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‘All that Remains’: Birdsong from America’s Dark Past

One of the darkest chapters in American history took place in 1942. That was the year that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. It’s hard to imagine what life was like for those held in U.S. internment camps, but some of the arts and crafts created by Japanese Americans at that time certainly provide us with some insight.

Renowned San Francisco design firm Studio Hinrichs helped to celebrate the way this art depicted the endurance of the human spirit in a book of essays called All That Remains: The Legacy of the World War II Japanese American Internment Camps.

140-remains-1A Personal Discovery
The impetus for the project began when writer and long-time Studio Hinrichs collaborator Delphine Hirasuna came across a bird pin that had belonged to her mother that had been crafted in an internment camp, she recalls. “My entire family and all of their friends had been in camps, but it was something that nobody talked about.”

One day Studio Hinrichs Founder Kit Hinrichs asked her about the pin she was wearing. His response after she told him where it came from: “That might make an interesting book.”

As Hirasuna conducted more research and began to talk to people, she learned that many had saved artwork and other objects created in the camps, but had locked them away in an attic or garage, hesitant to speak about them or the terrible times they were a testament to. At the same time, she realized that the artwork told a powerful story.

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“She began to unearth these magical pieces of art that were done within the camps and began to build a story about how a group of people who were imprisoned kept their spirits up,” says Hinrichs.

Indeed, the project gave Hirasuna a renewed respect for her elders, she says. “In the worst circumstances they went into the camp and they focused on making beautiful things out of scrap and found material.”

To highlight these creations, Hirasuna and Hinrichs produced a book called The Art of Gaman, which was turned into an art exhibition and showcased in museums across the United States and Japan. When she came across even more objects, they created a second book: All That Remains.

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Showcasing the Power of Art
When working on the design for All That Remains, Hinrichs considered it “a museum book.” San Francisco photographer Terry Heffernan shot the images.

“In some cases, a single object stands on its own. In other cases, he’s putting multiple things together to make a composition,” Hinrichs explains. Hirasuna then wrote about the specifics of each object. She also included biographical information about the artist when she could “so people could recognize that they weren’t faceless people,” she says.

Birds are featured prominently on the cover because wood carvings of small birds were a common theme in the camps. Initially, artists were inspired by a set of Audubon bird identification cards and an issue of National Geographic that featured North American birds. Bird-carving groups sprang up in the camps where people learned to sketch bird outlines on flat wood. Many of the carvings were turned into lapel pins.

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One of the goals of the book’s design was to focus attention on the creations that were showcased inside. “It’s not about the design of the book,” says Hinrichs, “it’s about the objects within the book.”

For example, in the middle section there’s a gatefold of a train made out of things that the creator found in the internment camps. “Watches, tin cans, anything this guy could find,” Hinrichs says. “It looks like a Lionel train. It’s just amazing, the kind of detail that is there and how it’s put together.”

The book’s design was done in a way in which “the objects themselves could be appreciated,” Hirasuna adds. “Kit isolated them so you could look at them and see them for what marvelous pieces they really are.”

One thing that is so impressive about the featured artwork is how so many people without any artistic background discovered a talent they might not have known they had, Hirasuna says. “It tells a larger story about people who were interned and who had lost everything, and how they turned to art for solace and managed to hang onto their own sense of self and self-expression.”

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Author: Tamara E. Holmes

Tamara E. Holmes is a freelance writer and editor who has written extensively about business, careers and success for such publications as Working Mother, Real Simple, and AARP Bulletin.

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