The late Robert Murase was one of Portland’s best regarded public artists when he passed away in the summer of 2005 at age 66. He slipped quietly off this planet leaving a family, friends, colleagues and a Randy Gragg obit.
How many public artists in Portland have a Wikipedia page? Okay, probably too many. Murase has one and deserves it.
If you want to read – look at his writings, and writings about Murase, on his web site.
Or best see them in person. The Boley Library at Lewis & Clark, the faux trout stream at Esther Short Park in Vancouver (now stocked with toddlers every summer day), The Washington Park Max station (above ground), the surrounds of the Skidmore Fountain (called Ankeny Park), landscaping around the new Seminar Buildings at TESC (very impressive), and the Japanese American Historical Memorial at Waterfront Park.
The Memorial is on the West shore of the Willamette River between the Burnside and Steel Bridges. The landworks segue from a string of cherry trees along a walkway into a path of stone and a four foot berm. Set into the berm are stones with carved writing, some in English and some in Japanese. The path and surrounding stones are rough and flat, as if hewn from a prison wall. There is a brass plaque of the bill of rights, and a letter from Ronald Reagan.
The words are generous, trying to make sense of the blind fear and sullen stupidness of the act, where over 100,000 Americans – Japanese Americans – where imprisoned by our government, most for several years. Many innocent citizens lost everything.
To the West twenty years are two bronze columns set as a gateway. These thick, heavy columns, ten feet around and ten feet tall, are cast from clay molds and contain dozens of portraits of Japanese Americans, children, soldiers, fishermen, neighbors, grandparents, shop-owners, innocents. Together the columns swirl like black green smoke, carrying memories away into the clouds.
Artists need protectors – especially public artists in the provinces. Otherwise they are left to the whims of the committee, the public bureaucrat, the matron’s fundraising house gods. Murase had Bill Naito.
Bill died in 1996. With his brother Sam and his family, Bill ran Norcrest China at 55 W Burnside St., a importer of junk trinkets and “I (heart) You” mugs. Bill and Sam bought junky real estate on Portland’s Skid Road, old hotels and warehouses left over from a time when tall ships lined Portland’s waterfront and thousands of drunken sailors spent their pay on drink and dice.
There were ventures – Import Plaza sold all the junky items; hotels were rent cheap to the ancient mariners, and later to erstwhile social services; a hippy storefront ethos was promoted as “Old Town” and rents were collected.
I got a job working for Bill in about 1975. The interview went like this. I had to ask about a dozen people when he was. Huh? Who are you? Huh? These were the last days of the desk trolls, Dickensian characters who toiled at desks over long paper tapes of numbers. When I finally found him, with a scraggly beard, chewing on a long cigar and talking on a black telephone, he pointed for me to stand near his desk and to wait for his call to finish.
“Who are you?” Caterpillar, taking the narghile from his mouth. “Oh! Huh. Okay. How are your grades?” I lied. “Huh! Okay. Here’s the deal. If your grades go down I’ll let you go.” His desk was piled with papers, junk, an adding machine, pencils, trash, all seemed to flow over all the dozens of desks, but completely inundated Bill’s desk and his neighbors desk, a severe gray hair who spoke in Japanese over the phone. My job was to change light bulbs throughout the warehouse and run errands.
I had almost unlimited time to spy on Bill. He was on the phone, he was talking to the gray hair (who I later learned was his brother Sam), he toiled over papers, he chewed his cigar. I did notice a yellowed sheet of paper nailed to the wall behind him.
“You know what that is?” he drawled one day, pointing at the paper. “Do ya?” No. “They nailed it to my father’s door.” I looked it closely. “They put us in an internment camp in Eastern Oregon. I bet they don’t teach you that at school.” He picked up the phone and dialed a number. The conversation was over.
When everyone had gone home I went back and read it through. I knew what a concentration camp was, but not in Eastern Oregon. Later I looked at microfilms at the Central Branch, and quizzed the librarians on the 4th floor of the OHS. No one knew.
Bill knew exactly how precious education, family and individual rights are worth – because he’d had his taken from him. So had Robert Murase, a third-generation Japanese American (I think Bill and Sam were / are second-generation).
The backstory is Bill pushed the Portland Japanese American Historical Memorial project forward and financed it, or finagled the financing from the city. After years of prodding and waiting, finally in 1992 the Amendment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was signed into law and reparations were made. Bill made the politic and Bob Murase made the artwork.
Learn more about the Japanese American Internment Camps. You think it can’t happen here? Well, it already did.
Visit the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center.
Here’s a cool VR rendering of the Japanese American Historical Memorial.