Patrick Hayashi has turned pain into paintings, after
Japanese internment camp shaped very early life
By Lou Fancher InsideBayArea
Scorched by haunting memories and aware of his mortality, Patrick Hayashi turns pain into paintings and history into his story.
Speaking about his life and art at a Lamorinda Arts Alliance presentation on Sept. 4, a slide on a nearby screen illuminated the 70-year-old Oakland resident's recollection of his childhood.
"I was born in that camp," Hayashi said.
The barren land, decaying barracks, barbed wire and watch towers of the federal internment camp in Topaz, Utah, displayed the harsh reality of Japanese Americans in the years following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941. More than 120,000 United States citizens of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law Executive Order 9066 during World War II.
"The people were incarcerated, en masse, imprisoned solely because of their race: just like a concentration camp," Hayashi said.
His grandfather had established a nursery, the Alameda Flower Shop; his father, had attended the UC Berkeley. They, his mother and his two older brothers had seven days to sell their home and pack only the possessions they could carry. An uncle disappeared; authorities said he died of diabetic shock, but he didn't have diabetes. Placed in horse stables, then on trains, Hayashi's family traveled to his birthplace.
After the war ended, Hayashi grew up mostly in Hayward, attending UC Berkeley and working in a number of positions including associate vice chancellor for admissions and enrollment and associate president. His family rarely spoke about the camps.
An apology issued to Japanese Americans by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 impressed him as strengthening for the country, but inadequate for squelching the rage many people felt.
"World War II was a big blank place I put out of my mind and heart," he said.
An art exhibit in San Jose featuring Henry Sugimoto's woodcuts, and a brush painting by Chiura Obata depicting life at Topaz, cracked the shell he'd built around his careful, happy life.
"I found myself choking up. At that moment I knew what art could do," Hayashi said. At age 56, he created his first still life, receiving his first critique from an instructor: "Nice choice of paper."
But he didn't give up, and soon there were paintings of doughnuts, landscapes, self-portraits (including a nude-but-for-socks "selfie" he brazenly showed the crowd) and abstract paintings. A disliked painting of red ants, he set on fire. Smacking it with a spatula, the paper flipped and Hayashi discovered a misty, luminous image.
"I started burning all kinds of paper," he said.
Following a Tonalist style that renders gauzy, photographic-like imagery, he began "painting" with smoke from a lit wooden match.
But one traditional-style painting -- an attempt to capture his feelings about Nagasaki -- failed, he said. The frustration led him to music, something his prone-to-flat voice had prevented him from conquering.
Private lessons and practice led him to perform "Panis angelicus" at a recital. In the small room in Lafayette's Our Savior's Lutheran Church, he recreated the moment. Singing "bread of angels" in Latin, an occasional ragged-edge note did not diminish the remarkable sight of a reclusive man, suspending disbelief and singing for his stated purpose -- "to lift the atomic wind to release ashes of those killed to heaven."
Recalling the recital, another failure -- losing his place in a second song's refrain -- led him to a life-changing journey to the Kyrgyz Republic in Central Asia. Hayashi traveled as part of "Art in Embassies," a State Department program established in 1963.
Teaching his smoke painting technique and giving lectures about internment camps, he was reminded that barriers fall and people connect through art. Kyrgyzstan has a shaky democracy, a poor population and is landlocked in a strategically important position near China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran, he said. But students there were similar to people in the U.S., and asked Hayashi similar, universal questions -- What are the two biggest obstacles to world peace? Why should we care about art?
"Growing inequality in wealth and sharp increases in religious intolerance," he answered, to the first question. And to the second, he replied that art has always been a struggle and a blessing. Painting, he said, has made him
more spiritual, allowed moments of grace, reminded him of his shared humanity and provided what he suggested is the ultimate gift -- a means by which to live the rest of his days acting heroically in small, beautiful ways.