My trip to Yosemite approaches, so I continue this series of columns on this iconic American national park and wilderness region and its place in our history and culture.
Today, a bit about two of the many artists who have been inspired by the place.
Basically, I just encourage you to go to Google images for both these guys and soak in their amazing images.
I’ve admired their work for years, and when I moved to the Monterey area I learned that they both had lived and done ocean photos and paintings at nearby Point Lobos. But I never figured out until now that they were friends. Here are some stories about them and Yosemite.
Almost contemporaries, photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) and woodblock/painter Chiura Obata (1885-1975) were born in different countries (US, Japan), and worked in different mediums. But for both of them, their first trips to Yosemite changed their lives and art, and they went back many times into old age.
Chiura Obata was a promising young artist from Japan in 1903 when he landed in California on a planned world study trip; he never left. His early prints of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake showed the unreported devastation in the Asian American neighborhoods. By 1927 he was the first faculty member in Japanese painting in the UC Berkeley Art Department. A faculty colleague invited him to spend the summer painting and fishing in Yosemite. He was moved and inspired, and came home with over 100 works.
Ansel Adams grew up in San Francisco. At age four he saw his house collapse in the SF earthquake and an aftershock broke his nose. A promising classical pianist and amateur photographer, he spent his college summers as caretaker at the Sierra Club headquarters in Yosemite Valley (1918-22) and hiked the high country. Over the next 40 years he returned to Yosemite often, as his international stature grew. Like John Muir, Adams felt the call of the wilderness when urban life and fame overwhelmed him. Carrying his 40 pound camera on his back he hiked off trail, up cliffs, and to high mountain lakes, taking memorable photos of the Sierras. Like Muir, he influenced a President Roosevelt, this time Franklin, to set aside wilderness, in this case, the roadless Kings Canyon..
Obata married a prominent Ikebana artist and the two of them founded the East-West Art Society to promote understanding and cooperation between American and Asian artists. He continued to teach at Berkeley, saying “I always teach my students beauty. No one should pass through four years of college without being given the knowledge of beauty and eyes with which to see it.” The day after Pearl Harbor, shots were fired into the Obata’s studio and gallery on Telegraph Avenue. He and his family were taken with 40,000 other Japanese Americans to internment camps in Utah. Obata started an art school in the camps and taught hundreds of kids and adults. Berkeley President Gordon Sproul saved and stored most of his art. He returned to the faculty after the war.
Adams was too old to serve in WWII but volunteered to use his camera for the war effort. The State Department ordered him to make inspiring pictures of nature scenes to improve troop morale. He did the assignment, but then asked to take pictures of the Japanese interment camps. He put together an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1944 called “Born Free and Equal.” Some called him a traitor.
Adams and Obata crossed paths many times. They first met in Yosemite in the late 20’s. Together the two young men hiked and painted and took pictures. Adams had just married Virginia Best, who had grown up in the valley with her artist father who painted Yosemite and ran a gallery there. Adams encouraged his father in law to sell Obata’s work to Yosemite visitors, helping to spread Obata’s fame.
Both Adams and Obata were good writers also. So you should Google their texts as well as their images. Like these words from Obata:
“When faced with such serene beauty,” he once said, “the soul and mind of man are lost, and the possibility of petty thought vanished…..Our mind must be as peaceful and tranquil as a calm, undisturbed lake. Let not a shadow be cast on it with the slightest thought of self-conceit or Egotism… Only thus can a genuine art, overflowing in deep praise and abiding inspiration, be produced….
In the evening, it gets very cold; the coyotes howl in the distance, in the mid sky the moon is arcing, all the trees are standing here and there, and it is very quiet. You can learn from the teachings within this quietness. . . . Some people teach by speeches, some by talking, but I think it is important that you are taught by silence.
. . . Immerse yourself in nature, listen to what nature tries to tell you in its quietness, so that you can learn and grow.”
Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter