Girls Making Snowman
Motivated by wartime hysteria and racial sentiments following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that ordered the removal of Japanese Americans on the West Coast to internment camps in the interior. Children were over half of the 110,000-120,000 Japanese Americans forced to leave friends, pets, possessions—even siblings (those with severe disabilities were excluded from camps).
The social realism of Sugimoto's paintings chronicle and critique the physical dislocation, social disruption, and material deprivation experienced by children and their families. In the militarized camps located in desolate areas, children inhabited cramped and cold barracks with scarce furnishings. Children attended make shift schools that lacked basic necessities and received scant portions and stale bread three times a day at a mess hall. Unappetizing food and inadequate nourishment compromised the health and happiness of children.
Japanese-born artist, Henry Sugimoto (1900-1990), his wife, and their 6-year-old daughter were among more than 8,000 inhabitants at the Jerome camp in Arkansas where he painted this picture around 1943. This seemingly simple painting connects the bleak reality of everyday life with the play of interned children like his daughter.
Children engaged in the expressive "language" of play provide researchers with a challenging form of documentary evidence. What purposes might their play have served? As an expression of feelings about their internment? An escape from an unjust reality? A fantasy about a better place? Was their play a wish? Compare this snowman with the traditional Japanese yuki (snow) daruma (the monk who founded Zen Buddhism and who also serves as a wishing doll). What evidence is there of racial and cultural conflict? Does that explain the contrast between the snowman's luminescence and the girls' dark complexions? In what ways might the iconic American "snowman" have served as an ironic reference to the customs and values of the society that incarcerated its youngest citizens because of their race?
Henry Sugimoto, "Girls Making Snowman" (Girls Making a Snowman in Jerome Camp), 1943. Gift of Madeline Sugimoto and Naomi Tagawa, Japanese American National Museum (92.97.96). Annotated by Miriam Forman-Brunell.