fig. 6: Winter, Color Woodcut, 18.6 x 37.8 cm
© Helen Hyde (1868-1919), American, 1901


Artists have used Asian culture in various ways in their search for identity. Early twentieth century Euro-American artists who incorporated Asian art and themes into their work are often termed "orientalists." Helen Hyde (1868-1919) was the most widely known and successful of these western artists. A printmaker who lived and worked in Tokyo for fifteen years, Hyde produced thousands of colored prints from dozens of color woodcuts that she produced in the Japanese fashion with the assistance of Japanese artisans. (See also "Helen Hyde: American Printmaker", by Joan M. Jensen, in Women Artists of the American West.)

fig. 7: Boy With a Fish, © Miné Okubo

Asian American immigrant women of the early twentieth century sometimes brought great artistic skills with them from their home cultures. The mother of artist Miné Okubo was a calligrapher who had studied with masters and represented Japan at the St. Louis Exposition in 1905. Yet she, like other immigrant women, could seldom practice their art as they struggled to raise and support families, usually on farms and often in isolation. These women taught and encouraged their children to create art. Miné Okubo received support for her study of art from her mother and from Euro-American teachers, but during the 1930s, when she began her career, she seldom used Asian themes. She painted out of the dominant Euro-American art tradition until interned during World War II. Internment drastically disrupted her life and her successful career as an artist. She was painting murals in Oakland when ordered to report for relocation. During the crisis of internment, she began to portray Japanese women with dark charcoal lines. In the camps, she sketched daily life with its annoyances and bleak surroundings. After the war she moved to New York and became a commercial artist. Except for a few short periods, Okubo refused to return to the West Coast. Later she turned to Japanese folk art, incorporating Japanese themes directly into her work for the first time. Her joy in recovering these Asian folk traditions is evident in such paintings as Boy With a Fish (fig. 7).

fig. 8: Immigration. Photo sculpture
© Diane Tani, 1988

Artists who came of age after World War II frequently used family history to explore both cultural heritage and the immigrant experience. Diane Tani and Haruko Okano have both turned to the experiences of immigrant grandparents to explore the coming together of Asian and American cultures. Tani (see also Diane Tani in "Asian American Artists," Women Artists of the American West) created a series of photographic images that used family photographs as their basis, including a photo sculpture titled Immigration (fig. 8). In it, Tani combines a photograph of her Cantonese maternal grandmother, a map of Canton, arrow marks showing immigration direction (to southwest Asia, Australia, and the United States) and the words "We are living on borrowed land." The phrase was her grandmother's who came to the United States in the 1900s, reared eight children, and became a citizen, yet always felt that China was her home.

Haruko Okano's Passing Through (fig. 1), a mixed media sculpture combined found and constructed objects with images in acrylic paint to convey a similar sense, not just of alienation from home but also the lack of acceptance that immigrants experienced as they settled along the West Coast.

Women of Asian American and other cultures have together created this Pacific Rim community, a place where women have been able to explore their own identity and the cultural heritage of Asia. In their lives and in their art, they have crossed borders and raised issues about how women see their inherited cultures and the Asian cultures whose artistic traditions have so influenced those of the American West.







All text © Joan M. Jensen.
For a more comprehensive discussion, please see:
Jensen, Joan M. "Women on the Pacific Rim: Some Thoughts on
Border Crossings." Pacific Historical Review 67 (Feb. 1998): 3-40