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Turning words into art

A Japanese American from Cedar Mill uses her skills in photography, design and advertising to retell stories from a shameful chapter in our history
by: Jaime Valdez Sharon Inahara of Cedar Mill is showing 10 large canvases at the Washington County Museum in an exhibit called “The Day We Left,” about the relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II. Each piece features a quotation that the artist found inspiring.

Sharon Inahara wasn't even born in 1941, when we were jolted into World War II by Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. But all of her life she heard the stories about how Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to concentration camps in rural parts of this country and Canada - her own mother and grandparents among them.

The third-generation Japanese American from Cedar Mill is retelling those stories now, through 10 pieces of art on view through Oct. 29 at the Washington County Museum at the PCC Rock Creek campus. The exhibit is titled 'The Day We Left,' and its canvases are big, loud and colorful, featuring quotes by various people Inahara found inspiring on this subject.

Her series is one piece of a two-part exhibit at the museum that includes 'Taken: FBI,' a collection of stories, photographs, diaries and artifacts revolving around members of Portland's Japanese community who were arrested after the Pearl Harbor attack 'for security reasons.'

With a background in photo design and editing and a history in advertising and marketing, Inahara started this project with research, and in her reading, she began to find quotes that jumped out at her, stirring up emotions that ranged from sadness to anger.

'I just felt very compelled to commit these words to canvas on their behalf,' the artist explains. 'I started doing this research 2½ years ago, and I was so moved by many of the accounts I read that I felt I had to do something about it.'

It was a natural enough move from the design and photo work she does for a living under the name Inahara Inc. Originally from Southwest Portland and a graduate in fine arts from Southern California's Claremont Colleges, Inahara was a photo editor for Rolling Stone magazine until it left San Francisco for New York. After that, she tended to seek work with photographers. Today, she works with advertising and marketing clients of Nike.

'I equate these pieces much like billboards, in a way,' she says. 'From my point of view, they are like advertising because, here it is, a big quote, on a big canvas, in your face.

'If you can't make it good, make it big'

'I remember years ago an old advertising guy said to me, 'If you can't make it good, make it big; if you can't make it big, make it red.''

The closest she comes in this show to making it red is the piece modeled after a popcorn box, with big yellow and red stripes, with a quote from Oregon Poet Laureate Lawson Inada: 'To get into the Fair, you have to pay admission,' it begins. 'We got in for free to the Fresno Family Prison.'

'So, when I first started doing this research I thought, you know, these quotes are immersed in books and oral histories, and people read them and close the book and forget. They forget about these quotes that moved them. So it was my intention in doing this research to find the emotion, the quote that was at the core of the emotion, and put it in big words on a large canvas so that people can see it and read it and have emotions about it.

'It's my belief that if you give someone a lot of facts, they process it and file it away. If you make someone cry, they remember that, and it could be that they remember it for the rest of their lives. If you create emotion, it really stays in one's mind and becomes a strong memory.'

Nothing in the exhibit stirs more emotion than a comment by Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt before the House Naval Affairs Subcommittee in 1943: 'A Jap's a Jap,' grouses the general. 'I don't want any of them here.' He says plenty more, but to learn what, see it for yourself.

'I wanted other people to experience what these people went through emotionally,' says Inahara. 'One of the reasons for that was because my mother never talked about her own feelings. She never complained about this time. Most of her friends never complained. They just accepted it. And they talked about it amongst themselves, but they never talked about it.'

It's not a total shock that they spared their children their suffering and their shame, she concedes, because that's probably a normal parental response.

'They didn't want us to grow up with that shame. I didn't really understand about the shame. I read about the shame when these people were all incarcerated. When I started to read these emotional accounts about that time, then I understood what the shame was about, because they had assumed that they were accepted by society, but then suddenly they weren't.'

In a way, says Inahara, she sees herself - and exhibits like the one at the Washington County Museum as helping to fill a void in the history we're taught.

'There's just so little information out there about this time unless you go looking for it,' she says. 'It's not something we were necessarily taught about in school. It was perhaps a blip in our history lesson, so people don't know that entire families lived in horse stalls for six months before they went to these concentration camps.

'They don't know that these people had maybe less than a week to pull together their belongings, sell their homes and their businesses and wrap everything up to leave. They don't know that they could only take what they could carry into these camps. They don't know all these things, and I think it's important to point these things out, that they actually happened in our own country.'

In spite of her quiet, polite, downright friendly demeanor, Inahara is clearly less willing to be quiet than her ancestors were.

The first and second generations of Japanese Americans (Issei and Nisei) 'were a very quiet generation,' she says, adding that they 'had been termed 'quiet Americans' for that very reason, because for the most part they didn't protest, and they accepted that incarceration. For the most part, they went calmly and without issue.'

For her own part, Inahara sees it differently.

'I think the overall injustice of it is what really horrifies me,' she says. 'The fact that Germans and Italians were not incarcerated would indicate that the Japanese Americans were incarcerated because -' She pauses, considering maybe softening the blow, then decides to heck with that. 'I think they wanted their land, that they wanted the farm land back. They had bought all this land that wasn't considered desirable. They had turned it into arable land, and the white farmers wanted it back.

'A lot of people believe it was just a land grab.'

For those interested in learning more about this topic, Inahara strongly recommends the book, 'Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience,' a collection of stories and experiences.

'I think if there's one book that everybody should read, it's this one,' she says of the compilation of many different stories on the subject. 'This is a great book. I've derived quite a bit of material from this book.'

'The Day We Left' and 'Taken: FBI' exhibits will continue at the Washington County Museum, 17677 N.W. Springville Road, Portland 97229, through Oct. 29.

Museum hours are Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit the museum's website at washingtoncountymuseum.org or call 503-645-5353.

Sharon Inahara can be reached by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

'I do accept commissions,' she adds. 'And we can actually repaint and re-silkscreen one of these pieces.'