Above and below: Examples of hand-painted birds by Wayne Masato Sumida.
Above and below: Examples of hand-painted birds by Masato Wayne Sumida.

PASADENA — The Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave. in Pasadena, is presenting a collection of hand-carved, hand-painted birds and other animals made by Japanese immigrant Masato Wayne Sumida while interned at Poston War Relocation Center in La Paz County, Arizona.

The exhibition, in the Armory’s Mezzanine Galleries, runs through Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014. It has been organized by Gallery Director/Chief Curator Irene Tsatsos.

Poston, located on a reservation three miles east of the Colorado River, was the largest War Relocation Authority camp, and was known for its poor sanitation and unsettled relations between the interned Japanese and Japanese Americans and the Colorado River Native Americans who remained on the land after its repurposing.

Sumida’s exquisite carvings – between 1” and 5” – depict a variety of brightly colored small animals, including fish and squirrels, but most are ornately painted birds. He made numerous carvings of mallards, cardinals, swans, owls, and more – each similar, yet with its own unique personality.

sumida owlHis practice was associated with gaman, the Japanese term that refers to the idea of bearing through suffering with dignity and patience. The word has become synonymous with the objects made by the men and women who were held in the internment camps during World War II.

Following the Pearl Harbor attack and the signing of Executive Order 9066, ethnic Japanese were notified that they would be relocated and that they were to carry everything they would need with them. Upon arrival at the camps, men, women, and children were housed in small rooms scantily furnished with a single light bulb, a wood-burning stove, and cots. At first, people met their basic needs by making chairs, knives, and posts on which to hang laundry. As their internment persisted, their production turned away from everyday practicalities and developed into an art form that symbolized their resilience and composure.

Sumida’s carved and painted objects had been in safekeeping by his granddaughter Wendy Al and her husband, artist Billy Al Bengston, after being found stored in a large trash can in her grandparents’ garage. Many Japanese Americans of the era neglected to speak of the period, and the objects made during internment were often given away, sold at garage sales, or forgotten in storage spaces, waiting to be rediscovered by the artists’ descendants decades later.

Sumida’s son, Paul, recalls giving the birds, which were fashioned into earrings, brooches, and lapel pins, to his teachers as gifts.

Masato Wayne Sumida was born in Hiroshima Prefecture on Oct. 13, 1903 and was orphaned at an early age. When he was 14 years old he took a boat to Mexico, arriving there illegally. He later swam across the Rio Grande River to enter the U.S.

Before being interned, Sumida lived in Boyle Heights, where he worked as a gardener. After his release, he settled in Gardena and took work as a sign painter. He was married to Hisako Sumida, who survived him. He died on Sept. 12, 1995.

Family members rediscovered the objects following Hisako’s death in 1999. Billy Al, seeing the objects for the first time, was overwhelmed by their beauty and launched the family’s efforts to preserve the collection.

The title of this show quotes a line of haiku from Yajin Nakao, a poet interned at Rohwer War Relocation Center in Desha County, Arkansas:

    Autumn foliage

    California has now become

    a far country

The tradition of haiku and other forms of poetry and writing persevered in the camps, where writers were able meet to discuss their works.

“A Far Country” runs in conjunction with the group exhibition “Home Away,” organized by Los Angeles-based independent curator Kris Kuramitsu, which highlights and contextualizes a group of artists that work in Los Angeles as well as other locations in Asia and Latin America, among them Ho Chi Minh City, Tokyo, Mumbai, Tijuana, Guadalajara, and Mexico City.

Armory Center for the Arts believes that an understanding and appreciation of the arts is essential for a well-rounded human experience and a healthy civic community. Founded in 1989, the Armory builds on the power of art to transform lives and communities through presenting, creating, teaching, and discussing contemporary visual art.

The organization’s department of exhibitions mounts over 25 visual arts exhibitions each year at its main facility and in locations throughout Pasadena. In addition, Armory offers studio art classes and a variety of educational outreach programs to more than fifty schools and community sites.

Parking is available on the street or in the Marriott garage directly north of Armory for free for 90 minutes. Armory is off the Gold Line at Memorial Park – walk one half block east to Raymond and one half block north to Armory. For more information, visit www.armoryarts.org.

sumida cardinals

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