The Sequoia in the Storm
By Lyra Halprin
We had just entered San Francisco’s de Young Museum when my husband, Alan, grabbed my arm and pointed a finger toward the alcove above the foyer.
I stopped in my tracks, stunned.
In front of us was a large painting, ink on silk, of an enormous pine tree and a lake covered with whitecaps, with a vast forest in the background. It was not only the soft beauty of the painting that rooted Alan and me to our spots: the piece was undoubtedly created by Chiura Obata, the very same artist who produced a painting that currently hung in my mother’s house in Santa Monica. Obata was my father’s studio-art professor at UC Berkeley in the early 1940s, and though I knew Obata was respected–I attended an exhibition of his color woodblock prints in a Sacramento museum in the early nineties–my father had passed away years before, and I hadn’t given much thought to his mentor’s international stature.
Growing up, my family loved our painting. It still hangs on the landing of the stairs at my mother’s house and overlooks her grand piano and large living room window. It’s taller than the one in the de Young; a huge sequoia tree takes up most of the large silk canvas, a storm swirling around it. The tree’s trunk is strong and seemingly untouched by the violent weather; the movement of the branches, which bend to the right, is the only sign the storm has touched the tree. In the foreground is a smaller tree, bent over, desperately hanging on. Obata created the scene using the magical process of “sumi-e,” or Japanese ink painting, in which ink moves from darkest black to silvery gray, and is stroked onto a creamy silk background. Growing up, my family saw the storm as a flood. To Dad especially, it seemed to recall the 1955 Feather River Flood, which devastated our family farm and changed all of our lives–my father spent the rest of his too-short life focused on restoring that farm.
The painting belongs to the three of us now: my mother, my sister, and me. It is a direct link to my father–a farmer, artist, and guardian of the land, who died thirty-five years ago, only a year after Obata, of a heart attack while swimming.
After that moment at the de Young in 2007, I was eager to learn as much as possible about Obata, about my father’s connection to him, and about our cherished painting, now nearly sixty years old. In doing so, I discovered fascinating commonalities between my father and his mentor. The search ultimately illuminated their parallel experiences in California history and the intersection of our families during a time of world turmoil.
My father first met Obata in 1940, soon after he transferred to UC Berkeley from a junior college in Yuba City, two years before the United States entered World War II. Obata, a strikingly handsome man with a strong forehead and thick black hair, was fifty-seven. Though Japanese-born, he had lived in California for almost four decades. A photo from that time shows him teaching an art class on the UC Berkeley campus, seated cross-legged in the grass beneath a tree. He is wearing a three-piece suit and tie, and his face is covered in a wide smile. By 1938, Time magazine had already called him “one of the most accomplished artists in the West.”
Photos of my father, Leahn Joshua Halprin, mirror Obata’s smile. Dad, like Obata, had large, full lips slightly flattened in the middle, and circles wreathed his mouth when he smiled, which was most of the time.
Just months after Pearl Harbor, the evacuation and internment of West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry began, and Dad was outraged at this shameful development. It soon became clear that Obata would be among those interned. Dad deeply respected Obata as a professor, and joined others who bought or stored his paintings to help the artist before he and his family were sent to the camps. Dad was just twenty-two at the time, and based on newspaper clippings from the Berkeley Gazette that mention “a special sale of 120 [Obata] paintings . . . and a demonstration of free hand water color painting,” it’s possible he purchased the painting at a sale Obata himself organized to fund scholarships for students who suffered during the war. Even then Dad recognized the beauty of the painting, and it was obvious that he took solace in its message of strength: it showed that even in times of upheaval, the storm could be withstood.
The date in the lower left corner of our painting, May 1942, draws me back into our own history and its intersection with the Obatas’. Obata finished the painting just before his family was ordered to a detention center near San Francisco; Dad then purchased the painting, finished classes at UC Berkeley, and was drafted in June of the same year. He received his diploma in the mail, and did not see the painting again until after the war.
After seeing Obata’s painting at the de Young, I was shocked to read a quote from Obata’s wife in their granddaughter Kimi Kodani Hill’s book, Topaz Moon: “Just at that time Papa started a big painting, and he never stopped. He was painting a scene of a tree with a storm swirling around it.” I felt certain that this was the painting my father bought. Reading about the piece somehow made it even more real than seeing it on my mother’s wall. I became determined to protect it from the damages wrought by time.
