Artist Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz was 9 years old when she and her family were uprooted from their home in Orange, Calif. and incarcerated in a wartime concentration camp in Poston, Ariz. for three years.
Sugita de Queiroz illustrates her childhood memories through watercolors in the traveling exhibit “Camp Days 1942-1945: Childhood Memories of Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz,” which is currently on display at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose until April 30. The watercolors represent a portion of a collection of 61 paintings.
“My experience in camp was the worst and most unhappy time I’ve had in my entire life. I would not want anyone to experience my feelings of loneliness,” she said via e-mail.
She said that as the youngest of nine children in her family, she often felt left overshadowed by her older siblings.
“Most of the time, I was alone. My sisters and brothers were outgoing and made friends quickly. I was always treated as the baby of the family, so I never talked much. It was terribly hard on me. I had little social skills. So I spent my time in the library, checking out books and reading several a day,” she said.
Prior to becoming an artist, Sugita de Queiroz served as an art teacher. After retiring early from Palos Verdes High School in Southern California, she started painting full time and presenting exhibits. Sugita de Queiroz said that the “Camp Days” paintings arose from her desire to share her experiences with her family.
“I wanted to let my children and grandkids know about my life during that period of my childhood. So I painted from memory my camp days for my one-man show in Laguna Beach,” said Sugita de Queiroz, who resides in Irvine, Calif.
Sugita de Queiroz said that she felt a tremendous sense of loneliness growing up in camp, especially following the death of her mother. Her father was a bonsai artist who emigrated from Hiroshima, Japan.
“My mother died shortly after I was born. I was sent to live with my aunt and uncle when my mother died, then my sister. I loved my father so much and waited for his visits and the time I could leave with him. He was always my inspiration in everything I did. I admired his hard work and his love of bonsai that he did all his life,” said Sugita de Queiroz.
She said that one of her artistic influences growing up was her older sister Lillian, an artist and painter. Sugita de Queiroz depicts Lillian painting a watercolor in the book “Camp Days 1942-1945.” Sugita de Queiroz said she would help to fetch watercolor supplies for Lillian whenever she chose to paint a sunset.
“I loved art and painting because of Lillian and, of course, my artistic father influenced me,” she said.
In addition, Sugita de Queiroz said her camp teacher, Miss Perry, recognized her talent and asked her to create paintings for the teachers’ dining room in camp.
Sugita de Queiroz said the process of creating the “Camp Days” exhibit was cathartic for her.
“It was very difficult. I was going to do 250 paintings, but by the end of the year I was spent and did not want to relive any more horrendous memories,” she said.
Sugita de Queiroz said her family did not discuss their camp experiences much after they left.
“No one in my family talked about camp. And my dad always said, ‘Never dwell on the negative, the past can’t be changed. Concentrate on the now and the future.’ He had such wisdom. It was like the Japanese saying ‘Shikata ga nai’ — it can’t be helped.”
Sugita de Queiroz said that the process of planning her paintings involved drawing on her memories of camp.
“I wrote down all my memories, about 250, and just started doing it. Some paintings were so difficult to paint, others easier,” she said.
Sugita de Queiroz said that although she has utilized many media, she especially enjoys painting watercolors.
“As an art teacher, I have used all media, ranging from oils, acrylics, pastels, ink and clay. The best aspect of watercolor is its fluidity, immediateness, and directness — whether as an atmosphere you wish to convey or as an emotion. It’s a lot of work, but I feel a joy in painting,” she said.
Sugita de Queiroz said that she was strongly influenced as an artist by her friend Henry Fukuhara, a painter.
“I have been a watercolor painter for the last 25 years because of my wonderful friend and guru, Henry, who passed away at 96 years old. He was blind for the last five years, but lucid and painting to the end. He was my biggest influence. He truly was the greatest watercolor painter. He was very innovative, distinct and free,” she said.
Sugita de Queiroz said she draws inspiration for her paintings from the world around her.
“Everything inspires me: My love of family and nature, as well as what I see, feel, taste and experience. These past few weeks, I have been painting clouds, as it has been quite cloudy and rainy. Everything so lovely, dreary, mysterious, light and dark,” she said.
With a focus on nature, Sugita de Queiroz’s past shows include “Seasons right here” and “Global Warming.” She has also presented other shows focusing on landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, tree portraits and flowers.
Sugita de Queiroz said that she has also been inspired by her travels.
“The paintings come out different when you see a new country — whether it’s tea plantations or Mt. Fuji in Japan — and not just photos of your trip. That makes all the difference,” she said.
Sugita de Queiroz said that in addition to her artistic work, she enjoys cooking, shopping, cleaning and taking care of her 11 grandchildren.
“My life has been so wonderfully blessed so I am happy just being and living. And art is part of my life,” she said.
Ultimately, Sugita de Queiroz said that she hopes that those who view her “Camp Days” art exhibit learn about a painful period in American history.
“It is really a message of peace — no more wars, and liberty and justice for all,” she said.
The Japanese American Museum of San Jose is located at 535 N. Fifth St. in San Jose’s Japantown, and is open noon to 4 p.m. from Thursday through Sunday. Admission is $5 for the general public and $3 for students and seniors. Children under 12 are free. Call the museum at (408) 294-3138 or visit www.jamsj.org.