Artist and San Diego State University professor Wendy Maruyama opens a solo show this week examining Executive Order 9066, which was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II and resulted in the relocation of thousands of Japanese Americans to internment camps.
Maruyama's The Tag Project / Executive Order 9066
opens at the University Art Gallery at SDSU from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10. CityBeat intern Melanie Ehrenkranz sat down with Maruyama and found out more about the project:
Melanie Ehrenkranz: Why do you think that this is a vague part of history for many Americans?
Wendy Maruyama: It’s amazing how few people know about this. I remember when I was in high school myself, this was not talked about during history classes. They talked about the Holocaust, but they didn’t talk about the internment camps. My guess would be if I didn’t get that information, a lot of people probably didn’t either. I thought there was some relevance about this project in regards to contemporary issues, like the Arizona immigration laws. And for the Muslim-Americans 9/11 was sort of like our Pearl Harbor. I think the subject is very relevant, and there’s always the fear that the same thing could happen again. It could.
What impact do you hope this exhibit has on the community and the people that attend it?
I’m hoping that they would enjoy seeing the work. It’s sort of a record, a way of depicting something that happened in the past. I think I take my cues from a lot of the African-American artists who have spoken about their American history and slavery and the upward climb they’ve had to claim their rights as American citizens. So, I would love to see the Japanese-American community see how art can reflect their past, people who are not familiar with the arts. I think the Japanese-American community is not as involved in the arts. They want their children to become doctors and lawyers, and art is kind of an unknown and unpopular subject to pursue in school, and it’s my hope that they can see, oh, this is how you can allow some emotional response to a historical event by looking at this art work. It’s interesting to look at and people can interpret it in different ways.
I saw that you talked to internees to help you with the project. What was your most memorable experience being able to talk to them?
It’s very wonderful for them to tell their stories while we were working on the tags. They would talk about different aspects of their lives when they were in camp. And what was really nice was the table we were working at was multi-generational. There were people who were in their early 20s, there were people who were 90, and they were all telling stories. Some of the younger people had grandparents that were in the camp, or great-grandparents who were in the camp. People sitting around and telling stories.
I know this was one of your first community projects. What was the most rewarding aspect of being able to work with so many people, as opposed to working alone?
I felt like I regained some new friends in the Japanese-American community. I didn’t know very many Japanese-Americans except for family members. This whole experience has kind of brought me back into that community. I have a greater appreciation for the family culture of the Japanese-Americans. It’s just a whole new community of people that I’ve never been involved with before and it’s like finding a lost family member, it’s just tons of them. My grandparents didn’t speak English very well, and so they didn’t talk about their experiences very much, and so reconnecting with the remaining survivors of the internment camps kind of gave me a glimpse into that world being evacuated and taken away from their homes. It gave me a better idea of what they were going through at that time.
There were so many donations and grants given to this project. Were you surprised by this feedback?
Very surprised. It kind of goes back to the community issue. Word just got around and they were saying, How are you going to pay for the tags? And I said I don’t know! Those tags were going to cost, like, $8,000 just for the paper tags, plus the many man hours of stamping and numbering. But I shared with people the meditative effect that it had to be writing these peoples names and thinking about what they must have been going through, how many people were in certain families. They wanted to help, and then pretty soon they put me in touch with different organizations, and it just sort of grew, and then the Japanese-American Historical Society said, you know, there are a number of grants offered for projects like yours, why don’t you try and apply for a grant. And so, we did. So that was kind of a benefit to be introduced to another source, another resource. And then there were many internees that wanted to give me money to help pay for postage and rubber stamps and pens. People donated pens and rubber bands and it really just was wonderful.
It seemed like this project impacted not only the Japanese-American community, but also a wide variety of individuals.
Yes it did, it was very motivational. We had an event at the Buddhist Temple, and there were people from all different cultural backgrounds helping with the Tag Project. I also went to the San Diego High School International Program to a history class where we did a project. I also went to Tennessee. It was really important for me to bring the Tag Project to the South, where probably very few people knew about the Internment Camp. This show will travel, and it will also go to Arkansas, and that was important to me also, not only because it’s in the south, but there were two internment camps in Arkansas. There’s some relevance to that location.
For people who don’t know a lot about this piece of history, what do you think is most important for them to take from your exhibit?
I think the common response to the work is just the sheer numbers of people that were incarcerated. The volume of these paper tags is very light and fluttery, but at the same time, the mass is very dense and heavy, literally. It’s like a weight that has to be carried by our history and the remembrance of all these people. The tags kind of look like figures, really tall, hovering figures, and they sort of rustle when people walk by. There’s a spiritual quality of the work. They make a funny rustling noise that happens when you walk by the tags. You know what might be interesting, if you do go to the opening, maybe observing the response of some of the people who are at the opening. Maybe even talking to some of the older Japanese Americans. The youngest person that would be in the camps would be 70. They were babies when they were in the camps. Some people were born in the camps.
Why do you think it’s important for people to come and see this?
The show itself has different components to it, not only is it the Tag Project, it is also the objects you saw on the wall, photographs that are taken from the government archives. The person whose work really moved me about the Internment Camps was the photographer named Dorothea Lange. She did a lot of photographs about the Depression, the Dust Bowl… She was hired by the government agency to record the internment of the Japanese-Americans. The photographs are so passionate and emotional. It captured the look of anxiety and uncertainty on everybody’s faces before they were shipped out of California. She really empathized with the people in the photographs. Whereas Ansel Adams was also hired by the government, but he depicted the camp as being beautiful and rustic. I think he romanticized that area. A lot of portrait pictures, the people were smiling, like they were happy to be there. It’s a different perspective, between Dorothea and Ansel Adams.
The exhibit seems like you’re giving a voice to people that maybe aren’t able to share their stories.
I’m kind of hoping that people would, after seeing the show, maybe they would do more investigation on their own about this event, but also maybe looking into their own historical background, and if they’re a young artist they can look within their own past for inspiration for their work. Sometimes I wish I had done that when I was younger, and I would’ve been able to come full circle with this experience. I guess it comes with maturity maybe, now that I’m 60 it’s time for me to deal with it. Better than never. It makes me wishful because I wish I had been more assertive about asking my grandparents questions about their history, you know, what it was like to come over from Japan and start a new life, and how hard was it from them, they didn’t talk bout that.
I had a lighter question for you… I read that you dunk the tags in tea and coffee before you hang them. Is there a certain type of tea or coffee you use?
The cheapest coffee ever I can get! The big one-gallon can! I even recycled the grounds and used them more than once. I just wanted to get that aged quality, and I like the smell of coffee.