Artist paints the colors of an internment camp.
By Rebecca Villaneda,
Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz’s exhibit "Camp Days 1942-1945" was on display at the Palos Verdes Art Center in Rancho Palos Verdes which ended March 8, 2009.
The former Peninsula resident’s paintings, which are for sale, illustrate her 3 years in the World War II concentration camp in Poston, Ariz.
The woman behind the brush strokes of Camp Days 1942-1945 tells her life story like every detail was meant to be.
Borrowing from a favorite saying of her father’s — "Out of every bad comes some good, & out of every good comes some bad" — she has turned any negative in her life to positive & wants to share it with the world.
"Those 3 1/2 years in camp changed my entire life," Chizuko said. "I think the good that came out of the feelings of loneliness & despair, & wanting my mom alive & [life] in camp … I think what really worked for me is I started getting more resilient & I started to get more outgoing, because I had to force myself."
Chizuko’s life in camp followed shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when she was 9. Her family lived in Orange, Calif., at the time & her father, a Japanese-born immigrant, owned a nursery.
Her mother died from childbirth complications after having Chizuko. Having lived with her aunt, then her oldest sister for a few years each, moving again, this time to the camp, wasn’t a big deal for the "fearful, withdrawn & non-social kid."
Noticing everyone in the camp looked similar, her sister, Lil, explained to her the reasons why she & her family were relocated — a moment that she illustrates in a painting. "I was just so depressed, because I realized then that I was a Jap. That I was the enemy & it was a real terrible feeling," she said. "I always thought I could grow up one day or wake up one day & be blue-eyed & blond. Nothing was impossible in my mind."
"And I always thought my mother would come back to life, because my sister said if I prayed hard enough, my prayers would come true. So I knew before camp that anything was possible, but in camp I realized that was not right....That sort of colored my life," she added.
Once "everything sort of loosened up," life behind the barbed wire was safe & people began to take on roles to make do. "The Japanese-Americans started farming the land & they dug all the ditches to bring the water from the Colorado River to the camp," Chizuko said. "They did start farming outside the camp, where people would get passes to work the farm for produce for inside the camp."
Some were paid $12 a month, while other "inmates" made $19, she said, depending on their job. As a fireman, her brother made $16.
"We built a huge society within the camp," she said. "My dad was active....He thought we needed more vegetables & less canned things. Finally, after a year or two, they started sending sacks of rice in, instead of just flour."
Americans volunteered as doctors & teachers, & lived in white houses in the camp, versus the barracks Chizuko & her family called home. Aside from school, & her chores, like washing clothes, Chizuko found solace at the camp’s only library.
"I had a very confined, limited life. I would go to the library, which was half a barrack & about a mile away," she said. "I spent many, many hours in the library. I checked out the same books over & over. It just afforded me a place to go when I couldn’t find anybody."
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in 1945, Chizuko’s father gathered the family to mourn his life. She called it the second saddest event while in camp; the first was losing her Uncle Johnny to the war.
"My dad was raised in the Meiji era in Japan...And the attitude people learned was that no matter what your station in life, you do the very best you can & you never hurt anyone else & you never hurt yourself & you make your living honestly," she said. "And always respect your elders & the leaders. He knew that Roosevelt didn’t like [the] Japanese & was instrumental to sending us to the concentration camps, but no matter who your leader is, he’s doing the best he can."
Chizuko admired her father. He came to the United States in 1902. Although he came from a well-to-do family in Japan, he set out to find "his fortune" in San Francisco.
Along with other family members, he ran the Tamura Hotel, & helped Japanese immigrants find jobs & homes. It was very successful until the 1906 earthquake destroyed it. "His fortune just went up & down, up & down, up & down," she said. "And just when he was starting over again, after the depression, he started his nursery in about 1939-40, & it was doing fine, then the war broke out....He never did make it [back] to Japan."
Chizuko’s father became a United States citizen in 1952, when Asians could become naturalized citizens. "He really considered himself an American," she said.
From Arizona to California
Integrating back into life after the camp was difficult for Chizuko. To move out of the camp, the family had to have a sponsor & a place to live. Her oldest brother moved them to a hostel in Los Angeles, which she compared to living back in a barrack. But it was home, until her father was offered work tending the properties of a landowner, who also gave the family a chicken coop to live in.
Eventually her father owned a nursery once again, the family got back on its feet & Chizuko was able to go to college at Long Beach State University & Dominguez Hills University, where she earned both a BFA & an MFA, respectively.
Remembering her days in Poston was not a common topic of conversation as people who lived through it wanted to forget it. "It was a shameful thing, because we were made to feel like 2nd-class citizens or like we did something wrong. And we really didn’t do anything wrong," she said.
The first time she began to talk about camp freely followed a Poston camp reunion. Chizuko was talking to colleagues & couldn’t stop crying. "I think a lot of people have these feelings that they don’t know what to do with," she said. Chizuko chose to paint to get through her memories, although she admits it was painful to get them on canvas. "I just wanted [people] to know that everybody can become very resilient in bad times & not succumb to the things that are happening to them," Chizuko said.
Her daughter, Meigan Everts, who in high school first began to hear about her mother’s past, said the art has been cathartic. "She’s a very caring person, & she really feels a lot of things & this is a way for her to express some of those feelings. And I think it’s really neat that she’s been able to do that," Everts said. "It’s was not a great experience & it was a horrible thing that happened in the United States history, but it’s something that happened. You can’t change the past & you have to work through it."
Said Chizuko, "I started to change completely by saying, ‘I’m going to be a really great American & I’m leaving this junk behind me,’ & I was able to do that."
Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz, a former Palos Verdes High School art teacher.