Revisiting a Sorry Chapter in American History through Works in Wood

Revisiting a Sorry Chapter in American History through Works in Wood


Jichan, 2008, plywood, image transfers (photo by Dorothea Lange, USA War Relocation Authority, 1942)

School of Art + Design, Purchase College SUNY
Richard and Dolly Maass Gallery
Wendy Maruyama: E.O. 9066: A Search for Identity
Purchase, New York
January 12-February 6, 2009

Wendy Maruyama has been a studio furniture maker for more than 35 years, and heads the woodworking and furniture design program at San Diego State University in California, where she received her B.F.A. in 1975. Mention her name and what comes to mind are tables, cabinets and wall pieces noted for a play between curvilinear and rectilinear forms, a playful use of vivid color and surface treatments that include intense carving. In a shift of emphasis, for more than a decade, during which she has made several visits to Japan, Maruyama, a third-generation Japanese/American has been exploring her identity through her work, and in the past five years, she has focused on gender, ethnicity and heritage.

During the 2008 fall term Maruyama was artist in residence at the School of Art + Design, Purchase College, SUNY. Most of the dozen works in "E.O. 9066: A Search for Identity," were made during the residency and deal with the impact on her family history of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Executive Order #9066 authorized the evacuation from the coastal area stretching from California to Washington State, and the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans and resident aliens from Japan from 1942 to 1946. Using wall-mounted cabinets or reliquaries-formats consistent with her recent work-Maruyama has incorporated objects and imagery that evoke the injustice of that sorry chapter in American history, though she is too young to have experienced it directly. The Watchtower, a cabinet of pine, sitka spruce and fir, contains a photo transfer of a camp watchtower clandestinely taken by Toyo Miyatake, a Los Angeles portrait photographer interned at the Manzanar camp, as well as painted wood rice bowls. Other works I.D. and Jichan, of similar materials, have camp images from official government photographs by Dorothea Lange. Two works incorporate paper name tags that appear to be artifacts, but which Maruyama re-created using the historical records for the information. Despite their somber content, her works are not lacking in wit and irony. One piece, You're a Sap, Mr. Jap, incorporates a video of a Popeye cartoon from 1942 mocking the Japanese.

Observing this compelling show in the handsome college gallery during a special reception, January 29, it was interesting to hear the view of a student who considered herself a conceptual sculptor, who had studied with Maruyama during the residency and found her an amazing teacher, especially because she'd come from a background of supreme mastery of wood craft.

Further illuminating the subject matter was a slide-lecture by guest speaker Mira Nakashima, daughter of the renowned furniture maker George Nakashima. Mira had been a baby when her family was sent to a relocation center in Minidoka, Idaho. Her parents had not talked about the experience, but she'd always felt "a cloud hanging over her," and has been delving into this period for a book on her father. In the camp, from which the family was released early, Nakashima learned woodworking and gathered a shrub called bitterbrush, which he took with him from the camp and from which he fashioned small items. The gist of his daughter's talk was that her father's development into a supreme furniture maker was an example of hardship and deprivation being a spur to artistic creativity.

It was a thought-provoking afternoon and evening, attended by luminaries of the furniture field such as Tommy Simpson, Judy Kensley McKie, James Schriber and others. Dennis Fitzgerald, the soft-spoken head of the wood program at Purchase, had it right when he said in his introduction to the lecture, that it was good for the students to revisit, or probably learn in new detail-with Maruyama's show and Nakashima's lecture-a painful episode in American history, particularly in light of our current quandary over Guantanamo. Indeed, not just good for the students but for the rest of us as well.