Portland Japanese Garden exhibit offers glimpse inside Manzanar prison camp (review)

Portland Japanese Garden exhibit offers glimpse inside Manzanar prison camp (review)

The Portland Japanese Garden had ambitious plans for its art program as it started 2020. A new curator, Laura Mueller, joined the staff in early 2019 and sharpened and refined exhibitions that had already been scheduled for the year. For 2020, which was to be Mueller’s first full year of programming, she and Akihito Nakanishi, the garden’s curator of culture, art and education, planned five exhibitions around the theme of a “year of peace” to mark the anniversary of the end of World War II. Her first exhibition was a haunting series of photographs by an internationally recognized artist, Ishiuchi Miyako, documenting the personal objects of victims of the bombing of Hiroshima. That show closed March 15. On March 18, the garden closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and laid off more than 100 staff the next day.

The garden reopened to visitors in early June, and Nakanishi says they’re back up to 35 to 40 staff. That doesn’t include Mueller, whose departure Nakanishi described as a mutual decision.

Her hand is missed in the exhibition “Healing Nature: Gardens and Art of Manzanar,” which opened Oct. 31. It’s a slight show of strong content.

“Healing Gardens,” the culminating show of the “year of peace,” includes photographs by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Toyo Miyatake of the Manzanar prison camp, one of the 10 U.S. detention centers that held more than 120,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese resident aliens during World War II. The camps were established following an executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in February 1942 authorizing the forced removal of people of Japanese Sell your house fast jacksonville descent from Oregon, California, Washington and Arizona in response to the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Men, women and children were held, some for the duration of the war and even beyond, living in barracks behind barbed wire and under an armed guard.

Nakanishi was familiar with the art and craft objects created in the camps from his tenure as a cultural affairs specialist at the United States Embassy in Tokyo, where he helped coordinate a traveling exhibition of the work. He was less familiar with the fact that many of the camps included formal and other gardens that were cultivated by the detainees to make the harsh surroundings more hospitable. Further incentive to exhibit the photographs came from learning from a Japanese Garden member that his relatives, Kuichiro and Akira Nishi, designed and worked on the Manzanar camp gardens, including the Japanese strolling garden that was frequently photographed at Manzanar.

“So many Japanese Americans share this experience,” Nakanishi said.

The gallery guide for the “Healing Nature” exhibition notes that at one point there were more than 100 gardens at Manzanar, where more than 10,000 people were imprisoned at its peak in September 1942. Adams started photographing the camp in fall 1943, just over a year after it had opened and when it was already well established. He wrote that “large firebreak areas in which victory gardens, pleasure parks, playing fields, and concert areas, have been developed.”

Lange, who is known for her sensitive portrayal of Americans during the Depression in the 1930s, captured a more grim reality, arriving on assignment for the federal government in June 1942 as the camp opened and families found themselves in the hastily constructed barracks in the high desert. Still, even in these early days of the camp, she found gardens. Her photographs of the desert garden created by William Katsuki—her careful caption notes he’s a former professional landscape gardener from Southern California—show rocks, stumps and branches arranged around cactus and Joshua trees along the outside wall of a black tar-papered barrack.

A second part of the exhibition pairs a selection of photographs with art and craft objects on loan from the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. The pieces belonged to people imprisoned at other camps but are representative of the work that would have been created at Manzanar—wood carving and sculpture, painting and embroidery—with the exception of two delicate corsages made of tiny shells. Excavated from the dry lakebeds around the Tule Lake camp in Northern California and the Topaz camp in Utah, the shells were painted to form petals and the corsages then decorated with ribbons. Flower stems for these poignantly pretty things were often wire pulled from window screens. Made using what was available, these portable objects help bring the experience depicted in the photographs tangibly to life.

The Portland Japanese Garden is not a history museum, but the exhibition misses an opportunity to bring additional understanding to these photographs by using the garden’s unique lens. Nakanishi selected 15 photos to represent each photographer. These range from landscapes to interior scenes and from baseball games to an ikebana exhibition. They’re fascinating but disconnected. There are also photographs of gardens, though not many, and labels are limited to basic information about the photographs.

Nakanishi does take advantage of the Japanese Garden’s setting, opening the pavilion gallery’s shoji doors and juxtaposing the view into the garden beyond with two photographs by Adams and Miyatake that show the same view of the Manzanar camp strolling garden. In Adams’ photo, its pavilion and small arched bridge, both created from found wood around the camp, are clearly visible and the lawn trimly manicured. A few flowering plants nestle around rocks at the water’s edge and behind it all rise the Sierra Nevada mountain range in crisp detail, an Adams’ signature. The garden in Miyatake’s photo is overgrown. Trees have filled in behind and around the pavilion and obscure the view to the mountains. It’s an unruly mess, and yet hopeful.

Miyatake, who was incarcerated in the camp for three and a half years, may have taken the photo near when the camp closed, on Nov. 21, 1945. In another photograph he depicts a carefully lettered sign on the camp’s relocation office that lists the dwindling population on Sept. 30 (2,891), then Oct. 25 (1,520), and finally Nov. 8 (833). The record indicates he may have been among the last to be released.

Looking at Adams’ photograph of a woman and two young girls stepping through the garden pavilion, Nakanishi pointed out how well dressed the group was and suggested that it was most likely staged for the photographer after an auspicious ceremony, such as a coming of age ceremony. Looking more closely, he added, “I’m amazed at the length they went to procure such a Japanese structure.”


“Healing Nature: Gardens and Art of Manzanar”

What: Exhibition of photographs of the Manzanar War Relocation Center and historic art and craft objects made by camp internees

When: 10 a.m.–3:30 p.m. Wednesday-Monday (pavilion open until 4 p.m.), through Jan. 10. Related panel discussions Nov. 17 (Part 1): “A Garden of Humanity: From substance to the highest form of creativity,” Dec. 8 (Part 2): “Beautiful Resistance: A Garden as a Cultural Landscape at Manzanar,” Dec. 18: “Bridging the Past and Future – Nikkei Cultural Legacies in America and the Evolving Role of Japanese Cultural Institutions”

Where: Portland Japanese Garden, 611 S.W. Kingston Ave.

Admission: $18.95 (adults), $16.25 (seniors 65+), $15.25 (students with ID), $13.50 (ages 6-17, ages 5 and under free), free to members, japanesegarden.org or 503-223-1321

— Brianna Miller, for The Oregonian/OregonLive.com