Ishi Ishii: 31 Years of Freedom, August 29, 1911 to August 29, 1942

An installation by Erik Bakke for Queen's Nails Annex Extensions, 2008

at Muddy Waters, 199 Tiffany Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94110


Artist's Notes:


Ishi Ishii: 31 Years of Freedom, August 29, 1911 to August 29, 1942 is an installation of a total of 25 paintings and works on paper.

The date in the title August 29, 1911 refers to the date when Ishi, considered the last Native Californian to live in the wild, came out of the woods, starving, to face modern California. August 29, 1942 is the approximate date when Chris Ishii (the Japanese American and Disney cartoonist who was interned in camps by the U.S. Government with other Japanese Americans during World War II) was moved from the Santa Anita internment camp of his home state of California to the Granada internment camp near La Mar, Co.


All the 25 paintings and works on paper are hung as a single installation, a single work. Each element of the work either relates directly to Ishi or Chris Ishii or indirectly to related geographies or histories. Juxtaposition of media, of sources and of content invite the viewer to explore. A major theme of Ishi Ishii: 31 Years of Freedom is the individual facing the loss of their birthright. Another theme is of living history; or, in the oft quoted words of William Faulkner, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." This conceptual landscape does not posit theories but lays down points (across an expanse of passed time and varied circumstance) between which the viewer can travel.


Following are descriptions of the 25 paintings and works on paper; descriptions of the figures featured in Ishi Ishii: 31 Years of Freedom; some brief discussion of these figures histories and connections to one another; and, finally, some personal notes that reveal in part how this project came to be.


Chris Ishii (1919-2001)


Chris Ishii was born in Fresno, CA. He was hired by Disney in 1940. Not long after, he was among the many thousands of Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps during World War II. While in the camps Ishii created the character Lil' Neebo (Little Nisei Boy). This comic was printed in the camps' newspapers. In December of 1942 he was accepted into the U. S. Army. After the war he continued his work in commercial animation.


One of the larger paintings in Ishi Ishii: 31 Years of Freedom appropriates Chris Ishii's cartoon strip Lil' Neebo. In the cartoon it is apparent that Chris Ishii uses the styles he practiced while working for Disney to create a character to represent the plights of interned Japanese Americans. Other than the painting there are three works on paper in Ishi Ishii: 31 Years of Freedom that directly relate to Ishii's life. One reproduction shows the note and drawing Ishii published to explain the Santa Anita origins of Lil' Neebo and introduce his cartoon character to the internees at the Granada internment camp who had come from camps other than Santa Anita. Another photograph shows Chris Ishii in front of his drawing of Lil' Neebo--the editor Eddie Shimano looks on. The final photograph shows an image of the Santa Anita internment camp circa 1942.


Ishi (c. 1860-1916)


Ishi is considered one of the last Native Americans to live the majority of his life in the wilderness. On August 29, 1911 Ishi exited the wild and entered Oroville, CA. After this time he lived the rest of his life at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, San Francisco where he was studied by the anthropologists Alfred L. Kroeber and gave demonstrations of his, the Yahi, culture.


In Ishi Ishii: 31 Years of Freedom two gouache works on handmade Japanese paper show Ishi's death mask. The date drawn on the works is the August 29, 1911, the date he arrived in Oroville, and not the date of his death. Two other works, also on handmade Japanese paper, a diptych and another single sheet work depict Ishi amongst images from popular culture and text from Friedrich Nietzsche's (1844-1900) Thus Spoke Zarathustra. These gouaches show images of Ishi coming out of the wilderness to and giving demonstrations to a world for which he was not born. These images are contrasted with the words of a man, Zarathustra, who himself felt he was born to a world to which he did not belong and whose escape in turn was to retreat to the wilderness. Two other gouache sketches on handmade Japanese paper show Ishi and his contemporary Kaiser Wilhelm II standing together.


Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) and the Mona Lisa (stolen August 21, 1911)


Kaizer Wilhelm II, the last German Emperor, was a contemporary of both Ishi and Chris Ishii. Originally Kaizer Wilhelm II appeared in my 2006 series of paintings entitled Yellow Kaiser Wilhelm. More recently Wilhelm and Ishi have been depicted together in a series entitled Green Ishi Green Kaiser. Despite their disparate histories Wilhelm and Ishi both have the distinction of being the last of their kind; they were both individuals living between times. In an obvious, and untidy, comparison both Wilhelm and Chris Ishii ended up viewing the early part of WWII in exile from their homelands. In using the juxtaposition of Wilhelm and Ishi and Ishii perhaps each of their histories becomes a bit more accessible--their lives coming to light in view of the multitude of lines of contact that can be drawn between European and American history of the years of their lives. In researching these connections a convenient coincidence of date involving the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 allows for some play with history and art history.


In the installation Ishi Ishii: 31 Years of Freedom are two reprinted articles from the New York Times. Both discuss the aftermath of the August 21, 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa and both are from the New York Times of August 30, 1911 describing events of August 29, 1911. The first article describes how the Louvre had been opened for the first time since the theft and how people could go in and look at the blank spot where the Mona Lisa once hung. The second article describes how when the ship the Kaiser Wilhelm II arrived in New York on August 29, 1911--the same day, of course, Ishi stepped out of the wilderness--it was searched for the Mona Lisa as there had been some conjecture that it had been brought aboard after the theft.


The painting of Kaiser Wilhelm II in Turkey that is part of Ishi Ishii: 31 Years of Freedom is from the Yellow Kaiser Wilhelm series. Wilhelm spent quite a bit of time on diplomatic missions in Turkey prior to WWI. It is worth mentioning that the Kaiser was always happy to try on a new uniform for a photo opportunity. As an example of the way the installation is also an exercise in tying personal history to other histories, the wood frame for the Yellow Kaiser Wilhelm painting comes from the flooring of a home near San Jose, Ca and near to where I was born and raised. This floor was installed in 1965, the year I was born, and torn out in 2006 by my brother, Karl, a homebuilder in the area.



The Deer in the Glade


Invoking yet more personal history the deer in the glade imagery originates in a childhood dream. In the dream a young deer rests in a sunlit glade. It was the colors of the warm yellow light and fresh forest greens that struck me at the time of the dream. From then I've had an interest in somehow recreating the magic of these colors. As an adult what is further interesting is the suspicious similarity of this imagery to that of Disney's Bambi.


But this recent series has less to do with depicting a lost idyll than investigating the notion of depicting idylls. The dream idyll of the deer in a glade was drawn up as a minimal abstraction, a small drawing in pencil on paper. This small drawing was scanned and this scan was in turn manipulated in Photoshop in a rudimentary manner and superimposed on three works in Ishi Ishii: 31 Years of Freedom: 1. The French painter Gustave Courbet's 1866 A Thicket of Deer at the Stream of Plaisir-Fontaine 2. The German graphic designer Goro Fujita's 2005 The Hunt 3. A 2007 fabric painting for sale on lankaeshop.com. Turning appropriation to self-appropriation, rather than attempting to recreate the light from the original dream the drawing was turned into a sculpture and the play of real light on this simple sculpture became another investigation. Three photographs in Ishi Ishii: 31 Years of Freedom show the play of light on these small sculptures which, barely, evoke the idea of a deer in a glade.


Regarding Ishi Ishii: 31 Years of Freedom the deer in the glade imagery suggests protected, natural innocence. The curving wall of the abstract drawing and sculpture is meant to bring to mind a sheltering wood. Of course, as the color of the artworks never matches the magic colors of my dream neither did a wood ever offer a guarantee of protection for a deer nor an Ishi and neither was Chris Ishii protected from forced internment by having been embraced by the walls of Disney, by the house that created Bambi in 1942.



