Living as we do in the land of earthquakes and fires, I’d occasionally drill Akemi on what to do in an emergency. “If we have to get out of the house quickly, just leave; don’t stop for anything,” I’d say. But if we have even a few minutes to gather some belongings, we divvied up the priorities: she’d grab her violin first, and I’d take my grandfather’s box and his watercolor of their barracks in Heart Mountain.
From 1942 to the end of World War II, my mother and her parents lived behind barbed wire in a desolate area outside of Cody, Wyoming. At some point, my grandfather, Ayatoshi Kurose, got his hands on some art supplies – Sears catalogue, perhaps – and captured this early-morning scene with Heart Mountain in the backdrop.
Among the more than 10,000 other Japanese Americans in the Heart Mountain camp whom my mother knew then is my “Uncle Norm.” Norman Y. Mineta, former congressman and secretary of Transportation, was among the hundreds of former internees who returned to their camp site this weekend for the opening of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center. Now that there’s “something” there, I’d be interested in visiting this museum (nothing yet identifies the site of the camp where my father and his family were interned in Poston, Arizona). I bet I could stand where my grandfather stood when he worked on this painting.
Visitors to my home have said this painting belongs in a museum. It does, but it’s not going anywhere, not at least if I have anything to do about it. It is one of the few family belongings which survived their camp days. More meaningful than a photo, it allows us a glimpse into his artistic skills, his perspective, his take on camp life.
Having read some Wallace Stegner this summer, I see my grandfather’s watercolor as an entrance into the discussion fray of whether the West is a geography of hope, a geography of despair, or possibly, both. I’ve always considered this painting to be beautiful, despite its somber colors. I guess I’ve always looked upon it as evidence of the Issei capability to see beauty where there was starkness: hope overcoming despair.
My grandfather probably would be chagrined, too modest to think that something he did for his own enjoyment would have taken on such significance to a subsequent generation. But isn’t that the nature of legacy?