wall tile, SE Milwaukie Ave., PDX

I can't verbalize exactly why the green, white, and burgundy wall tile on a building in Brooklyn, Portland, reminds me of the feel of the documentary, The Cats of Mirikitani, or specifically Mirikitani's drawings, something whimsical about the colors and the gridlined pattern perhaps. The subject of the documentary, Jimmy Mirikitani, descended from a samurai clan, he says, grew up in Hiroshima, endured U.S. internment as a Sacramento-born U.S. citizen during WWII, survived the loss of his entire family (or so he thought), spent years of drifting around the East coast working as a cook, and as an aged, homeless street artist, inhaled the toxic fumes of the NYC 9/11 bombing, experiencing in one life more than most anyone. And yet all he wanted was to work and be recognized as an artist.

But life is rarely easy for artists, even the most talented or successful. Remember how Van Gogh chopped off his ear and Hemingway shot himself? And then there's De Kooning and Dorothy Parker and Fitzgerald and Joyce and Faulkner, and on and on. Penelope Fitzgerald, that late British bloomer, was married to an alcoholic. Jackson Pollack was an alcoholic. Jimmy Mirikitani cooked for Jackson Pollack. In many ways, artists are drama magnets. But this is a generalization. Artists are the only ones aside from self-help gurus who (are willing to, compelled to?) express their angst in public, while regular folk suffer with and maybe overcome addiction or emotional distress in comparative silence.

"Im [sic] still putting the hero back into heroin"

I was drawn to the Mirikitani film because I've been fascinated with this aspect of WWII history (not that anything about WWII isn't fascinating, from Nazis to Spam) ever since I found out ten years ago that I'd grown up only 30 miles from the largest WWII internment (aka "relocation") camp in the U.S.—and it was never talked about in my Oregon hometown, though Klamath Falls was the nearest town of size to the camp, right over the state border. Nobody ever said. While researching a writing project, I stumbled on the Tule Lake memorial site by a group hosting pilgrimages for former internees and followed the Internet trail for a time.

Then two years ago (surrounding that funeral I mentioned) on a day trip to the Lava Beds for some light spelunking with visiting cousins from Texas, I suggested we stop at Newell (population 500) just below the town of Tulelake (population 1,000) to see the memorial. We hadn't packed a lunch for the outing, so everybody was starving and far more interested in stopping for hamburgers, fries, and milkshakes at a roadside diner on the way back to Klamath, so I had about three minutes with the car running and didn't take any pictures. There wasn't much left to see, it seemed, a plaque, a fenced-off building or two—nothing like the rows and grids of the camp barracks in the wartime photos that housed 18,000 people, certainly not the level of physical evidence I saw at Auschwitz. Soon after the war ended and the Tule Lake camp shut down, it was all dismantled so everything could return to farmland, to normal. 

Internment of U.S. citizens happened in my backyard, so to speak, and it could happen again, during another world war, during widespread natural disasters we can see coming, during increasingly extreme battles of moral philosophies, vying worldviews, struggles over scarcer resources.

pavement pool, PDX

Meanwhile, bird die-offs are being reported this spring in the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, death from avian cholera due to overcrowding as the wetlands dry out. Low precipitation in the high desert means everyone starts fighting over water: the potato and alfalfa farmers, many of whom have been family-farming for a century thanks to government land grants via massive reclamation and canal-irrigation projects; those fighting for the endangered fish, suckers in Oregon and salmon downstream in California; and those supporting the birds, "legally last in priority," who use the refuge wetlands as a migratory stopover or local home (for the latter read: bald eagles, our once-endangered national bird). The louder disputes some years make national news. And we haven't seen anything yet. Remember, experts claim future wars will be fought over water, not oil.

orange-yellow flower

Mirikitani sketches from memory koi and turnips and cats and peonies and the Tule Lake Segregation Center in winter and Hiroshima in flames. He draws them in color over and over, different versions, same themes, beauty, peace, horror, and loss. Which human-made horrors are still ahead? Science fiction tries to predict what historians and artists after Mirikitani will document.

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