A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

October 2000



Issei
An Artwork, An Exhibit and a Way to Honor

By Patricia Cosgrove, Museum Director

 

 


Each day I learn from people (dead and alive) about how they lived their lives. I am honored to have the opportunity to read oral histories, chat with elders, and be involved in a profession which requires that you think about the choices people make, and the effect they have on the big picture. I believe it is an honor to be able to share the recounting of peoples' lives. I never take it for granted.

Patricia Cosgrove


When challenged to design new permanent exhibits for the White River Valley Museum Patricia Cosgrove, Museum Director naturally reflected upon the lives that she had learned about. The most touching were those of immigrants and their children. The experience of immigrating to a new world is fantastically dramatic-and to bring home the experience, it was decided that our exhibits had to focus on one family's personal story.

The story of the Iseri's is not unusual, but it is full of lessons. Through their life story we learn about arranged marriages, Japanese community life, the Japanese-American school, truck farming, legal battles peculiar to Japanese immigrants, the local Buddhist Temple, Pearl Harbor, internment, and the postwar years. Each chapter has its drama. And so, a reproduction of the Iseri family back porch kitchen and adjacent strawberry field was reconstructed as part of our permanent exhibits. Visitors could walk into the setting, read labels about these experiences, and view a world that was (most likely) similar but different than their own. Kisa's daughter Mae [Iseri] Yamada recalled the kitchen's wallpaper, linoleum floor, the colors of the craftsman style house, and about eating meals in shifts to accommodate the 12 children and two-parent household.

It was clear from the beginning that this exhibit must have a human presence. Museums often use mannequins, wax figures, holograms, life castings or dress forms to add "life" to a setting-but none of those communicate about a person, an individual life. What was needed was a work of art that honored and elevated. It seemed only natural that the person to be honored was Kisa [Okuna] Iseri.

 


Two other upcoming sculptures:

In the Muckleshoot exhibit, ethnographer Arthur Ballard listening to a Native Americjavascript:OpenWindow('MilwaukeeRoadMap.htm')
Outside Stuck Junction school, a dog waiting for a student.


The suggestion was made and fully supported by the museum board and the City of Auburn, partner in this Museum's management. There was no public forum for reviewing this decision. There were no ballots or committees. It was justly determined that featuring the Iseri family was important because they were and are good citizens. Their story is not unique, but it is dramatic and worth telling. Kisa raised 12 children and helped to provide for the family by operating the farm while Mat worked at the grocery story. Women's history is full of these unnoticed heroines. Women who lived modest lives, worked constantly for the good, and never sought recognition. This is quintessentially Japanese, and quintessentially female-and perhaps is why so little of women's accomplishments can be found in history books.

It happens that Kisa's daughter Mae Yamada is a tireless volunteer at the White River Valley Museum. Long before this exhibit came to be, she was working in the Japanese community to help the Museum add photographs and artifacts about their history to its collection. When asked, she agreed to speak to children's groups about internment. When called she would lead tours at the museum. Like her mother, she was working quietly and without recognition and always for the good.

An estimate for the price of a life-size bronze statue was obtained and Mae was told that it would first be necessary to raise the money. She gave the Museum a mailing list of about 400 people who had been raised in her community, Thomas, and they were sent a letter. Over four years $15,000 was raised from the one letter. Gifts came in slowly and steadily. Mae would often hand-carry checks from relatives and friends. Bank notes from Japan arrived. It was painless from an administrator's point of view.

Finally, the funds were on hand. A panel of Board members was selected to interview prospective artists. John Meneghini, a retired and much respected car salesman from Auburn's Auto Row, joined efforts with Charles Natsuhara (son of Frank Natsuhara of Natsuhara's Store,) and Mae Yamada. They solicited portfolios from nine artists known for their portrayal of the human figure. The panel selected a short list of three. Members of the panel visited the artists in their studios and discussed the work. Reynaldo (Sonny) Rivera of Albuquerque New Mexico was chosen because whether sculpting such diverse images as a Native healer or a buffalo soldier, his work is realistic and beautiful, and reflects a dignity and quietness that the panel found compelling.

Other members of the board oversaw the details of contract negotiation and payment schedule. Meanwhile, Mike Stevens, the public relations board member helped to craft a press packet announcing the unveiling. As a result, the Museum eventually received unprecedented press coverage from five major West Coast newspapers. Surprisingly, after thinking about this piece since 1994, once the contract was signed, it was only six months later that the artwork arrived. The selection panel once again met to plan for an appropriate ceremony. Invitations were sent only to the Board and donors to the sculpture fund, for the list was now long enough, and we feared the building could not hold all those who would wish to attend.

 




On the appointed day, Issei arrived. She was sitting, regally it might be added, in the back of Reynaldo Rivera's pickup. The artist and his wife had traveled from the foundry in Mexico with her capturing the admiring glances of many freeway travelers.

Indeed, with 60 invitations sent, on the 23rd of July 130 people arrived to see Issei unveiled. Reverend Matsubayashi of the White River Buddhist Temple began the event with the chanting of a sutra. He arranged a small shrine, burned incense and turned and chanted to the veiled sculpture. It was beautiful. The two eldest grandson's Jan Iseri and Doug Yamada removed the veil. 130 people quietly gasped in appreciation. Then George Iseri, Kisa and Mat's oldest living son, spoke on behalf of the family. This be-suited American businessman bent and placed his forehead to that of his mother's and whispered to her in Japanese. There was not a dry eye in the museum. He then stood and spoke about her, about his early life, about growing up in Auburn and about internment and being angry and never coming home to Auburn. He said that he had been mistaken, that he and others did have friends in Auburn, and he apologized for not knowing that and for previously speaking against some of his former neighbors. This was a memorable moment.

