Known for documenting the hardships and everyday life in the internment camps through her art, Estelle Ishigo was a white American woman born in Oakland, California, in 1899. She grew up unwanted by her wealthy parents. A nurse reared her until she was 12 when she was turned over to a series of strangers and relatives, one of whom sexually abused her. After this difficult childhood, Ishigo graduated from high school and spent much of her young adulthood “roaming the streets alone, looking for adventure” (Okazaki). While studying at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles she met her future husband, a San Francisco–born nisei (second generation Japanese American) named Arthur Shigeharu Ishigo (1902–1957). She described her feelings for the young, aspiring actor as love at first sight. The two defied the antimiscegenation laws that governed California and most of the United States by fleeing to Mexico to marry in 1928. Upon returning to the United States, she found a job as a teacher at the Hollywood Art Center, but on December 7, 1941, Ishigo was fired because she was married to a Japanese American.
After President Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, the husband and wife were forced to pack up all their belongings and move to the Pomona Assembly Center. Here, Ishigo began to draw and paint her experiences of life under confinement. From Pomona, Arthur was sent to Heart Mountain concentration camp in a remote area of Wyoming. Of all the concentration camps, Heart Mountain was the farthest north and thus experienced the most brutal winters. Ishigo realized she could not possibly be separated from her husband, the love of her life, and so she decided to go to Heart Mountain with him. In the concentration camp she obtained a job in the documentary section of the Reports Division. She was paid $19 per month and as an employee of the War Relocation Authority (WRA) her artwork was government property. When she was released from Heart Mountain, a U.S. archivist seized her artwork, but she managed to smuggle out many of her drawings and watercolors packed between her clothes and Arthur's when they returned to Los Angeles.
In the camp her work focused on the lives of women and children in particular. The harsh weather conditions made routine activities such as gathering coal or walking home from school near-deadly situations because the extreme cold and dust storms attacked the lungs of the women and schoolchildren. She viewed her role in the camps as producing a document to the atrocities committed at Heart Mountain. She stated that she “hoarded and kept every note and sketch … because I wanted to cry out to all those beyond that desolate horizon, look what you've done. Why? It makes no sense at all” (Okazaki). She used watercolor, charcoal, and pencil sketches in particular as her favorite mediums. However, she disliked the effects of the watercolor and complained that it made everything look “too clean and untroubled” (Ishigo Papers). She enjoyed the intensity and bleakness
offered by the charcoal and pencil sketches, although she is most remembered for her watercolors that spoke to the heterogeneity of camp life.
Despite the dire circumstances of life at Heart Mountain, much of the time was spent trying to accomplish daily and routine activities for survival such as washing clothes, which was extremely difficult in the cold desert environment. Ishigo took scenes of these daily activities as a springboard for her art and subtly showed the realities of the camp. Along with depictions of the difficult chores, she painted scenes of overcrowded rooms and latrines that the women and children were forced to use during their stay. At the same time, Ishigo's watercolors portray a feeling of normalcy as she also documented camp activities such as baseball games and Memorial Day services.
Working at Heart Mountain caused Ishigo to identify strongly with the Japanese American experience. She later wrote, “Strange as it may sound, in this desperate and lonely place, I felt accepted for the first time in my life. The government had declared me a Japanese and now I no longer saw myself as white. I was a Japanese American. My fellow Heart Mountain residents took me in as one of their own” (Okazaki). Despite that assertion, critics say that Ishigo's artwork appear like a social critic with an eye of an outsider. In fact, her whiteness may have allowed her to imagine herself in a place other than within the fences of the concentration camp.
After three-and-a-half years at Heart Mountain, Ishigo and her husband were released to Los Angeles where they worked in fish canneries. Ishigo lived in seclusion after her husband passed away in 1957. However, the California Historical Society asked her to show her painting in their Months of Waiting exhibit on the concentration camp experience. Shortly after, in 1972, her book Lone Heart Mountain, which she wrote and sketched while confined was discovered by the Hollywood Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and published. In the pages of her memoir she wrote of the psychic power that the mountain, Heart Mountain, held over her and all those at the camp: “Imprisoned at the foot of the mountain, towering in its silence over the barren waste, we searched its gaunt face for the mystery of our destiny” (Ishigo, 1972, 32).
Shortly before her death, Steven Okazaki, a Japanese American documentary filmmaker, released the short film Days of Waiting (1990), which chronicled Ishigo's life and work within the camps. The filmmaker discovered the artist in her senior years living in destitution, but the poignant short film struck a chord with audiences and critics for the portrayal of a wife dedicated to her husband and an artist devoted to documenting life at Heart Mountain. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject and the George Peabody Award.
Estelle Ishigo died in 1990 in Los Angeles.
Kassandra M. Lee
Dusselier, Jane. “Embodied Identity? The Life and Art of Estelle Ishigo.” Feminist Studies 32:3 (2006): 534–46.
Ishigo, Estelle. “The Estelle Ishigo Papers, 1941–1957.” Collection 2010. Department of Special Collections. Charles E. Young Library. University of California, Los Angeles.
Ishigo, Estelle. Lone Heart Mountain. Los Angeles: Anderson, Richia, and Simon, 1972.
Okazaki, Steven. Days of Waiting. Mouchette Films, 1990.