WHITTIER — Grace Shinoda Nakamura, artist, teacher, environmentalist and community activist, passed away surrounded by her family on May 30 at the age of 90 from complications of pneumonia.
Nakamura started drawing ever since she could hold a pencil. She and her brother, Larry, spent hours of their childhood drawing at their common chalkboard or doodling on scraps of paper recycled by their mother. As a child she explored with curiosity the foothills in her back yard, the arroyos and the neighborhood environs of Northeast Los Angeles and South Pasadena. She continued to be excited by new discoveries, which were recorded with camera and sketchbook.
In May 1942, Nakamura was incarcerated along with her family at Manzanar. She participated in helping with the exhibits at the Manzanar National Historic Site in Independence. There is an exhibit in the barracks section, outside the main museum. In the area called “Tarpaper City” there are replicas of the rooms people lived in. In each room, old suitcases are placed next to each cot. There are various people’s names written next to a button to press on the suitcase. There is one called “Grace Shinoda Nakamura.”
When you press on that one, you hear her voice telling a story about when her family arrived at Manzanar. They were required to stuff bags with straw to use for their pillows and mattresses. Her brother tried to lighten the situation by commenting, “We are just like the baby Jesus, asleep on the hay.”
At the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo there is a quotation from Nakamura as you enter the exhibit about the incarceration of Japanese Americans on the second floor. A white dress that her mother, Hide Shinoda, wore at the wedding of Nakamura and her husband, Yosh, is also on display before you enter the exhibit.
In her later life, she started a career lecturing about the wartime experiences of Japanese Americans along with her husband, a veteran who fought in the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Nakamura served as a trustee of the Whittier Public Library for eight years. Additionally, she and her husband were awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Whittier Area Audubon Society. She received a grant as part of the Audubon YES! Program and supervised students building a viewing platform at the Whittier Narrows Nature Center and a native plant greenhouse at La Serna High School.
She was active in the Hillcrest Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) in La Habra Heights, and served with her husband as co-chair of the Hillcrest Festival of Fine Arts, an annual local art show. She was a Whittier Cultural Arts Foundation honoree in 2011 and a long-time member of the Whittier Art Association and the Rio Hondo Symphony Association and Guild.
She exhibited her watercolors, collages and photographs at the Whittier Art Association, at Hillcrest Festival of Fine Arts, in various family shows, at a show at the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts in Whittier, and at Whittier City Hall.
A memorial service will be scheduled on Sunday, July 16, at 2 p.m. at the Hillcrest Congregational Church (United Church of Christ), 2000 West Rd. in La Habra Heights.