That Sunday afternoon ended with two hours of picture taking. The guests all took turns sitting with Kisa. Great-great grand children climbed onto her lap with natural ease. Two young women posed kissing her, one on each cheek. Her surviving children, themselves all senior citizens, gathered around for a portrait. There was joy and reverence in the air.

The next day local children came into the museum for summer classes. Kisa, lo and behold, was holding a little blond girl. It was good.

Biography of Kisa [Okuna] Iseri
1888 to 1991
 

 




Kisa Okuna came to the United States from Japan in 1907. She married Matahichi "Mat" Iseri, who was from her hometown of Kumamoto-ken. Although this was an arranged marriage, Kisa and Mat had met prior to their marriage. One might call her a "picture bride." As a first generation Japanese, or Issei, Kisa's work was to lay a foundation for her children's and community's success, and she did this with selflessness characteristic of Issei women -- a job that often went unheralded.

Mat arrived in the United States several years before Kisa, and set about learning English. Back in Japan, Kisa had dropped out of school to take care of her younger siblings and to learn domestic arts. She never learned to read or write much in either Japanese or English. In their new American world the Iseris settled in Thomas, Washington, a small farming village in an area that eventually drew many Japanese immigrants.

Kisa bore 12 children, three of whom died quite young. Only two of her children were girls, which in those days meant that she received very little help with her housework. She still worked on the farm nearly every day, prepared traditional holiday meals, and daily cooked Japanese-style foods for her large family and to share with any less fortunate neighbors. During the 1930s Kisa's older children came of age and began business ventures of their own. She saw to it that each child received a good education, performing well at the public school, followed daily by several hours of Japanese school where they learned Japanese language and cultural arts.

When Mat Iseri was arrested on the night of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kisa was left to keep family, farm, and store together. She had to prepare all of them for the mass internment ordered by the US military. On the day before their departure, she worked in their garden. This is particularly ironic, because the produce from these farms was harvested to financially benefit others. Before the war ended, her second eldest son left the internment camp to serve in the 442nd Battalion and was killed in action in Europe.

After the war Kisa and Mat Iseri settled in eastern Oregon, in an area receptive to Japanese American farmers. She outlived her husband (and most of her children) by more than 30 years, almost reaching the age of 104.

In part from Stan Flewelling's essay, With the Help of Many Hands

Reynaldo (Sonny) Rivera
Sculptor

 




Reynaldo Rivera's sculptures reflect and reinforce the values, spirit and cultural traditions that have existed for centuries here in the United States. His bronzes of human and animal figures are easily recognizable because of their strong, interpretive style that results in a sense of life and movement without unnecessary detail. He works to capture the rugged existence and valiant heroism of those who helped form the great American West.

In national competitions, Rivera has been awarded commissions from the Onate Monument Center; the Albuquerque Museum; the Albuquerque Zoological Park; Fort Selden State Monument; The City of El Paso; Clovis Community College; the County of Bernalillo's Public Art Program; and the City of Albuquerque's 1% for the Arts Program.

His large-scale works are in private, corporate and museum collections throughout the United States, but most heavily represented in his native Southwest. Rivera's studies include work at the American Academy of Arts in Chicago, the Galleria Della Arte in Florence, Italy, and San Miguel de Allende Institute in Mexico. He also studied under the late Master Sculptor and Painter Eugene Hall.

Rivera, a native New Mexican resides with his family in Albuquerque near the Rio Grande, where he is fulfilling his life-long dream of working on historic, cultural and theme pieces.
 

 
Donors to the Issei Sculpture Fund

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Anderson
Auburn Arts Commission
Mr. and Mrs. Earl Hagen
Mr. and Mrs. Jun Hayakawa
Mr. and Mrs. Robert Hikida
Mrs. Elsie Hinrichsen
Mr. and Mrs. Ishikawa
Iseri Family
Mr. Koji Iseri
Mrs. Yosie Iseri
Dr. and Mrs. Oscar Iseri
Mrs. Ikue Iseri
Tom Iseri Trust
Ms. May Kajikami
Mr. Tom Kamo
Mr. and Mrs. T. Kojima
Mr. and Mrs. Charles Matsushima
Mr. Takayuki Miyabe
Mr. and Mrs. Fred Miyoshi
Mr. Henry Miyoshi
Mr. and Mrs. Steve Monroe
Mr. and Mrs. Curtis Nakayama
Mrs. Doris Sagara
Ms. Doris Shimizu
Ms. Elizabeth Simpson
Mr. and Mrs. Ed Tanaka
Ms. Juan Quick-To-See-Smith
Mr. and Mrs. Connie Shimojima
Mr. and Mrs. Harold Strand
Mr. and Mrs. Bill Yaguchi
Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Yamada
Reverend Kiyoshi Yamashita
Mr. and Mrs. James T. Wiley, Jr. and family
Mr. Al Yamada
Mrs. Mae Yamada and family
Mr. and Mrs. Fred Yasukochi

Thank you!