A Child's Political Fliers (2007)


Included in Ishi Ishii: 31 Years of Freedom are two pieces of paper found in 2007 stapled to telephone poles in the well-to-do Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. The pro-environment and the other anti-war flier seem to have been drawn by a child. The question arises as to whether the fliers are a genuine request for change that include a child's lament at the loss of the world's, or his or her own, innocence. Or, perhaps, they are not a lament for a lost utopia and are simply products of a too-young-self-knowledge that this form of guerilla protest is itself a trope whose function is to help the artist find his or her place in a dystopia.



Eyvind Earle (1916-2000)


Contemporary with Chris Ishii, Eyvind Earle also made his living as an artist and designer. Earle too worked at Disney but not until the 1950s where he was the production designer, color stylist and background painter for Sleeping Beauty and worked on a number of other projects. Unlike Chris Ishii who enlisted in the army while being interned, Earle was a conscientious objector during World War II.


His lithographs of his paintings of the California landscape have been popular for decades. Earle's landscapes consistently romanticize California's natural beauty. But, in the end, unlike the places in a Disney movie or cartoon Earle's universal landscapes can still be visited more or less as he depicted them. The raking light of evening casting long shadows of oak trees on the steep hills of the Salinas Valley is as romantic as anything Earle created in homage.


In the very early 1980s as a young teen the first time I ever went into a commercial gallery alone was in the Pruneyard mall in Campbell, Ca and the lithographs on display were by Eyvind Earle. I was attracted to the work and remember thinking that had I had money I would have purchased one. The reproduction of Earle's work in Ishi Ishii: 31 years of Freedom is a printout from the Web of his lithograph Live Oak Country. As the deer in the glade works discuss the impossibility of bringing the idyllic to life, Earle's works (as do the works of Maxfield Parrish and Thomas Kinkade) bring to the fore the discussion of kitsch and its relationship to popular, commercially successful representations of the idyllic. Likewise, similar questions arise when looking at Chris Ishii's Disney-like cartoons in relation to the horrific situation from which they are drawn. Two thoughts come to mind. The first is that the medium and style are inadequate to the task of discussing wartime injustice and the second is that the medium and style are beside the point and it is the very existence of Ishii's works that provide an entry, this entry, into discussions of the internment of Japanese Americans.



King City, Ca (incorporated 1911)


The painting signed "Dupont" in Ishi Ishii: 31 Years of Freedom is an appropriation of a painting that hangs in the Keefer Inn in King City, Ca. Other works by Dupont of varying subjects hang in the different rooms of the Keefer Inn. The artist incorporates a cartoon style and mostly depicts somewhat humorous scenes of hospitality. In my version of Dupont's painting the date 1911 written below the appropriation of Dupont's work refers both to Ishi's arrival in Oroville, Ca and the year of incorporation of King City.


Far from being an idyllic place to farm at the time of its settlement the farms of King City were only made possible by water management--by controlling, by stopping, the natural flooding and drying up of the Salinas River. King City is also the town where between the years 1911 and 1942 my family worked a dairy farm. In the installation Ishi Ishii: 31 Years of Freedom King City is used as a control location from which to view the events which transpired around the lives of Ishi and Chris Ishii.


Chris Ishii's birthplace in Fresno, Ca is 124 miles from King City.

Eyvind Earle's home in Solvang, Ca (the town founded by Danish Settlers in 1911) was 145 miles from King City.

Ishi's home in San Francisco was 165 miles from King City.

The internment camp in Santa Anita was 264 miles from King City.

Disneyland is 284 miles from King City.

The place where Ishi came out of the wilderness in Oroville, Ca is 690 miles from King City.

The Granada internment camp in La Mar, Co was 1,269 miles from King City.

The place where the Kaiser Wilhelm II docked in New York, NY is 2951 miles from King City.

The Mona Lisa in Paris is 5578 miles from King City.

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