Looking at 1934: Kenjiro Nomura's
The Farm, 1934
September 24, 2009
Fully one-quarter of the painters depicted in the exhibition 1934: A New Deal for Artists were first-generation Americans: born elsewhere, but came to the United States in search of the American dream. My grandparents did it, emigrating from Austria and Russia (from small towns that probably don't exist anymore) and setting up homes in various parts of New York, sticking close to their Ellis Island landing spot. They left rural lives for city life and probably never knew what hit them.
When I walk through 1934 I usually find myself more drawn to the cityscape--images of a burgeoning Manhattan, for example--than to the rural scene. This time, though, I was taken in by the painting of a farm and then by the story of the artist.
Kenjiro Nomura was born in Japan in 1896, emigrated to the United States, and lived and worked in Seattle. His paintings often captured the lives of Japanese farmers who settled in the area, but were subject to anti-alien laws and other prejudices. For instance, they could work the land, but they couldn't own any. Nomura's painting, The Farm, 1934, at first strikes me as the depiction of a calm place, very American, along the lines of Grant Wood's iconic American Gothic. But on closer look, there are no people, and there are no animals. Dark clouds gather, and the abundance of shadow seems on the edge of swallowing the entire scene. I'm struck by the black doorways and windows: dark in the places that should be light.
By this time, Nomura was an established artist. He had his first one-man exhibition when the Seattle Art Museum opened in 1933 and continued to show there annually. But soon the clouds would start to roll in. About a decade later, when America entered World War II, Nomura, his wife, and child were forcibly removed from their home in Seattle and incarcerated in the Puyallup Assembly Center thirty-five miles away. Four months later, they were taken to the Minidoka Internment Camp in Hunt, Idaho, with ten thousand other Japanese Americans. Nomura continued to paint in the camp and returned with his family to Seattle after the war.
If you're interested in learning more about life and art in the internment camps of World War II, visit the Renwick Gallery's upcoming exhibition The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942--1946, which opens March 5, 2010.
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