The new Chiura Obata Great Nature Memorial Highway sign. Standing, from left: Kimi Hill; Salli Lundgren (Yosemite National Park), Yenyen Chan (YNP) ,Naomi Chakrin (YNP), Hanako Wakatsuki (superintendent of Honouliuli National Historic Site), April Kunieda (YNP), Alisa Lynch (Manzanar National Historic Site), Kelsea Larsen (National Park Service, San Francisco Regional Office). Front row, from left: Vincent Nguyen (Channel Islands National Park) and Jackson Lam (Golden Gate National Recreation Area).

Recently, locals and visitors alike have noticed two new signs along a high-elevation section of Tioga Pass (Highway 120 West) near the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park.

On Aug. 29, a section of the road was dedicated the Chiura Obata Great Nature Memorial Highway in honor of the artist’s remarkable life and celebrated work.

The road dedication proposal was initiated by Robert Hanna, a descendant of conservationist John Muir and a champion of Mono Lake. Assemblymember Frank Bigelow (R-Sutter Creek) introduced Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 112 to designate the highway, which was passed by the California Legislature in September 2020.

“This project was very special to me and I wanted to do something that would honor Chiura Obata forever,” Hanna told The Rafu Shimpo. “His story is so inspirational and powerful, and it’s important that his connection to ‘Great Nature’ is shared with the world so that everyone can come and experience it first-hand.

“Knowing how special Yosemite National Park and the Eastern Sierra was to him, it seems perfect to me that his legacy will now greet all who come to the park from the Mono Lake area.

“Having also gotten the opportunity throughout this effort to become friends with Obata’s granddaughter, Kimi Hill, is something very special to me, and I thank Assemblyman Frank Bigelow and his staff for working tirelessly to make this entire effort a reality.”

Hill, who is the family historian, said, “Obata’s art and his teachings to appreciate Dai Shizen (大自然) or Great Nature resonates deeply with people today. He said, ‘We must respect what nature provides: fire, water, earth, sun.’

“Because of its location at Tioga Pass, the Obata Great Nature Highway can help connect visitors to the stellar parks in the region where one can explore and learn from the natural history of Yosemite, the American history of Manzanar and the environmental history of Mono Lake.”

At the dedication, Hill read a quote from her grandfather, written the year after his 1927 trip to the High Sierra, which resulted in some of his most celebrated works: “I dedicate my paintings, first, to the great nature of California, which, over the long years, in sad as well as in delightful times, has always given me great lessons, comfort, and nourishment. Second, to the people who share the same thoughts, as though drawing water from one river under one tree.”

Hill noted that there has been renewed interest in the works of her grandfather, who passed away in 1975 at the age of 89. Obata Art Weekend was held Aug. 27-29 at Tuolumne Meadows, and the De Young Museum in San Francisco is planning to reinstall its large Obata painting in the permanent gallery.

Obata’s works are featured in such books as “Obata’s Yosemite: Art and Letters of Obata from His Trip to the High Sierra in 1927”; “Topaz Moon: Chiura Obata’s Art of the Internment” (edited by Hill); and “Chiura Obata: An American Modern” by ShiPu Wang.

Chiura Obata’s grandchildren, Kei Kodani and Kimi Hill with the State Assembly resolution designating the highway.

The text of ACR 112 summarizes Obata’s life and is excerpted below:

“Chiura Obata was born on Nov. 18, 1885, in Japan and raised in the city of Sendai; at seven years of age, he began his formal training in the art of sumi-e, Japanese ink and brush painting; at 14 years of age, Obata began an apprenticeship with a master painter in Tokyo, and in 1901, he received a prestigious art award in Tokyo …

“Upon coming to the United States, Obata not only was the recipient of intense racial epithets; he was even hit and spat upon by people on the streets of San Francisco simply because of his ethnicity, but he also encountered the institutionalized racism that existed in many laws of the time that restricted the rights of Asian-born immigrants like himself, including prohibitions from owning land and becoming a United States citizen …

“Obata became an avid baseball player, playing many games at Golden Gate Park, and was one of the founders of the Fuji Club, the first Japanese American baseball team on the American mainland …

Chiura Obata painting flowers at his home in Webster Groves, Mo., in 1944. (Hikaru Iwasaki/UC Berkeley Bancroft Library)

“In 1921, Obata cofounded the East West Art Society in San Francisco with other American, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese artists to promote a uniting of Asian and Western art traditions …

“In 1927, Obata made a six-week camping trip to Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada Mountains that proved to be a defining moment in his professional life, about which he would later say, ‘This experience was the greatest harvest for my whole life and future in painting…’

“Obata’s art is infused with his reverence for nature, which he viewed as a powerful spiritual force; he thought of nature as Dai-Shizen, or Great Nature, reflecting his belief that it is an essential source of inspiration and peace for all human beings …

“In 1932, Obata began his career as an influential educator, teaching in the art department at the University of California, Berkeley for nearly 20 years …

“In April 1942, Obata and his family were sent to the Tanforan Racetrack near San Francisco and eventually to the Topaz War Relocation Center in central Utah; firmly believing in the healing power of art, in less than a month he and his fellow artists were able to create an art school with over 600 students …

“While Obata was director of the Topaz Art School, he continued to paint images of life in the camp as well as the beauty he saw in the desert landscape; even in the face of such confinement, Obata proved to be a figure of peace and resilience …

“In 1943, Obata and his family were released from the relocation center in Topaz, Utah, and returned to California in 1945 at the end of World War II; after 1945, Obata continued to visit Yosemite and the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains to paint his landscapes …

“In 1954, two years after the U.S. government allowed Japanese immigrants to become citizens of the United States, Obata and his family became naturalized American citizens …

“In that same year, Chiura and his wife, Haruko Obata, led the first of the ‘Obata Tours’ to Japan, introducing many Americans to Japanese arts, architecture, and culture; the tours fostered understanding through the arts between the two countries that had previously been at war …

“From 1955 to 1970, until he was 85 years of age, Obata traveled throughout California, giving lectures and demonstrations on Japanese brush painting and in 1965, in Japan, Obata received the Emperor’s Award, the Order of the Sacred Treasure, 5th Class, in recognition of his efforts to spread cultural understanding …

“Obata’s life and work have been celebrated and exhibited throughout the world, and his legacy in connection to our National Parks remains an inspiration for all Californians; now, therefore, be it

“Resolved by the Assembly of the State of California, the Senate thereof concurring, That the Legislature hereby designates the portion of State Route 120 from post mile R0.898 to post mile R4.766 in the County of Mono as the Chiura Obata Great Nature Memorial Highway.”

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