Wendy Maruyama’s art is furniture.

For decades Maruyama has designed furniture pieces and imbued them with artistic references and themes, tied often to her distant Japanese heritage. Fascinated by her immigrant grandparents’ roots, Maruyama has worked over the last decade to make art about the things that inspired both emulation and satire in Japanese culture, from clean lines and balance to a “proliferation of Hello Kitty vibrators, all things related to Godzilla, and nasty comic books.”

But a different element of Japanese culture, this one stateside, caught her attention a few years ago. Maruyama began researching the forced internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans along the West Coast, including her mom’s family, into camps during World War II. Working with volunteers, Maruyama has made thousands of tags like the ones evacuees had to wear that labeled them as going to a particular camp. An exhibition of this work, “The Tag Project/Executive Order 9066,” opens officially tonight at the University Art Gallery at San Diego State University, where Maruyama heads up the furniture design and woodworking program.

Maruyama and I had a conversation over a series of emails this week about this work, how it felt to dig up so many emotional stories and how the people usually accustomed to buying her furniture work have responded.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

When did you start researching internment?

I obviously knew about it because my mother’s family was forced from their home in San Pedro, California. I first found out about it when I was about 12 — I remember feeling very bitter and resentful about it and didn’t really want to think about it anymore. As maturity set in (ha — at the tender age of 56) I decided it was time to confront this and try to understand what my family went through, and how this event shaped the way future generations of Japanese Americans perceive themselves.

When you tell people you meet about this work, what do they say?

Some had ‘heard’ about it but did not realize the sheer numbers of Japanese Americans who were actually taken away — others thought the Japanese Americans were ‘paid to go away’, and still others did not even know about it at all. (My husband’s 65-year-old coworker from the Midwest had never heard about it, which was really shocking to me.) And it made me realize how important it was for me to do this project.

What made you land on making the tags once you started this research?

Believe me, it wasn’t easy to do this work after the research was in hand. It took some time to digest all the new information, and I made a point of memorizing the names of all the camps and their locations. I could feel the bitterness rise again but then to my surprise, it subsided as I started working. Perhaps it had been meant for me to do this as a form of therapy and to carry me through a phase of acceptance of all that my grandparents had to go through.

Some of the most iconic photos of the internment were taken by photographer Dorothea Lange, who was hired by the War Relocation Authority to document the internment process. Her haunting photos of families, gathered with “only what they could carry” showed faces, young and old, apprehension and fear, tempered by smiles to ensure the children that everything will be OK. All of them were wearing tags bearing their names, assigned ID numbers, and designated final locations to their respective camps.

The 120,000 tags represented lost dreams, shattered lives, and displaced individuals who were singled out by “looking like the enemy”.

The process of replicating these tags using government databases, writing thousands of names, numbers and camp locations became a meditative process. And for the hundreds of volunteers, they could for a minute or two, as they wrote the names, contemplate and wonder what this person was thinking as he or she was being moved from the comforts of home to the spare and bare prisons placed in the foreboding deserts and wastelands of America.

And could it happen again?

That meditative process is really interesting. But was it enough to help process such a grim prospect? Did making this work depress you? How did you deal with that? And how much did you talk about it with your parents?

I thought about my grandfather quite a bit while I was making this work. I replayed the stories that my mother had told me through my head as I was making this work. New stories arose during many of our “tagging bees” (a take on the “quilting bees”) and I thought of those, too. (Some of the saddest ones were of Japanese Americans who killed their pets before they left because they had no one to care for them. Others left behind their dog with neighbors, only to have the dog die of a broken heart. Wah.)

Naturally I would vacillate between feelings of wistfulness, feelings of uncertainly about this work (typical artists’ angst) and feeling bursts of creative energy while making this work. The Tag Project did create an opportunity to talk directly with my mother and my aunts (her sisters) about their experiences. To me that is one of the most important gifts of this project. While I was too late in initiating these kinds of conversations with my grandparents, I at least had the initiative to pursue the conversation with my parents.

Did you get any pushback from collectors/fans of your previous woodworking and furniture that you were making this work?

My collectors and gallery owners have been incredibly supportive of this new work. This was unexpected. I have sold several pieces already, and it was very enlightening to me to know that the audience appreciates the message of these works. While the subject matter can be sad, the pieces I have been making are also contemplative as well.

How did you make the aesthetic decision to hang the tags in such masses? How do you hope people move through the gallery?

Photo by Sam Hodgson

It made more sense to group them by the individual camps. I mulled over how I wanted to present these: A wall? A substructure? I decided on hanging them on steel rings so that they cascaded downwards from 11 feet — and they give the appearance of ghostly figures that rustle and murmur as you walk by. For the installation, I wanted the viewer to be able to meander among the different groupings as if they are walking through a forest of trees.

I know you’re planning to take this show on the road. What are you thinking about as you prepare to open it in a couple of days for a San Diego audience?

Because most of the volunteers who helped with the tags are in San Diego, it was important for the exhibition to debut here. Also quite a large number of Japanese Americans had to abandon businesses, crops, tuna boats, etc., and most were incarcerated in Poston, which was the largest of the ten camps. San Diego is a diverse city and I hope that high school history classes will bring their classes to see the exhibition during its run.

In searching for venues, it was critical to bring the tags to areas where the internment is largely unknown, such as New England (Boston) and the South (Arkansas). I also wanted to show the tags in areas close to where some of the camps are located. (Arizona) San Jose Institute of Art will host the exhibition in 2014 – it has the largest intact Nihonmachi (Japan Towns) in the US. I would like to bring the Tags to Seattle, which was an entry point for both sets of my grandparents and for a large number of immigrant Japanese during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

As I had mentioned before, I see this work not only as an art project but as an advocacy tool, as well as one that brings communities together as well as serving as an educational project. Hopefully my art succeeds in melding the four areas of art, advocacy, education and community.

Interview conducted and edited by Kelly Bennett, arts editor for VOSD. You can reach her directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

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Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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