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"Chiura Obata: An American Modern" spans Japanese American painter's 70-year career
Chiura Obata, Untitled (Pier), 1940. Watercolor on paper, 10 3/4 x 15 1/2 in. Private collection.

SACRAMENTO, CA.- The Crocker Art Museum is presenting the exhibition "Chiura Obata: An American Modern", which surveys the seven-decade career of one of the most significant Japanese American artists working on the West Coast in the last century.

Drawn from private and public collections, this internationally travelling retrospective showcases more than 100 paintings, drawings, prints, and personal items, many of which have never been on public display. Works range from Obata's nihonga (Japanese-style painting) studies as a student in Japan, watercolors from his magazine-illustrator days in San Francisco, and works depicting his personal experience of incarceration during World War II. Two of Obata's famed woodblock prints are represented, as are his ink scrolls and the large-scale California landscapes for which he is perhaps best known, including his depictions of Yosemite.

Chiura Obata (小圃千浦, 1885–1975) was Born Zoroku Sato in Okayama, Japan. At age 14, he ran away to Tokyo to pursue his studies in art and adopted the name “Chiura,” referring to the scenic “thousand bays” on the coast near Sendai, where he had lived with his older artist brother (who was also his adoptive father).

When Obata immigrated to the United States at age 17, he was trained in both traditional and modern Japanese art. His early magazine and newspaper illustrations — several of which are represented in the exhibition — evidence his engagement with international art movements and foretell the intense cross-cultural negotiations that shaped his life and work.

As he immersed in Northern California's vibrant artistic atmosphere, Obata explored not only evolving Japanese painting techniques, but also Arts and Crafts ideology and style as well as the continuing relevance of plein-air nature painting. He found enduring inspiration in California’s rich and diverse landscape. In 1927, Obata took a month-long sketching tour of Yosemite National Park with fellow artists Worth Ryder and Robert B. Howard, and produced more than 150 paintings as a result. In 1932, Obata began teaching in the art department at University of California, Berkeley, and was an influential educator for more than 20 years.

Although his career as an artist and educator were ultimately marked by great success, it was put to the test during World War II. When, in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the incarceration of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Obata and his family were among those detained. A disciplined artist, Obata continued his work during his incarceration, documenting his experience in ink drawings, first in Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, and later in the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. During this time, Obata also founded and directed art schools in each of the concentration camps.

When the incarceration order was lifted, Obata was reinstated as an instructor at U.C. Berkeley. He was promoted to associate professor of art in 1949, and became highly influential in introducing Japanese art and aesthetics to California artists. After he retired as Professor Emeritus, Obata continued to travel, lecture, and demonstrate brush painting, and his art has been shown in several of the nation's most prominent museums.

In 1965, Obata received an Emperor's Award for promoting good will and cultural understanding between the United States and Japan. He died in 1975 at the age of 89.

Now open for view, "Chiura Obata: An American Modern" highlights Obata's exploration of classic and modern styles. Included are masterful examples of sumi-e, a meditative style of Japanese ink painting that requires exceptional patience, concentration, and skill by the artist, especially in controlling and varying ink saturation.

While most works are on loan for the exhibition, four notable works are included from the Crocker’s permanent collection, all of which were gifted to the Museum by the Obata family.

In addition to the paintings, the Crocker exhibition includes a paint kit that belonged to Chiura Obata and examples of the minerals he ground to create pigments. A video featuring 1956 footage of Obata demonstrating his techniques plays in the gallery, and visitors are invited to use the free, interactive iOS app "DigitalObata" to enhance their viewing experience.

A full-color exhibition catalogue by ShiPu Wang accompanies the exhibition, and is available at the Crocker Art Museum Store. The catalogue is the first book to survey Chiura Obata's rich and varied works from his seven-decade career, and includes more than 100 images, many of which have never been published before.

"Chiura Obata: An American Modern" is organized by the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with generous support provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art. The exhibition is curated by ShiPu Wang, professor and art historian of American art at the University of California, Merced. The Crocker's in-house curator is Christie Hajela.

In addition to the Crocker Art Museum, this exhibition is being shown at venues in Santa Barbara, Salt Lake City, Japan, and at the Smithsonian.

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