Upcycling in history -- the art of "Gaman" in Japanese-American internment camps during WW2

Screen displayed at Wing Luke Museum in Seattle
A few weeks ago I visited the Wing Luke Museum in the International District of Seattle. One of the exhibits displayed artifacts from internment camps, which dotted the Western U.S. during World War II. Japanese Americans were involuntarily moved to the camps as racism and paranoia swept the country after Pearl Harbor.

Because internees were forced from their homes with few possessions, they had to make things out of whatever they could find at the camps. They were upcycling. But they called it something else -- gaman. That means "accepting what is with patience and dignity."

Photograph of Members of the Mochida Family Awaiting Evacuation (Wikipedia)
One family waits to leave for the camps
I learned about gaman from The Art of Gaman, a book by Delphine Hirasuna, whose parents lived in one of the camps. (It's part of a Smithsonian exhibit you can view online here.)

What did the internees create? First, the necessities. Chairs, bowls, spoons, sandals.

Chair carved from scrap wood by Japanese-American internees during WW2
Author Hirasuna describes what internees did when they arrived at camp:
"People headed straight to the scrap lumber pile to lay first claim on usable boards. Despite the use of knot-riddled boards and pieced-together scraps, many managed to produce an amazing array of functional objects -- chairs, wardrobes, dressers, baby cribs, tables and hutches..."
Materials were scarce, but tools and building supplies were even harder to find. Hirasuna says that "one newly engaged couple received a gift of nails that friends had gathered by sifting through the sand near the scrap lumber pile."

They also made lots of art. And not just the artists -- several famous ones were in camps -- but (extra-) ordinary people who learned how to carve, sculpt, weave, and paint to pass the time.

These small bird pins were carved from scrap wood and metal and then painstakingly painted.
Bird broaches carved from scrap wood by Japanese-American internees during WW2
For models, the artists used an old National Geographic featuring birds. To get the bird's legs just right, they snipped wire off the mesh screens that covered their barrack windows.

I'm certain that my upcycled creations won't turn up at the Smithsonian 70 years from now. But I'm so glad that these artworks were kept safe to be displayed today, to document this dark episode in our history and to honor the resourceful people who made them.

And it reminds impatient me -- always in a hurry, wanting things my way -- to keep trying to "accept what is with patience and dignity."