Describing the painting is like talking about a lover or a new baby; it is nearly impossible to translate its beauty into language. I can feel the softness of the ink on silk when I look at it. Its size and design sweeps one’s eye upward and then to the side, as the storm works to uproot the tree. I can recall my father’s open-faced delight when he looked at the painting, and now understand some of his deep identification with the tree and its endurance.
The more I read about Obata, the more I realized what a resilient man he was. “In any circumstance, anywhere and anytime, take up your brush and express what you face and what you think without wasting your time and energy complaining and crying out,” Obata wrote in a letter from the period during which he was working on our painting.
The Obatas were allowed one suitcase each, and had to find non-Japanese friends to store their more valuable possessions. They were sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center, a temporary detention camp on a former racetrack south of San Francisco; it became a residence for eight thousand people of Japanese ancestry. Chiura sketched drawings of his new home, and Kimi’s book includes her grandfather’s depictions of the evacuation bus, soldiers playing hide-and-seek with the children, and women sweeping out their new quarters in the double-doored horse stalls.
My father, I believe, shared Obata’s resilience. Although their experiences were very different, I feel my father’s artistic response to his own challenges in the war and on the farm carry the same spirit as that of his former teacher. While the Obatas were detained, my father and his older brother, Elm, were keen to fight the Nazis, who forced Jews, including members of our own family, into concentration camps in Austria, Germany, and Poland. Dad tried to enlist in the Navy in hopes of becoming a pilot, but was informed he had a heart murmur. He told me he thought it was because he was Jewish; some branches of the armed services were said to be more anti-Semitic than others. When he was drafted into the Army soon after, and no heart murmur was found, he happily trained as a pilot. There were too many pilots, though, so he was retrained as a radio operator, and worked as part of the flight crew.
Although he was glad to be fighting fascism, his military experience was hard on his spirit. According to Dad, before the war, the Army had been a haven for many men from desperately poor communities, with little education. He claimed the men often abused their power after being suddenly promoted to positions of authority over drafted college boys. To keep from going crazy, Dad would forge permits to leave the base, or go to the toilet stalls to draw or read. He told my sister he read War and Peace on the toilet instead of pointlessly digging ditches just to fill them up again.
His primary antidote to this frustration was all the beauty he found in the world around him. In letters home from the China-Burma-India Theater where he flew on C-47s, he wrote long descriptions of the deep gorges, the terraced hillsides, and the thatched roofs in the Himalayas. He was captivated by views from the giant airplanes, even when the land wasn’t visible:
Things happen up there as they do in the depths of a microscope. The clouds pass majestically, calmly, impressively, constantly underneath us, outside the possibility of our control–in another dimension–so it seems. We are just observers without sound, holding our breaths. Then the bright sun shines through my window and warms my hand sticking out of my furry jacket.
Dad gave me that furry flight jacket, which I wore throughout college. I often think of it protecting him from the cold, thousands of feet above the earth.
The comfort and joy he took in nature was evident in a letter to his parents that describes a pear he was able to get in China: “Such a simple pleasure is hard to describe . . . I hoarded it for two days in my steel helmet before I got an opportunity to sit down and enjoy it properly. Then I ate it all but the little wooden stem and slept for hours. It was delicious.”
My father, like Obata, also found that drawing helped him adapt to his environment and keep a record of the times. In letters to his parents he sketched soldiers sleeping on their bunks that looked much like Obata’s images of the bachelors’ quarters at the internment camp I later saw in photographs that appeared in Topaz Moon. Dad used pencils and Army notepads; in the camps Obata used art supplies sent by former students.
At Tanforan Obata organized an art school for the internees to “maintain one spot of normalcy,” according to writings included in Topaz Moon. He set up a second art school when he and his family were transferred to the camp at Topaz, Utah. On the train that took them over the Sierra Nevada mountains and across Nevada, he sketched the Feather River Canyon and the Great Salt Lake. In the next year he made hundreds of pictures of their new home. One of his last sketches from the camp depicted the death of an internee who was killed by a guard while walking his dog near the border fence; the man could not hear the military sentry’s warning.
