Artist Michi Takemoto Brings History to Her Art
By Jon Lewis
A Brush with History
Story and Photos by Jon Lewis
MICHI TAKEMOTO cannot speak from personal knowledge of the trauma associated with life in a Japanese internment camp; she was a 7-month-old infant when World War II ended and her family was allowed to leave Camp Topaz in Utah. Her parents, now deceased, did not speak about that frightening and tragic period in their lives.
Now, as a retired psychotherapist, Takemoto is letting her art bring the camp experience to life. Her goal now is to have her internment camp-inspired oil paintings viewed by as many people as possible.
“This is a part of our history. This is what can happen when people have fear and anger,” she says. “People come to see my paintings and they say ‘this didn’t really happen, did it?’ It’s just not taught.”
With no personal memories to rely on and few, if any, anecdotes from her parents to guide her, Takemoto used black-and-white photographs from the National Archive to inspire her paintings. (Cameras were considered contraband in the camps, so there are no snapshots tucked away in an album.)
The idea for the internment camp series came from Joan Pechanec, a fellow retired therapist and Takemoto’s longtime art partner. The two met more than 25 years ago while both had practices in Redding and they almost instantly agreed to reserve each Friday for making art, “and boy, did we look forward to that.”
Despite her years as an artist (mostly working in encaustics, cold wax and collage), Takemoto says she only began painting with oils three years ago. At first, she was reluctant to pick up the brush because she was still stung by the harsh criticism of her early work by one of her University of Illinois art teachers. When her friend, Peggy Elwood, encouraged her to take an oils class, Takemoto came to a realization: “I was 70 years old and figured what the heck.”
“You just love it so much you have to keep going. There is so much to learn and so many surprises,” she says of oil painting. “You have a result in mind but getting there is such a process. You learn so much that it never gets boring.”
Takemoto says there is so much compassion involved in her work as a therapist that “it somehow comes out in my work … it comes from my heart.”
That heart connection was evident when Takemoto began her 17-piece internment camp series. “They just came so much, it felt like it was one a week—just paint, paint, paint. I did not know where it would lead me but I had to keep going.” There were also times when reviewing the internment camp photos brought on depression and Takemoto had to step away and regroup.
The forced incarceration of Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants started in February 1942, two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the Army to designate Military Areas and to remove “any and all persons” from those areas.
While a particular group was not identified, some 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry (including 77,000 U.S. citizens) were given mere days to settle their affairs before they were transported, under guard, from their West Coast home to temporary assembly centers and ultimately forced into one of 10 camps.
Takemoto’s parents and her 2-year-old brother, William, left their Sacramento home and were sent to the camp in Tule Lake and then to Camp Topaz near Salt Lake City, where Takemoto was born.
After the war, the family settled in Chicago, where Takemoto grew up and earned a bachelor’s degree in design and a master’s in social work. She met and married her husband, Chris, and they moved to Sacramento in 1977. Chris Takemoto’s new job with an advertising firm brought them to Redding a year later. Takemoto became a licensed therapist and worked with Shasta County Mental Health and Northern Valley Catholic Social Service before establishing a private practice that she operated for 30 years.
Takemoto’s internment camp series has been the focus of four exhibitions. The series was first exhibited at Shelly Shively’s O Street Gallery in Redding in October 2015. The United Methodist Church in Redding, which helps organize an annual pilgrimage to the Tule Lake camp, hosted an exhibit in July 2016. In February 2017, the series was part of an exhibit at the Manzanar camp in Inyo County to mark the 75th anniversary of Roosevelt’s executive order. Most recently, Takemoto was part of a joint exhibition with Pechanec at the Siskiyou Arts Museum in Dunsmuir.
“They are to be displayed wherever I can do so to keep the memory of that dark history in America,” Takemoto says, “and to remind people how fear can turn to anger so quickly and then to hatred toward many innocent people.” •