Art and memories of internment camp detainees |

Art and memories of internment camp detainees

In the summer of 1942, under authority of Executive Order 9066, more than 110,000 United States citizens of Japanese descent living on the West Coast were ordered to pack up their essential belongings and leave their homes.

Japan had just attacked Pearl Harbor and in one of its darkest chapters in the country’s history, the U.S. reacted by rounding up innocent families claming they posed a security risk.

The families were sent to internment camps throughout the Intermountain West and the mid-West.

One of those camps was the Topaz War Relocation Center in Delta and was home to 11,000 detainees, said Jane Beckwith of the Topaz Museum Board.

"It had a cattle ranch, a pig farm and a chicken-egg production center," she said. "The government had wanted the camps to be self-sufficient."

Although Topaz is a National Historic Landmark, Beckwith and the board have been raising funds to build an official museum and visitor center.

"We have been working to make Topaz a destination where people can bring their families to learn about the camp and the people who lived here," she said.

Beckwith will bring bits of Topaz history to the Park City Museum on Tuesday, March 15, during a lecture that will highlight the current exhibit "Our Lives, Our Stories: America’s Greatest Generation," which will be on display until March 16.

"They asked me to talk about the Japanese-American lives in Topaz and how they were able to withstand the terror and humiliation," she said. "I am bringing some of the charcoal, watercolor, oils and the shell jewelry and other arts and crafts that were created in the camp after Chiura Obata opened art classes."

Obata, Beckwith said, was a Japanese-American wood-cut artist who was an illustrator for various newspapers. He is also known for his sketches of Yosemite National Park, during which he produced more than 100 paintings.

"Chi started art school in the Tanforan, an assembly center in San Bruno, Calif.," Beckwith said. "It was originally a horse racing track, and the relocated Japanese-American detainees lived in the horse stalls before they were transferred to Topaz.

"Chi believed in the healing power of beauty," she said. "He knew if he could get the people to look at their world and find the beauty in it, instead of the disgusting smells of the horse stalls, then they would have a chance to be uplifted for a short time."

Obata opened the art school shortly after arriving in Topaz.

"He offered 95 classes that were full of students ages six to 70, and covered 23 subjects, including figure drawing, architectural drawing, anatomy and commercial art and other crafts," she said.

Art was a way for the internees to look beyond the day-to-day workings of the camp, she said.

"In addition to citizenship and English classes, there were jobs offered throughout the camp," Beckwith said. "If you were a ditch-digger, you made $12-$14 a month. A school teacher would make $16 and a doctor would make $19."

Off-site companies could hire the internees as well.

"My dad hired a man to work in his newspaper office," Beckwith remembered.

"Since the man made more money than the people hired for jobs in the camp, Topaz charged him rent, even though he wasn’t allowed to live off the campsite."

Beckwith, a lifelong resident of Delta, said her interest in Topaz peaked while teaching a journalism class at the local high school.

"No one was doing a lot of the preservation or the investigation of the history of Topaz," she said. "So I asked my class to research the people in Delta who had some connection with the camp."

The students began their inquiries in the early 1980s, so there were some people still living in the city who helped build the camp, Beckwith said.

"From there, I met a lot of people who were from the Japanese-American community in Salt Lake," she said. "I was referred to people in San Francisco who were incarcerated in the camp."

As news about Beckwith’s research spread, people donated artifacts and artwork to the cause.

"They also told us their stories," she said. "They are all so fascinating. You can’t help but get hooked on them."

"Remembering Topaz," a lecture by Jane Beckwith of the Topaz Museum in Delta, will feature some of the art, artifacts and stories from the camp. The event, which will be held Tuesday, March 15, at 4 p.m., is free to Museum members. Admission is included in the cost of admission for non-members. Due to limited seating, an RSVP is required. Call 649-7457 or email

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