Our Stories

Art Bounded by History

Many of her paintings are dominated by muted grays, blues and browns -- calm scenes of buildings and the endless skies above them. Often they show people bracing against their surroundings or carrying out their day's work; many portray a mother and child huddling together, bringing a bit of color to an otherwise monochrome landscape.

This is the world of oil painter Hisako Hibi, and if many of the buildings in her paintings look the same, there's a good reason -- they are the surroundings she viewed every day for three-and-a-half years while she was confined to a Japanese internment camp in Utah.

The paintings are also the subject of Kimi Sato's senior thesis. "We are reminded in Hibi's artwork that there were barracks, a guardhouse and wire fences at the camp, but in the center of her paintings is usually a figure, often a mother and her daughter," says Sato '07. "I think she is essentially ignoring what's around her and her situation and focusing on maternal love and her family connection."

If you haven't heard of Hisako Hibi, Sato would understand. The artist's lack of fame is what led Sato to write her thesis about Hibi, who was one of at least 110,000 Japanese-Americans forced to relocate to American internment camps during World War II. Sato, an art history and psychology major, knew she wanted to dedicate her thesis to a Japanese-American artist, partly because of her own heritage as a fourth-generation Japanese-American who grew up in Hawaii.

But she didn't settle on Hibi until a visit last summer to the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, a Japanese-American history museum in Portland that highlights immigration. Sato was a student leader for Ohana, a multicultural-focused part of the Jump Start orientation program for new Willamette students. During the program, her Jump Start group traveled to the Nikkei Center to prepare for a service project cleaning up a Japanese garden in Gresham, Ore.

"We toured the museum, and our guide showed us all these items the internees had made," Sato says. "He showed us furniture they created, and told us how they would find scraps of wood to make beautiful chairs or tables." Sato began to wonder if any artists had spent their time in these camps creating paintings or other artwork. When she asked the guide, he said there were a few and encouraged her research the topic.

Sato soon discovered Hibi, who came to the U.S. from Japan at age 13 and later attended what is now the San Francisco Art Institute, where she met her husband. During the war, the couple and their two young children were forced to live at a temporary relocation site in California before moving to the permanent Topaz Internment Camp in Utah in 1942. At Topaz, Hibi created multiple paintings and taught art classes to children.

After they finally were allowed to leave the camp, the Hibis moved to New York. Hibi's husband died soon after. Her post-war paintings exhibit a sharp contrast in style to those she did in Utah, Sato says. "Her later paintings are more abstract. She's adjusting to this new life that's boundless."

Hibi later wrote a memoir -- indispensable to Sato's research -- and Sato also fell in love with the artist's beautiful way with words. Hibi writes, "Forever moving, changing the forms of human-made society in the vastness of the universe, I seek something beautiful with line, color, and form in such a way, wishing to convey a message of peace. Art consoles the spirit, and it continues on in timeless time."

Sato's thesis will be among those on display April 14 to May 13 at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art as part of the annual Senior Art Majors exhibition.

Discovering Hibi's story has made Sato feel closer to her own family and heritage. Sato is particularly close to her grandparents, who often talk to her about Pearl Harbor and who continue celebrating Japanese traditions, although with a bit of Hawaiian influence. At Willamette, Sato performs with the Willamette Taiko Club, a traditional Japanese drumming group, and teaches hula dancing to students for the Hawaii Club's annual campus luau. She dances kahiko, the ancient style of hula, because she loves sharing the stories embedded within each dance.

She also is eager to reach out to other cultures, whether it's by tutoring Native American high school students at the local Chemawa Indian School or by spending a semester studying abroad in Thailand. After graduation, Sato will be off to serve in the Peace Corps in Central Asia, teaching English and health. "Learning about different cultures is important to me," she says. "In order to overcome discrimination and stereotypes about gender or certain ethnicities, you have to actually learn about who and what they are talking about before making any assumptions."

For now, Sato continues to pore over Hibi's memoir and paintings. Her favorite is one called "Prayer," which portrays a mother and daughter in a giant field facing the horizon, praying for relatives and friends fighting on the war's front lines. Far in the background is a tiny red square -- a sign the internees saw often, one that warned them not to come too close to the barbed-wire fence. One Topaz resident was shot and killed for walking too near it.

"The painting is eerie," Sato says. "It's a nice image, but then in the background you see they're still in the camp. It's typical of Hibi -- she's capturing a tender family moment, yet there's still that reminder of where they are."