WWII internment featured in work of artist

September 15, 2019

Robert and Ruby Iwamasa in front of two of the paintings in the Internment Series. On the left the Hiroshima Dome is depicted after the World War II attack. On the right is painting depicting the 211 soldiers of the 141st Infantry Regiment, Texas Division (the lost Battalion) who were rescued by the all Japanese American 442nd in one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the U.S. Army.

By Pat Maurer

Dow Chemical retiree and Artist Robert Iwamasa’s show, “A Search for Originality,” at the 515 Gallery in Clare emphasizes in his work the heartbreak of the Japanese interment years during World War II.
He said he remembers that time and hopes it will make people see the comparisons with what is happening in the United States even now. “That can happen again today,” he said.

Iwamasa was only four when he and his mother and siblings suffered through the internment, even though they were Americans, born in the U.S. His 45-year-old mother faced this alone. His father was hospitalized at the time with mental issues.

“Both my mother and I and my wife’s family were interned at Poston, Arizona,” he said, “We were among 120,000 men women and children of Japanese ancestry interned in ten war internment camps throughout the United States. Sixty-seven percent of those interned were citizens of the United States. My mother was born in Hawaii and I was born in Watsonville, California. My wife was born in Anaheim, California.” Ruby was two years old when her family was interned.

The family spent the next four years in deplorable living conditions with 19,000 others, in little more than barracks in Posten on an Indian reservation near Parker, Arizona. In fact his wife Ruby Shiotani’s family was interned in another one of the three camps located there. Her brother was born in the camp.

Iwamasa said his grandparents immigrated to Hawaii in 1886 where his grandfather became a laborer on a pineapple farm. The family moved to Watsonville California in 1902. In 1915 his father came to Watsonville to work with Iwamasa’s father as a farm laborer.

After Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Iwamasas were taken from their California home along with the others of Japanese descent and placed in the internment camps because they were “potential saboteurs.”

This happened despite the fact that two of his cousins were serving in the U.S. Military during the war. James and Henry Izumizaki were in the 442nd and involved in the rescue of 211 Texans from the 141st at Vosges Mountain in Northern France in 1944. Henry was among 1,000 who died there and James was wounded. The 442nd was presented with a citation for bravery by President Harry Truman.

The similarities between those times and recent immigration issues worry Iwamasa.

He said, “President Trump recently said, ‘If you don’t like it here, go back home.’” Iwamasa added, “They said the same thing to us.”

He said he had grandparents who lived 35 miles west of Hiroshima. “They died of starvation. The whole area was decimated.”

Iwamasa said the paintings on display at the Clare gallery were done from 2015 to 2018 when his wife Ruby became seriously ill. “I’ve always enjoyed doing painting and emphasis on line and flatness were a way for me to express feelings,” he said. “One of my early paintings using line emphasis was titled “Angry Woman” first and was about my wife. I later retitled it ‘We will get through this’ when I realized it was more about me and my anger about her illness.” That painting was selected to be in the 2017 Birmingham/Bloomfield Fine Arts exhibition.

Artist Robert Iwamasa talks about his Internment Series that is on display at the 515 Gallery through October 9th.

Iwamasa does his sketches on the computer. “I cannot explain how these images come about, but they come from thinking about some subject – or I just let the mouse move randomly.”

He added, “I like abstraction but my end result is often a combination of reality and my subconscious.”

In 2014, he said he and Ruby attended a reunion of Poster internees where some people were interested in the internment of people of Japanese ancestry by the United State government during World War II.

“I was asked to make some block maps of families and their location in barracks,” He said. “Afterwards I made a book based on photographs about my research and memories.”

“During the time of making my line paintings, I thought about making some drawings of my memories as a child in camp using the line emphasis painting style. This resulted in the series called ‘The Internment’,” he said.
“Looking back now as an 82-year-old, I am thankful for having been born in the United States despite the internment.” He said. “It is times like that which test courage. There is no time to complain and do nothing. It is the time to make the best of things.”

Iwamasa has been living in Midland since 1967. He retired from Dow Chemical in 1994. He and wife Ruby have three sons, Kenny Jonathan, and Andrew.

He has had a lifelong interest in art and painting and following his retirement he studied art at Delta College University Center under professors Larry Butcher, Russel Thayer, Randall Crawford and Charles Breed.

“This style of painting I am focusing on now I call a type of pop art or Outlier art,” he said. He also makes his own frames and canvases. “After my drawing is finished on the computer, I make my own frame, stretch a canvas, prime it and copy my drawing onto the canvas. When the painting is completed, I put a finish frame around it of my own design. All of my paintings are done using acrylic paint.”

Iwamasa has participated in his own shows and in many, many exhibitions in Midland, Ann Arbor, Flint, Bay City, Birmingham/Bloomfield, Northwood University, Saginaw and now in Clare, winning numerous awards for his work including first and second place awards and a Best of Show Award at his very first show in the Midland Center for the Arts.

His display at the 515 Building, which began August 24th and runs through October 9th, tells the Japanese internment story from right to left.

The 515 Gallery is located at 515 North McEwan Street in downtown Clare.

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