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Chiura Obata Biography

Born in the Okayama prefecture of Japan, Chiura Obata was adopted by his uncle, an artist. As a child he was trained in ink painting from a local Japanese master artist, and at 14 he was apprenticed to the painter Murata Tanryo in Tokyo. He also studied with Kogyo Terasaki and Goho Hasimoto.

In 1903, Obata moved to San Francisco.  During the 1906 earthquake and fire he made many sketches of the city in ruins. From 1912-1927, he worked as an illustrator for The New World and The Japanese American, two of the city’s Japanese newspapers. He also did work as a commercial designer. Obata helped establish the East West Art Society in San Francisco in 1921, which sought to promote cross-cultural understanding through art. This goal was reflected in his embrace of the Nihonga style, which fused traditional Japanese sumi-e ink painting with the conventions of western naturalism.

He spent much of the 1920s painting landscapes throughout California, and among his favorite subjects were mountain landscapes. In 1927, he visited Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, creating over a hundred paintings and sketches of the high country. Obata stayed in the USA until the death of his father in 1928.

Between 1928 and 1932, he worked in Tokyo as a painter and transformed his California landscape watercolors and sketches into a portfolio of 35 woodblock prints titled World Landscape Series – America, perhaps his most famous work. Obata's landscapes reveal his intensely personal and poetic vision of "Great Nature”, a vision grounded in an underlying Zen philosophy of selflessness that accepts the insignificance of human affairs in relation to the timeless forces of nature.

In 1932 Obata Chiura returned to the U.S., and began work as an art instructor at the University of California, Berkeley.

In April, 1942, Obata Chiura and his wife Haruko were among the more than 100,000 Japanese Americans who were moved from their homes along the West coast into ten relocation camps. He was first sent to Tanforan. In September, 1942, he was moved to the Topaz, Utah, internment camp. During his internment in different camps, the artist made about hundred sketches and paintings until his release in 1945. The book, Topaz Moon, edited by his granddaughter Kimi Kodani Hill, is a documentation of his detention period and the works of art that he created during this time. While confined at Topaz, he organized and acted as Director for the Topaz Art School for the 8,000 Japanese Americans in the camp. The school had 16 artist instructors who taught 23 subjects to over 600 students. Obata’s artwork from this time serves as a visual diary of the internees' daily life, and also as a powerful and lasting testament to the perseverance of the human spirit when confronted by prejudice.

In 1943, he was released from Topaz, and moved with his family to St. Louis, where he found work with a commercial art company. When the military exclusion ban was lifted in 1945, he was reinstated to his position at the University of California, where he stayed until his retirement in 1954. Obata was a popular professor, and played a pivotal role in introducing Japanese art techniques and aesthetics that became one of the distinctive characteristics of the California Watercolor School.

After his retirement he continued to paint, sketch and travel through the American countryside. In 1965 he received an order from the Japanese Emperor for promoting cultural exchange between the United States and Japan.

Chiura Obata died in Berkeley, California at the age of 90.

He exhibited at the Oakland Museum, Crocker Museum, University of Redlands, California Art Club, California Watercolor Society, University of Southern California, Santa Barbara Museum, and the San Diego Fine Art Gallery (now the San Diego Museum of Art).

Sources: AskART;; Amy Reigle Stephens, The New Wave - Twentieth Century Japanese Prints from the Robert O. Muller Collection; Kimi Kodani Hill, Topaz Moon - Chiura Obata's Art of the Internment; Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940