Topaz Moon details how the government demanded the internees sign loyalty oaths to allow them to stay in the United States. The oaths polarized the internment camp. When the Obatas finally agreed to sign them, Chiura was attacked and severely beaten in the shower by other internees. The beating ended the Obatas’ internment; they were released to ensure their safety.
As Chiura and his wife, Haruko, had no way to earn a living, they moved to St. Louis, where Chiura painted scenery for an art company. When the military exclusion order was lifted in 1945, he wrote to UC Berkeley asking to be reinstated. Cal’s president, Robert Sproul, had stored many of Chiura’s paintings in his official campus residence during the war, and was happy to welcome him back. The Obatas returned to California. Obata had called the state his “beloved Mother Earth,” and his paintings of the California wilderness, particularly of Yosemite, where he camped and sketched with friend Ansel Adams, are among his most beloved.
My father also returned to California after the war, though his dream of being a commercial pilot was lost with his brother’s death–Elm was killed when his plane was shot down over Romania. This event, combined with his sense of responsibility to his parents, was enough to put him off flying as a career. In California, he met my mother, a concert pianist. His parents had purchased a house in Echo Park (now a hip neighborhood in Los Angeles), near other Jewish progressives and artists who had settled there before the war. My mother’s parents also had recently moved to the “Red Hills” (so named for the area’s liberal reputation), and my parents were introduced through family members.
When he was to first meet my mother, my dad expected a dowdy piano teacher. Instead, as he later told us, two of her giggling nieces greeted him at the door and led him to a gorgeous woman playing the most beautiful Beethoven he had ever heard. They were married in April of 1948, after “no more than five dates,” just before Mom won the Hollywood Bowl Auditions of the Air, a national year-long radio competition. They began a back-and-forth life between the Yuba City farm where Dad grew up and the Los Angeles area where my grandfather started a textile business to keep the farm afloat–this was also the better location for my mother’s musical career. When my sister, April, and I were born, we lived primarily in Santa Monica with Mom; Dad insisted the schools were superior to those in the poor community of Yuba City. He still spent half of his time on the farm up north, and this arrangement meant our family was often apart. Because our budget was tight and toll calls were expensive, our letters and drawings became a family lifeline. Dad’s letters to us included pictures and elaborate hand-drawn puzzles.
He and Obata also kept in touch. After the war, they began to exchange holiday cards. Each of Obata’s was a hand-painted sumi-e ink image from nature: an egret, a rooster, two horses, a grizzled tree stump. My father made cards as well; his were linoleum block prints or “linocuts,” relief drawings carved into wood with a layer of linoleum on top. The images were often of our family–my mother at the piano, me as a toddler, my teenaged cousin. April, Mom, and I have always loved Dad’s block prints, and several hang in our family’s homes; I saw one of a cellist hanging in my son’s apartment recently.
The first time I saw the Obata painting in my mother’s house after my visit to the de Young, I examined it carefully. Years earlier, my sister and I had it reframed and covered with Plexiglas, but it was showing signs of decay. I decided I wanted to restore it, and Mom and April gave me the go-ahead.
Art restoration is tricky. I spent months trying to find someone who knew and understood traditional Japanese art. After e-mails and phone calls to art museum conservation departments, galleries, and art historians throughout California, I finally found the perfect restorer–Tomokatsu Kawazu, who turned out to be the man who had restored the Obata we saw in the de Young. My son wrapped the painting in clean beach towels and drove it four-hundred miles north to our Davis home, so that we would be able to bring the painting to Kawazu’s Alameda studio when he was ready for it.
Shortly before we brought the painting to him, Kawazu called to tell me that Obata’s granddaughter Mia Kodani–a friend of Kawazu’s who had also restored some of Obata’s art–was interested in seeing the painting and meeting us. On a hot August day, when Kawazu was ready for us, my husband and I left Davis with the painting in our car and drove to Kawazu’s studio in Alameda. Kawazu greeted us at the open door, smiling and bowing. We removed our shoes, added them to his and Mia’s near the door, and stepped inside the simple, light-filled studio. Mia shook our hands, as did Kawazu’s wife. They were clearly thrilled to see the painting when we unwrapped it.
Thus began the delicate process of cleaning, conserving, and reframing our painting. Kawazu painstakingly removed stains and mold colonies growing under the Plexiglas that had prevented air circulation. One of the most beautiful parts of the restoration was the construction of two delicate lattice cores upon which the cleaned painting rests. Joined by sliding dowels, the honeycomb lattices were so beautiful, I was sad to see them covered in paper. This detailed construction, along with the layering and drying, allow the painting to breathe and the wood to expand and contract.
Once Kawazu had completed the nearly year-long restoration process, he framed the painting with semi-glossy black wood, and the result was stunning. The tree, the storm, and the upheaval were now clear, and I was in awe. To celebrate the restoration, we hosted a party at Kawazu’s studio. My husband and I arranged a Thai buffet on a folding table in Kawazu’s small backyard; the food was delivered balanced on a baby carriage from a restaurant a few blocks away. In the studio’s parking area, Kawazu’s wife and young daughter hung intricate cut-outs of the Obata coat of arms, made of colored paper and pasted onto paper plates. I was beside myself with excitement as I waited to see my mother’s and sister’s reactions to the restored painting.
When Mom arrived, she smiled broadly as she met the Kawazus and walked with me to the front door of the studio. She removed her shoes to walk on the soft wood floors and stopped a few feet inside the door to stare at the painting hanging on the south wall. “Oh,” she said. “It’s so beautiful.” Mom stood quietly smiling, shaking her head back and forth, holding her arms and clicking her tongue. She was dry-eyed, but her face was flushed. I took her hand and led her closer, pointing out the golden silk I’d chosen for the narrow trim that borders the painting.
“I have missed it in my house,” she said. “I’m so glad it’s coming back.”
Later, she told me how the painting reminded her of the best of my father–the way he loved and interacted with the natural world; he was always more at ease in a natural setting than in a city. For years Mom has spoken of him with sadness. She cannot talk about him without regrets–how much of his life was spent restoring the farm after the flood, and how ill-equipped they were to deal with the challenges of marriage.
I sympathize with my mother’s sadness, but my relationship with my dad was very different from hers, and I do not think of him with regret. Since I was young, I have been unable to cover up distress or joy; I think Dad liked that. He used to travel fifty miles from the farm to the UC Davis campus at least once each quarter to attend classes with me, a ritual he continued even when I was more than one hundred miles away at graduate school in Berkeley. When I broke up with a college boyfriend, I drove to the farm and picked up pecans with Dad from under one of the few trees that survived the long-ago flood.
I appreciated how he trusted that nature and art could heal our ills. When I was fifteen, for example, I started wearing glasses. He suggested I also spend time staring out to sea or across the farm fields, at long and distant spaces to stretch and relax my eyes. Dad often used spider webs to stanch bleeding when he was away from a medicine chest, and he was thrilled when Gary Snyder, a fellow nature lover, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1975 for Turtle Island. He seemed especially pleased that Snyder, like himself, found solace in the Sutter Buttes near Yuba City.
At the painting’s unveiling, my sister, April, her husband and son, and my daughter arrived at Kawazu’s studio just after I showed Mom the painting. We greeted them, and introduced them to the Kawazus. Within minutes, April, too, was staring at the painting in admiration. Talking was unnecessary; in our silence, we seemed to be sharing a simple thought–the painting was magnificent, and Kawazu was a talented healer.
The first Obata family member to arrive was Mia, the artist’s granddaughter, who had felt like a friend since the day my husband and I brought the painting to Kawazu. Mia brought her mother, Yuri–Obata’s daughter. Yuri and my mother are close in age and height, a few inches above five feet tall.
Yuri faced my mother directly, nodding her head.
“Yes,” she said quietly. “That is the last painting Papa worked on before we had to leave for the camps. I haven’t seen it in more than sixty years.”
Kimi, the writer of Topaz Moon, was one of the last to arrive. With two of Obata’s grandchildren now present, her shy smile when she saw the painting seemed to seal the quiet joy of the day and the uniting of two families.
It was the painting that brought us all together: six women, meeting more than thirty years after the deaths of two men, all joined by this painting of a sequoia. My father would have been pleased to see its spirit unfurl for this small group, in a small studio in Alameda, across time.