Object of the Month

"We searched its gaunt face for the mysteries of our destiny ...": Estelle Ishigo’s Scenes of a Japanese Internment Camp

`Mess Hall, Bathroom, Barracks. Japanese Relocation Center. Heart Mt. Wyoming.` Watercolor

"Mess Hall, Bathroom, Barracks. Japanese Relocation Center. Heart Mt. Wyoming."

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[ This description is from the project: Object of the Month ]

This painting, “Mess Hall, Bathroom, Barracks, Japanese Relocation Center, Heart Mt. Wyoming,” by Estelle Ishigo, depicts the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, one of ten internment camps established for Japanese Americans during World War II.

About the artist

Estelle (Peck) Ishigo was born in Oakland, California, in 1899, the daughter of Bradford Peck, a landscape painter and piano tuner, and Bertha Apfels, an opera singer. The family moved to Los Angeles when Estelle was twelve, where she was farmed out for care to a series of relatives and friends, at least one of whom abused the girl. She left home after high school, “roamed the streets” (by her own admission), and eventually attended the Otis Institute of Art. In 1929 she met Arthur Ishigo, an aspiring actor who worked as a custodian to supplement his income. It was “love at first sight,” according to Estelle, and as it was against the law in California for a Caucasian to marry a non-Caucasian, the couple drove to Mexico to get married. Estelle was disowned by her family, and the couple made their home in the Japanese community in Los Angeles until 7 December 1941, when things began to fall apart for the Ishigos and others like them. The day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Arthur Ishigo was discharged from his job at Paramount. Two weeks later, Estelle was fired from her job as a teacher at the Hollywood Art Center.

Executive Order 9066

On 19 February 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, and the U.S. Western Defense Command ordered all people of Japanese ancestry on the west coast to be placed in “protective custody.” More than 110,000 Japanese-Americans including the Ishigos were commanded to leave the west coast. Not wanting to be separated from Arthur, Estelle chose to accompany him and many others to the Pomona Assembly Center, where they were gathered in an encampment on the Pomona fairgrounds, awaiting transport to Japanese-American internment camps further inland. Estelle began sketching and making a visual record of the Japanese-American experience while awaiting the buses to Pomona. While at Pomona, she worked on the Center’s newsletter and continued with her art work.

Heart Mountain, Wyoming

In August of 1942, she and Arthur were transported 1,000 miles to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, one of ten internment camps established for Japanese Americans. Located in Powell, Park County Wyoming, it was the northernmost of all the internment camps, situated “on ancient, weirdly jagged waste-land that spread far into the wide horizon…at the foot of a lonely mountain.” The camp consisted of one square mile of land, with hundreds of barracks and other ramshackle buildings, and around 12,000 internees.

The “vast wasteland” of Heart Mountain suffered the most extreme weather conditions, with bitter cold and windy winters. Many of Estelle Ishigo’s paintings and drawings of daily life in Heart Mountain include winter scenes showing people huddled against the cold and the cruel weather: “The wind seemed to find the barren deserted places where it tore and ate away at earth and life, leaving naked skeletons of rocks and shrub…”

Estelle was recruited as a “Documentary Reporter” for the War Relocation Authority, recording the Heart Mountain experience in illustrations, line drawings, oil, and watercolors. Many of her works were shown in 1972 in the California Historical Society’s show of internment camp art, Months of Waiting. Her works limn the hardship, oppression, severe weather, and psychological loneliness experienced by the inmates of the Heart Mountain camp.

This painting depicts Heart Mountain looming over the camp, while the internees, humbled in the shadow of the great presence itself, go about their business moving from building to building, and some children pass the time playing with kites. In most of her paintings that include the mountain, the people are facing the mountain, enthralled by it, unable to turn away, captive to its almost overwhelming presence, a metaphor for the war itself and the injustice of their treatment by the American government. Meanwhile, children fly their kites, symbols of freedom, yet still tethered to the hardened, packed dirt and grim reality of the internment camp.

Estelle Ishigo openly acknowledged the power of the Mountain as a symbol and its underlying influence on her art work in her book Lone Heart Mountain: “Gathered close into ourselves and imprisoned at the foot of the mountain as it towered in silence over the barren waste, we searched its gaunt face for the mysteries of our destiny…”

Post-War Life

Estelle apparently retained many of her drawings, sketches, and paintings when she and Arthur left Heart Mountain on 10 November 1945. Given transportation fare and $25 each, they arrived in Los Angeles with 2,000 other people and were put in segregated, makeshift trailer camps, working in canneries for several years before finding more permanent employment. Arthur died in 1957.

In 1972 Estelle published her book, Lone Heart Mountain, chronicling the years she and Arthur spent in the internment camp. In 1990, Steven Okasaki produced a documentary film about Ishigo’s life and art, entitled Days of Waiting. The film won the Academy award for best documentary short subject in 1991. At the time the film was made, Estelle Ishigo was found living alone in extreme poverty. She died shortly before the film was released.

For Further Information

The painting featured here, as well as one other painting, "Heart Mt." [View of building, Japanese Relocation Center, Heart Mountain, Wyoming], is part of the Coolidge and Dame Family Papers, 1809-2010 at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Jean Thoits Coolidge worked with the YWCA during World War II to transfer Japanese-American students from internment camps and western war zones to colleges in other parts of the country. She may have met Estelle Ishigo in the course of her work, and acquired the paintings that way.

The draft of Estelle Ishigo’s Lone Heart Mountain is part of the Estelle Ishigo Papers held by the Charles E. Young Research Library, Special Collections, UCLA. Page images of that draft are available online.

The Heart Mountain Relocation Center is now a historic site whose “mission is to educate the public about the history surrounding the tragic and illegal imprisonment of Japanese Americans at Heart Mountain during World War II.” For more information, visit their website. This page has a group picture of the staff, which includes Estelle Ishigo.

For Further Reading

Ishigo, Estelle. Lone Heart Mountain (Los Angeles: Anderson, Ritchie & Simon, 1972). The book was reprinted in 1989 by the Heart Mountain High School Class of 1947.