Sansei (second-generation) Japanese American Artist, Mine Okubo, is most famous for her drawings depicting life in America’s internment camps during WWII.
Born in Riverside, California on June 12, 1912, Mine was the daughter of Japanese-born parents who arrived in the United States in 1904 to represent Japan at the St. Louis Exposition of Arts and Crafts. Her father was a scholar and her mother was a calligrapher who had graduated from the Tokyo Art Institute. A busy housewife, Mine’s mother did not have time to practice her art, but she earnestly encouraged her daughter to pursue her interest in art.
Mine attended the University of California, Berkley on a scholarship and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art in 1935. After obtaining her undergraduate degree, she continued her education at Berkeley earning a Master of Arts degree in Art and Anthropology the following year. She was a hard worker and held a series of odd jobs while simultaneously pursuing her education; including that of a seamstress, maid, farm laborer, and tutor.
In 1938, Mine received the Bertha Taussig Traveling Art Fellowship which enabled her to travel, study, and paint in Europe for a two-year period. She traveled to Paris to study under the tutelage of artist Fernand Léger, but when war broke out in Europe in September of 1939, just six months shy of the conclusion of her fellowship, Mine was forced to return to the United States.
After returning to the United States, she worked with the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project where she produced a number of murals. She also curated two exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which showcased the artwork that she produced while studying in Europe.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in 1942, in retaliation for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Mine and her family were forced to vacate their home and were separated for relocation. Mine and her brother were sent to the Tanforan Relocation Center, a former racetrack, in San Bruno, California. They shared a 20’ x 9’ horse stall that smelled of manure, and they were forced to sleep on sacks made of hay. They were later transferred to the Topaz Internment Camp in Utah.
The living conditions at Topaz were arduous, but Mine continued to pursue her art. Along with Berkeley art professor, Chiura Obata, who was also detained, Mine helped establish the Tanforan Art School and later the Topaz Art School. At both schools, she taught art to children, adults, and senior citizens. She also worked as an illustrator for the Topaz Times, the mimeographed newspaper published daily at the Topaz Internment Camp from September 17, 1942 until March 30, 1945. A literary magazine called Trek was also produced at Topaz and Mine was responsible for providing the magazine’s cover design.
In 1944, Fortune magazine approached Mine and asked her to travel to New York City to work as one of their illustrators. She accepted their offer and was allowed to leave the internment camp to take up residence in New York City. At the time, certain Japanese and Japanese American internees were permitted to leave the camps early to pursue work, as long as they did not return to the West Coast. Mine’s first assignment for Fortune was to provide the illustration for an article they were writing on Japan.
While Mine was interned, she produced over 2,000 drawings in charcoal, watercolor, pen, and ink, depicting her everyday experiences. In 1946, after the war had ended, she published 206 of these drawings in a book entitled, Citizen 13660. The title of the book refers to the number that was assigned to her by the U.S. government during her internment. In 1984, Citizen 13660 received the American Book Award. She continued to work as a commercial and free-lance artist until 1951, after which she became a full-time painter. She also worked as an art lecturer at the University of California, Berkley from 1951-1952.
In 1981, when the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was created, Mine testified before the committee. She never married and continued painting until her death in 2001. When asked why she chose to remain single, she responded that she did not want to spend her life washing a man’s socks. (1)
(1) Tatsuya Sudo, Shuka, No. 12 (1999).