Born: Gifuken, Japan 1896
Died: Seattle, Washington 1956
oil on canvas 38 1/4 x 46 1/8 in. (97.2 x 117.1 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum Transfer from the U.S. Department of Labor
Smithsonian American Art Museum
1st Floor, South Wing
A farm scene with green trees would seem to be a positive view of the American scene, but Kenjiro Nomura's painting suggests a hidden threat. Clouds gather and darkness fills the barn and sheds while the foreground road is in shadow. Not a figure or animal is to be seen.
In the Seattle area where Nomura lived, many of his fellow Japanese Americans made their living as fruit and vegetable farmers. Since 1921 they had been subject to anti-alien laws that prevented foreign-born Japanese Americans and other aliens from owning or leasing land. Those born in America who could own farmland still suffered from prejudice. During the Great Depression many Japanese American farmers barely managed to survive, living only on what they grew themselves. It is no wonder that Nomura’s view of a farm during this period is disquieting.
As other Americans emerged from the Great Depression during World War II, Nomura and other Japanese Americans were victimized again by being removed from their homes, businesses, and farms to be interned in camps. Like his PWAP painting, Nomura's images made in internment camps feature dark skies and deep colors that evoke the shadow of injustice.
1934: A New Deal for Artists exhibition label
Nomura was an established painter and Seattle businessman when he painted this scene in rural Washington State. Red barns rest among green fields, conjuring an image of home that was comfortable and familiar to American audiences of the 1930s. But Nomura gave his painting an eerie edge that hints at a darker story. Windows and doors lead into darkness. No livestock or farmhands enliven the scene.
Perhaps Nomura wanted to paint a dream that remained unrealized. For decades, first-generation Japanese immigrants, the Issei, had struggled to live independently, leaving their menial jobs on the West Coast to work farms in the eastern counties of Washington and Oregon. Their children, the Nisei, continued to assimilate, and the Wapato Nippons baseball team won the minor league pennant in 1934, the year this painting was made. But restrictive legislation in western states prohibited most Asians from owning land. During World War II, powerful figures in the Northwest persuaded the government to relocate Japanese American farmers in the interest of "national security." Nomura and his family were transported to the largest camp, Minidoka, in Idaho, where they passed the war years. He created a portfolio of images of camp life that remained hidden in his son's garage for forty-five years, before they were shown. Nomura turned to abstract art after the war, but his career never fully recovered from the years lost at Minidoka.
Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006
Architecture - detail - fence
Architecture - farm - barn
Architecture - farm - silo
Landscape - farm
Landscape - road
Landscape - weather - cloud
paint - oil
fabric - canvas
About Kenjiro Nomura
Born: Gifuken, Japan 1896 Died: Seattle, Washington 1956
Blogs, Podcasts, and More
- Eye Level: The Farm Workers' Altar is Prepared for Exhibition
- Eye Level: Looking at 1934: Kenjiro Nomura'sThe Farm, 1934
- Eye Level: Pilgrimage: Five Questions with Annie Leibovitz
- Eye Level: Luce Artist Talk with Britney Mongold
- Eye Level: Art Matters with Lawrence Weschler
- Eye Level: A Year of Gaman: 5 Questions with Curator ...
- Eye Level: Remembering the Running Fence with Joe Pozzi
- Eye Level: New Acquisitions: Bret Price's Hublot
- Eye Level
- Eye Level: The Art of Gaman: The Bird Artist