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"Witness to Wartime"

"The Painted Diary of Takuichi Fujii"

“High School Girl,” by Takuichi Fujii, oil on canvas, Wing Luke Museum collection, part of "Witness to Wartime: The Painted Diary of Takuichi Fujii" exhibit at Washington State History Museum. Photo credit: Alec Clayton

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Washington State History Museum offers a rare opportunity to see the visual diary, drawings and watercolor paintings of a Japanese-American held in the relocation center in Puyallup and the internment camp at Minidoka, Idaho.

Takuichi Fujii was a small businessman and well-known local artist in Seattle at the beginning of World War II. Swept up along with his wife and two daughters, as was almost every Japanese-American on the West Coast, he was confined in the relocation center in Puyallup from May to August 1942, and then to Minidoka, where he and his family were held until October 1945. A prolific artist, Fujii documented the scenes and the life at both camps in a personal diary and in watercolors and ink drawings. About 70 artworks from this time period and including later works from when he lived in Chicago after the war, are on display in two galleries at WSHM. The galleries are small, and the paintings can be seen in a short visit, but visitors should linger long and attentively over each work because they illustrate a life lived during one of the most horrendous events in American history, and because Fujii was an excellent artist whose works demand attention.

In the smaller of the two galleries we are given an overview glimpse into his art before and after his wartime experiences. The earlier works are realistic and simplified. In the later years, he moved into more abstract work with his final paintings being strong black-and-white abstract paintings in a style similar to that of Franz Kline.

The larger of the two galleries is dedicated to his wartime art, which was unknown until they were rediscovered after his death by his grandson, Sandy Kita. These drawings and paintings have never been shown publicly.

The diary he began in the relocation camp at Puyallup is displayed in a closed case, but all of the nearly 400 pages can be viewed digitally.

Work done before the war include self-portraits, pictures of downtown Seattle. There is a portrait of his daughter titled "High School Girl" (1934-35) that shows a strong influence of such painters as Cezanne and Braque and other forerunners of cubism. The Seattle scenes and a painting of the Rock Island Dam on the Columbia River. There are paintings from the beginning of the war showing American citizens of Japanese descent reading the signs tacked to light poles and fences announcing that they must report to the relocation center, essentially that your life, your home and your business are over.

The pictures from Puyallup and Minidoka are stark and simple. More of them picture the camp buildings and the desert than the people. There are pictures of the barracks and the latrines, the crowded train that took them to Minidoka, and an incident where they saw a rattlesnake in the desert.

"The exhibition tells the story of Fujii's individual will to persist, both as an artist and a citizen, and provides a rare glimpse into exactly what that experience was like," said the museum's director of audience engagement, Mary Mikel Stump, who summed up the exhibition saying it is all about Fujii's individual experience. This critic would add that it is also about the talent and dedication of an artist whose work parallels trends in art history from the 1920s and ‘30s through the 1950s.

"Witness to Wartime: The Painted Diary of Takuichi Fujii," 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., third Thursday, through Jan. 1, $5-$12, Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 888.238.4373

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