A blustery spring morning greets Setsuko Winchester as she steps out of her Land Rover at the top of the hill overlooking the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center.
A steady wind whips dust across the plain, as she and her husband Simon Winchester – a name built for the West but rooted in England – delicately unload two cardboard boxes filled with yellow ceramic bowls.
Setsuko, a former journalist with National Public Radio and a ceramic artist, is traveling across the United States to visit all 10 of the war relocation centers built during World War II to confine Japanese-Americans.
At each site, she carefully unpacks 120 hand-pinched, yellow-glazed tea bowls and places them in a singular pattern – letting inspiration dictate how they will be placed at each site. Sometimes they are in a straight line, as at Jerome, other times a circular arc, as at Manzanar.
At Heart Mountain, she and Simon battle the wind to create a snaking band of yellow along desert soil, winding the bowls through sagebrush and over old concrete foundations, toward the still-standing Heart Mountain hospital boiler house for the Heart Mountain hospital building and its iconic brick chimney. More than 550 children were born at this hospital during the camp’s operation from August 1942 to November 1945.
With Heart Mountain cloaked in smoke from wildfires to the north, Winchester turned her camera toward the hospital building.
“I’m almost glad Heart Mountain isn’t visible,” she said, according to a release provided by the center.
She had been looking for something else to photograph, something that spoke to her about the place and the lives it affected. Pointing to the 80-foot-tall red chimney, she said, “There is not much left that remains at most of these sites. This is amazing.”
So far, the Winchesters have visited the “War Relocation Centers” at Manzanar in California; Jerome and Rohwer in Arkansas; Gila River and Poston in Arizona; and Amache in Colorado. After Heart Mountain she’ll visit Minidoka (Idaho), Topaz (Utah), and Tule Lake (California), before heading home to Massachusetts. They are making the road trip with Setsuko’s father, who emigrated from Japan.
Her project is called “Freedom from Fear.” It is titled after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Speech. Winchester herself is Japanese-American, and the project began as a personal pilgrimage and education. She spent most of her childhood years knowing little about the Japanese-American incarceration experience. She had once been told, “you cannot know yourself unless you know your history.”
Taking that to heart, she set out to rectify the gaps in her personal history related to her Japanese ancestry. She explains the project as her attempt to use art and beauty to examine something ugly.
“I just want people to know that we’re human, too,” Winchester said of her project. “We’re not sub-human like we were portrayed during World War II, and we’re not super-human as we’re often depicted as part of the model minority myth. We’re just human, like everyone else. We’re as threatening as tea bowls.”
Each individual bowl represents 1,000 incarcerated Japanese Americans, and the yellow represents “The Yellow Peril” as they were referred to at the time. Each bowl is also glazed a various shade and all are different sizes – meant to emphasize individuality.
Once all 120 tea bowls have been placed, Winchester photographs the “ceramic essay.” Winchester hopes to exhibit the photographs in the future and organize them into a book to help raise public awareness of a forgotten part of American history.
She is among a recent wave of artists expressing a meaningful connection to Heart Mountain. A textile arts group, called the Textile Artists of the Greater Yellowstone, recently created a series of textile art pieces in response to their visits to the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. The pieces have been assembled into an exhibit now on display at the center.
In addition, George Takei, of “Star Trek” fame and whose family was incarcerated in Arkansas, used Heart Mountain as the inspiration and setting for his play “Allegiance,” which ended a successful run on Broadway earlier this year. Similarly, Luis Valdez, a renowned activist, playwright and film director (of “Zoot Suit” and “La Bamba” fame) also made Heart Mountain a centerpiece of his acclaimed stage production “Valley of the Heart.”
Amid a younger generation finding a connection with the National Historic Landmark, Gabriel Tajima-Pena, a Minecraft guru created a world based on Heart Mountain for the popular online, interactive game. Both Tajima-Pena and Valdez will share the stories that inspired their projects this summer at the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage in Wyoming. Valdez will serve as the keynote speaker and Tajima-Pena will demonstrate his Heart Mountain world in Minecraft.
In addition, a digital storytelling workshop will be conducted in conjunction with the Pilgrimage to engage yet another group of artists.
The events will take place over two days in Cody and at the Heart Mountain site July 29-30. For details, visit heartmountain.org/pilgrimage.html.
“Heart Mountain is more than a historic site. It is a place to learn and reflect on the lessons of our past, as well as create new meaning,” said Brian Liesinger, executive director of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. “What Setsuko Winchester, what George Takei has done, what Luis Valdez has done, what Gabriel has done, and what future visitors will do, is help us own and interpret the past in a way that has a profound impact on the present and future.”
The Heart Mountain Interpretive Center is located between Cody and Powell on US 14A. It is open in the winter Wednesday through Saturdayfrom 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and students, members and children younger 12 are free. For details, call (307) 754-8000 or visit HeartMountain.org.