First Public Artwork- I Am An American/Family No 25344/Wartime Civil Control Station

When the first Japanese immigrant laborers arrived in rural Fresno County in 1900, they cultivated the sandy loam and hardpan lands bordering the San Joaquin and Kings Rivers, helping to transform them into lush grape vineyards, fig and stone fruit orchards, and vast fields of cotton and wheat. As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I am a fourth-generation descendant of immigrant farmers who settled in the Central Valley farming communities of Sanger and Fresno, and with a legacy of family members who had thriving businesses in the pre-war Japantown downtown. I grew up surrounded by the hard-scrabble ethics of working farmers and the pleasures of their bounty, found in the fog of peach blossoms misting the valley air, and the long rows of pruned and tied grapevines ticking past the window of our family car. Both sides of my family were unjustly incarcerated in American concentration camps out of the Fresno area during World War II.

Three original concept sketches.

In the summer of 2014, I was invited to submit a proposal for a public art work piece to be permanently installed not only in downtown Fresno, but on the site of the building where thousands of Fresno's Japanese Americans were instructed to line up, register their names for government numbers, and were ultimately bussed out to the first leg of their incarceration experience in the spring of 1942. I have no photographs of my family from the days that they packed all of their earthly belongings in a panic, or of the long lines my grandparents had to wait in to be fingerprinted and receive their identification tags, nor of the tearful farewells they bid their friends and colleagues. Both the registration and the departure occurred at the Droge Building, located on the corner of Inyo and Van Ness.

On May 12-13, 1942, all persons of Japanese descent living in the city of Fresno were instructed to meet at the Droge Building, where an official wartime civil control station was established, to exchange their personal identities for family numbers. The Droge Building was the civil control station for the city of Fresno, although it was not the only station in the area (as far as I can tell, there were at least eight stations for Fresno county.)

How has the Droge Building been a witness to Fresno's own complex history and identity? What happened between those walls? Who were the people who were hired to process these individuals into numbers and statistics, many who had been born in Fresno and had known no other home? What small gestures of humanity, if any, occurred in those devastating months and days when the civil control station at Inyo street became the point of departure into a future unknown?

My medium of choice was, of course, linoleum block— an artform with its own historical echoes in Japanese culture and is exceptionally well-suited for the type of fabrication that the program is proposing: laser or water-cut metal panels, which accentuate the strength of line and positive/negative spaces.

The final piece stands 3' x 5' and was installed and dedicated in February 2015. In honor of my late maternal grandmother and grandfather, Johnson and Miyeko Kebo, I have affixed their family number onto the artwork, so that her journey in particular through the Droge Building, itself now a ghost of the past, will be remembered.

(My father, Donald Mitsuru Wakida, who was also incarcerated, standing in front of the work. He didn't even know it was there until I made him drive over with me to look at it!)