata boarded a steamship for the United States as a teenager with a desire to see the world and study art, eventually finding a home in San Francisco, California; he found the California landscape to be a true inspiration for his painting …

“Upon coming to the United States, Obata not only was the recipient of intense racial epithets; he was even hit and spat upon by people on the streets of San Francisco simply because of his ethnicity, but he also encountered the institutionalized racism that existed in many laws of the time that restricted the rights of Asian-born immigrants like himself, including prohibitions from owning land and becoming a United States citizen …

“Obata became an avid baseball player, playing many games at Golden Gate Park, and was one of the founders of the Fuji Club, the first Japanese American baseball team on the American mainland …

“In 1921, Obata cofounded the East West Art Society in San Francisco with other American, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese artists to promote a uniting of Asian and Western art traditions …

“In 1927, Obata made a six-week camping trip to Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada Mountains that proved to be a defining moment in his professional life, about which he would later say, ‘This experience was the greatest harvest for my whole life and future in painting’ …

“Obata’s art is infused with his reverence for nature, which he viewed as a powerful spiritual force; he thought of nature as Dai-Shizen, or Great Nature, reflecting his belief that it is an essential source of inspiration and peace for all human beings …

“In 1932, Obata began his career as an influential educator, teaching in the art department at the University of California, Berkeley for nearly 20 years …

Chiura Obata’s Yosemite works include this image of El Capitan.

“After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the president’s Executive Order No. 9066 resulted in the forced removal of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast of the United States; Obata lost his job at the university and his art supply store …

“In April 1942, Obata and his family were sent to the Tanforan Racetrack near San Francisco and eventually to the Topaz War Relocation Center in central Utah; firmly believing in the healing power of art, in less than a month he and his fellow artists were able to create an art school with over 600 students …

“While Obata was director of the Topaz Art School, he continued to paint images of life in the camp as well as the beauty he saw in the desert landscape; even in the face of such confinement, Obata proved to be a figure of peace and resilience …

“In 1943, Obata and his family were released from the relocation center in Topaz, Utah, and returned to California in 1945 at the end of World War II; after 1945, Obata continued to visit Yosemite and the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains to paint his landscapes …

“In 1954, two years after the United States government allowed Japanese immigrants to become citizens of the United States, Obata and his family became naturalized American citizens …

“In that same year, Chiura and his wife, Haruko Obata, led the first of the ‘Obata Tours’ to Japan, introducing many Americans to Japanese arts, architecture, and culture; the tours fostered understanding through the arts between the two countries that had previously been at war …

Chiura Obata also documented the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans. Pictured: “Moonlight Over Topaz.”

“From 1955 to 1970, until he was 85 years of age, Obata traveled throughout California, giving lectures and demonstrations on Japanese brush painting and in 1965, in Japan, Obata received the Emperor’s Award, the Order of the Sacred Treasure, 5th Class, in recognition of his efforts to spread cultural understanding …

“Obata’s life and work have been celebrated and exhibited throughout the world, and his legacy in connection to our National Parks remains an inspiration for all Californians;

“Now, therefore, be it resolved by the Assembly of the State of California, the Senate thereof concurring, that the Legislature hereby designates the portion of State Route 120 from post mile R0.898 to post mile R4.766 in the County of Mono as the Chiura Obata Great Nature Memorial Highway;

“And be it further resolved that the Department of Transportation is requested to determine the cost of appropriate signs consistent with the signing requirements for the state highway system showing this special designation and, upon receiving donations from nonstate sources sufficient to cover the cost, to erect those signs;

“And be it further resolved that the chief clerk of the Assembly transmit copies of this resolution to the director of transportation and to the author for appropriate distribution.”

As the Tioga Pass portion of Highway 120 is usually closed from November to May or June, posting of signs is not expected until the summer of 2021 at the earliest.

Books that feature Obata’s works include:

“Obata’s Yosemite: Art and Letters of Obata from His Trip to the High Sierra in 1927” (1993) by Chiura Obata, Janice T. Driesbach and Susan Landauer

“Topaz Moon: Chiura Obata’s Art of the Internment” (2000) by Kimi Kodani Hill with introductions by Timothy Anglin Burgard and Chiura Obata and foreword by Ruth Asawa

“Chiura Obata: An American Modern” (2018) by ShiPu Wang

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