Thirty-five works by Chiura Obata, one of the most important Japanese-American artists of the 20th century, are now part of the permanent collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) at the University of Utah, thanks to a generous donation from the Obata Estate.
âWe are very grateful to the Obata family for recognizing the Utahns’ deep feelings for this incredible artist and for entrusting these wonderful objects to UMFA,â said Gretchen Dietrich, Executive Director of UMFA. “We are honored to be able to take care of it so that the Utahns can enjoy it for generations to come.”
âWe are delighted that art lovers have the opportunity to appreciate and study these works of our grandfather,â said Kimi Hill of the Obata family. “Because so many of these works of art were created in Utah, we hope people will be inspired to learn the history of wartime incarceration and visit the Delta Camp site as well as the Topaz museum. Obata has never denied the inspiration he found in nature and his faith in the power of creativity. The solace Obata found in the beauty of Utah’s desert landscape was profound. We appreciate the UMFA for wanting to share its vision with the people of Utah.
Obata was an influential artist and teacher not only for the beauty, variety, and quality of his work, but also for his fascinating history as an American immigrant. He was a esteemed art professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a leading figure in the California art scene, when World War II and a shameful chapter in American xenophobia were cut short. In 1942, Obata and his family were wrongfully incarcerated, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans, at the Topaz Relocation Center in Delta, Utah. He continued to produce creative works throughout his eight months in the Utah desert and even ran an art school, where he and other artists provided arts education.
The donation to the UMFA collection consists of drawings and watercolors that Obata created from 1934 to 1943, many of which he made to record his incarceration in Topaz. Obata’s depictions of life as an internee in Utah, along with watercolors, drawings and prints of iconic California flowers, animals and landscapes, deeply touched local audiences in 2018 , when a major retrospective, Chiura Obata: An American Modern, traveled to UMFA. His work also featured prominently in When Words Weren’t Enough: Works on Paper from Topaz, 1942-1945, the 2015 inaugural exhibition for the Topaz Museum in Delta.
Luke Kelly, Associate Curator of UMFA Collections, highlighted the artist’s skillful interplay between Japanese and Euro-American traditions and aesthetics.
“His brush makes the quietest, darkest, most attractive places,” he said.
Dietrich and Senior Curator Whitney Tassie have worked with the Obata family since 2017 to incorporate Obata’s work into the collection.
In addition to the thirty-five works donated by the estate, the Museum also purchased three additional works. These join two designs of the U campus that the Obata Estate donated in 2018 – designs Obata made after speaking at the U, on a rare occasion when he and his wife were allowed to briefly leave. Topaz.
Visitors to UMFA can expect to see Obata’s work in US and regional art galleries in the fall of 2022, after a brief evaluation period. Along with the works of JT Harwood, Edmonia Lewis, Maria Martinez, and Thomas Moran, Obata’s works will contribute to a more precise understanding of the breadth of American art history.
Obata’s work can be found in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Smithsonian, and other institutions.