NORTH ADAMS -- Roger Shimomura has just returned from a pilgrimage he makes every year to Minidoka, an internment camp in Idaho where he lived for two years as a young child.
In 1942, in World War II, the Unived States government forced almost 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes.
At Minidoka, more than 7,300 people lived within five miles of barbed wire and eight watch towers. The area is now a National Park preserving a painful history.
Before the trip, Shimomura made buttons. One said ‘Born in America.’
"It seems so simple," he said in a phone interview from Seattle, his native city, where he is preparing for an exhibit of his artwork. "It reminds you of Bruce Springsteen."
But it often comes as a surprise. Even when he has just given a talk about his artwork and his background, he said, people will ask him what part of Japan he comes from.
He was born here. His parents were born here. He is American.
In his paintings, he sets out to explore being American in bright paintings grounded in common sense and human rights.
"All of his work reflects that concern," said Laura Thompson, curator of Kidspace at Mass MoCA, where Shimomura’s paintings appear with the work of four other Asian and Asian American artists in "Freedom’s Just Another Word For ..."
Shimomura will talk about his work at Mass MoCA on Thursday, July 11, at 4 p.m.
In self-portraits like those at Mass MoCA, he may show himself as Superman, or in battle with Superman, to "bang away at misconceptions," he said.
He may take a Japanese character like "Astro Boy" or an American pop culture icon like Mickey Mouse and set it off balance, and make it his own.
Through Shimomura’s work, Thompson will talk with young viewers about freedom -- freedom of the mind and the body, political freedom, the freedom to change or to make change, to ask questions.
"We don’t make any assumptions about what their responses will be," she said. "We set up the experience for them. We want to use the art to stir a conversation with the students. It can go in any direction they take it."
She emphasizes that none of the artwork in Kidspace is made for children. Adults come into the exhibit with and without children, she said, saying this is for kids? And she answers that it is for everyone, and that kids should engage with richly layered, powerful and intelligent art.
"Kids need art," she argues. "They need art to learn, to develop their understanding, to think and feel and understand what they think and feel. And schools are increasingly cutting art programs."
She will lead students to look at a work, taking their time, and ask questions and talk about it. She will take them through a guided meditation and give them time to reflect. And then she will encourage them to make something of their own.
"Kids can have amazing and profound and deep insights into the artwork," she said. "We are always surprised."
Art can also move and excite them. This spring, when a colleague led a tour of first-graders to see Xu Bing’s Phoenixes, Xu Bing himself walked into the gallery, and when the children learned who he was, they ran in a body to give him a hug.
He was so pleased, Thompson said, that his work came home to them.
In the Kidspace show, she said, she chose superheroes from Shimomura’s "American knock-off" series, rather than scenes of camp life from "Minidoka on My Mind," because she thought the camps would be grim for a show for young children.
Shimomura remembers the camp in glimpses; he came there as a toddler small enough to ride on his father’s shoulders.
"My own memories are minimal, and I have tried to keep them minimal and accurate," he said, "not to embellish."
He has talked with his mother and aunt about their memories, and he has read family diaries.
"By the time the older Japanese Americans were willing to talk about it their generation was dying," he said.
At the pilgrimage he follows every year, people who remember the camps talk with teenagers about their lives there.
And this year at the pilgrimage, he saw a newly discovered 8 mm film -- only two are known to have been taken there -- and this one showed members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the one unit of Japanese American soldiers then allowed into the U.S. military, coming to the camp to say good bye to their families before they were shipped off to war.
It was powerful, Shimomura said, to see these young men behind barbed wire, saying goodbye.
If you go ...
What: Roger Shimomura will speak at Mass MoCA on Thursday, July 11, at 4 p.m.
Where: Mass MoCA
When: Thursday, July 11, at 4 p.m.
Admission: Free. Advance registration required.
Information: www.massmoca.org (413) 662-2111
This show of paintings, sculpture and installation ranges from Shimomura’s ironically forceful superheroes to a caged bird made of luminous crimson buttons, a meditating monk carved from magazines, a traditional gilded Thanga figure blowing bubble gum, anda gleaming red-gold human figure hiding his head underground.
And this show has roots across America. Gonkar Gyatso, born in Tibet, lives in London. Ang Tserin Sherpa, born in Nepal, considers himself Tibetan and lives in Oakland, Calif. Taiwanese artist Long Bin Chen lives in the Bronx. And Ran Hwang, born in South Korea, lives in Brooklyn