Shortly after her mother died, journalist and author Delphine Hirasuna found a bird pin that had belonged to her mother. She'd never seen it before. After prodding her father, Hirasuna learned that the pin was made during her parents' stay at a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
"I knew about the camps ... but it was a subject that you didn't discuss," Hirasuna says.
The pin led her to wonder what other objects people had made during their internment. Over time she contacted many other Japanese-Americans to see if they had similar objects. Much to her delight, people all over the country had saved trinkets from the camps.
"I went from home to home" searching for objects, she says.
What she found can be seen in the latest exhibit to open at the Renwick Gallery: "The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts From the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946." The exhibition, which opened last week, has been created in partnership with the San Francisco chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League and is being presented under the honorary patronage of former Rep. Norm Mineta (D-Calif.), who was interned as a child.
"The entire Japanese-American community feels honored to have this show at the Renwick," says Hirasuna, the guest curator for the exhibit.
During World War II, 127,000 Japanese-Americans — 90 percent of the entire Japanese-American population — were interned. They were given very sparse accommodations that included nothing more than a metal cot and a potbellied stove.
Even under these harsh conditions, people turned to art. In fact, arts and crafts were essential to life in the camps. Many internees made necessary items such as chairs and teapots, while others made more fun objects such as instruments and pins. Once the Japanese-Americans were released from the camps in 1946, many of the objects were forgotten.
"Most of the objects were left behind in the camps because people viewed them as busy work," Hirasuna says. She says that many of the objects seen in the exhibit had been forgotten in boxes in people's basements and attics.
"The Art of Gaman" includes dozens of objects ranging from small chairs made with scrap wood to beautiful vases filled with colorful pipe cleaner flowers. Many of the objects are so intricate that they appear to be made by professional artists. For example, a cow and bear carved from pine by internee Akina Oye are on display. Oye, who was interned at Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas, had never carved wood before being interned, yet the pieces are meticulously detailed.
"They were done by people who were not professional artists, and once they got out of the camp they went back to their profession," Hirasuna says.
Another such piece is a butsudan, or a Buddhist religious shrine, made by Kichitaro Kawase, a poultry farmer from California. The gorgeous piece is made from scrap wood, paint and metal.
"As things started coming to me, I've been dazzled by the range and variety of objects," Hirasuna says. "Most of the objects here were done by the first generation, the immigrant generation."
In many ways arts and crafts served as a distraction from the daily frustration of being interned. Photographs of the internment camps taken by Ansel Adams, Tom Parker and Dorothea Lange accompany the exhibition and illustrate how dismal the camps were.
Two short documentaries, "Voices Long Silent" and "Art of Gaman: The Story Behind the Objects," are also being shown in a loop at the Renwick.
"The Art of Gaman" will run through January 2011.