Painting by Estelle Ishigo depicting daily life at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming in 1943, from the Allen Eaton collection.
Painting by Estelle Ishigo depicting daily life at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming in 1943, from the Allen Eaton Collection.

Rafu Staff Report

A group of former incarcerees at the Heart Mountain camp are asking the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles to permit artwork by Estelle Peck Ishigo (1899-1990) to be exhibited at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center in Wyoming.

Earlier this year, Rago Arts and Auction announced that it was auctioning off artwork, crafts and other items made by interned Japanese Americans during World War II. The objects, including some of Ishigo’s paintings, had been collected by the late Allen Eaton, an opponent of the internment and author of “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire.”

When news of the auction was announced and the online catalog released, Japanese Americans began finding personal connections to name plaques, works on paper, paintings and photographs, raising the possibility of legal claims to objects.

Thanks to a combination of the nationwide public outcry, the threat of legal action and the intervention of actor/activist George Takei, the items were removed from the auction block on April 15, two days before the sale was to take place. On May 2, JANM announced that it had acquired the collection.

Signed by 81 Nisei, the Nov. 3 letter to JANM President/CEO Dr. Greg Kimura reads as follows:

“We, the undersigned Nisei who were incarcerated at Heart Mountain, passionately believe that the artwork of Estelle Ishigo should be exhibited at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center during our lifetime. As a Caucasian woman, Estelle voluntarily became a prisoner at Heart Mountain because she did not want to be separated from her Nisei husband, Arthur Ishigo.

“We understand that you met with the All Camps Consortium via teleconference last August. Many of us listened to the assurances you made that a designated working group should collaborate with the Japanese American National Museum to determine the best use of the Eaton Collection and look for ways to help qualified institutions display them.

“We understand that you circulated a proposal which does not follow through on these promises and the most significant and troubling aspect of your proposal is that “loans of individual/small groups of artifacts not included in exhibition(s) will be considered only after curation of all exhibitions is completed” (emphasis added). This language strongly suggests that loans will not occur based on your own discretion or, at best, the process will be protracted beyond 2020 without any guarantee

“As you know, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (HMWF) played a vital role to halt the auction of these artifacts. The HMWF made the initial $50,000 cash offer and when that offer was refused, those funds were applied to hire a New Jersey law firm to challenge the legality of the public auction. We believe these efforts were a catalyst for stopping the public sale of the artifacts and that the HMWF acted in the best interest of the public.

“We also believe the foundation, in concert with the collective actions from other stakeholders (like the Ad Hoc Committee to Preserve Japanese American Heritage), paved the way for JANM to acquire the collection.

“At Estelle’s request, one of the signatories of this letter personally carried her ashes up Heart Mountain and scattered them on the summit. We view this act as a sacred commitment to her memory. Returning her artwork to the very site where she was imprisoned with us will allow those who visit the site to learn more about our incarceration and the painful beauty that the artifacts represent.

“We know there are expenses involved and understand the working group and the All Camps Leadership are open to solving this problem together. This includes possible sharing of resources and providing support for JANM’s Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant due Nov. 10.

“Several of us were close to Estelle and Arthur. We are all at the age where our lives grow shorter with each day and your proposal will likely not allow us to view Estelle’s artwork at Heart Mountain in our lifetime. Therefore, we urge you to immediately consider a few significant pieces of her art for loan to our Interpretive Center and have in place a proposal that is realistic, fair, and fulfills the assurances of good faith that you conveyed to many of us last August.

“We look forward to hearing from you soon.”

Among those who signed the letter were HMWF board members Takashi Hoshizaki, Sam Mihara, Shigeru Yabu, and Kathleen Saito Yuille, and Advisory Council members William Higuchi, Toshiko Nagamori Ito, Amy Iwasaki Mass, Jeanette Mitarai Misaka, Bacon Sakatani, and Raymond Uno.

Copies of the letter were sent to former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, honorary co-chairs of the Advisory Council; the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Board and Advisory Council; All Camps Consortium stakeholders; and the Ad Hoc Committee to Preserve Japanese American Heritage.

On Nov. 5, Kimura gave the following response:

“Thank you for your thoughtful and articulate letter. I agree that having some of Estelle Ishigo’s art displayed at Heart Mountain Interpretive Center would offer a powerful experience for our Nisei community and other visitors. I personally would very much like to see this happen as soon as possible.

“There are some very real, practical challenges, in terms of the condition of the Eaton Collection, including the Ishigo works. The Japanese American National Museum is committed to overcoming the challenges, but doing so will take resources, professional conservation, and perhaps most precious of all, time.

“What I have done now, in response to your letter, is to ask some of the museum’s staff to put their heads together to generate some ideas that might help us fulfill our shared hope more quickly.

“Thank you again for writing and I will be back in touch in about a week. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me by email or the cell phone number below if you have any other questions.”

Shirley Higuchi, HMWF board chair, commented, “As a foundation whose mission is to tell the story of what happened at Heart Mountain through former incarcerees’ stories at our world-class Interpretive Center, we hope that Greg will live up to his assurances. HMWF believes that our story is multicultural in nature and extends beyond the Japanese American community. By bringing Estelle Ishigo’s artwork home to the place where they were created during the darkest times of our nation’s history, it will reinforce the ‘power of place’ and the suffering that occurred there.”

Ishigo is known for her 1972 book “Lone Heart Mountain,” which was republished in 1989 by the Heart Mountain High School Class of 1947. She was profiled in Steven Okazaki’s 1990 documentary “Days of Waiting,” which won an Academy Award and a Peabody Award.

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