Mr. Obata’s Sky
The week in mid-March when I was carded at Whole Foods for admission to their seniors-only shopping hour was the same week that Japanese-American artist Chiura Obata’s Evening Glow at Mono Lake was the featured painting on my engagement calendar. That’s the planner I use to organize and track my weekly writing work. Revisions go in there; drafting new essays; research for upcoming book projects; deadlines for sending work to my agent or critique partners. That same week, I slapped a pale blue Post-it note onto the image of Mr. Obata’s painting.
There’s one word on that note, scribbled in pencil: Try. I still haven’t. More than a month later, and well into New Mexico’s stay-at-home order, I still haven’t tried. It was a note to myself to paint my own watercolor inspired by Mr. Obata’s luscious blues and greens, his spiky pine trees, and his orange and indigo sky. I was even certain that I knew how to re-create that fuzzy blue back-run jutting from his highest peak. Nothing. It’s still only a word on a Post-it.
There’s also a related item on my to-do list—longer than usual because technically we have extra time just now—that reads “tidy art table and use.” Some part of me must believe that doing my own art is important right now, if these notes are any evidence. I think hard about Mr. Obata. Was the Utah internment camp where he was forced to live for a year during World War II anything like living under a stay-at-home order? No, of course it was worse, and yet he convinced the camp leadership to let him create an art school there, to help others. He made art essential, during his own impossible time. I can’t even reach for a paintbrush.
But then I did, after writing this, and remembering that orange and indigo sky.
Susan Wider’s debut middle-grade biography of German-Jewish gouache artist Charlotte Salomon is due out from Norton Young Readers in 2021. Her work has also appeared in Orion, Wild Hope, and Bird Watchers Digest, among others.
Chiura Obata (1885-1975) was an art instructor at the University of California, Berkeley when he entered the Japanese internment camp. Evening Glow at Mono Lake, from Mono Hills was created in 1920. It is a color woodcut on paper held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.