Like all living quarters at the Minidoka concentration camp, Block 39, Barrack 2, Unit E was a tar paper room furnished only with a stove, army cots, and a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. That’s what greeted the Ouchida family–15-year-old Hideo, his four siblings, and his parents Shigeta and Shitsuka–when they arrived there on September 7, 1942. To make their space more habitable and escape the boredom and depression of life in camp, Shigeta and Shitsuka created countless craft objects out of shells, wood, and other scraps.
Some people came to camp with incredible artistic skill, which they taught to others. But most picked up craft-making during incarceration out of a desire to do something productive and decorate the barren living quarters. Almost anything you could imagine incarcerees wanting to do in this setting would have been created from scratch–decorations for dances, wedding bouquets and dresses, basic furniture for the barracks, a desk to work at, gardens for decoration and growing food. Even the tools and equipment needed to build these things were often improvised from scraps or crafted by hand.
Hideo’s mother, Shitsuka, focused on jewelry making from shells, ribbon, and metal bits. His father Shigeta’s handiwork included small drawings on reclaimed boards, carved birds mounted on greasewood branches, and wooden animals embellished with paint and scrap metal. This perky rooster, with his etched tail and wing feathers, painted stripes, and wood stain, is an example of one of his unmounted creations. Incarcerees scavenged wire from the rough edges of window screens, trimming the raw excess that had been left on during hasty construction–it’s possible Shigeta used this type of wire for the rooster’s legs.
While his parents were keeping busy with craft making, Hideo spent his time building model airplanes and playing sports. His parents passed on to him the crafts they saved from camp along with many supplies: tools, pins, string, wire, cardboard templates, paintbrushes, and jars of carefully bleached and sorted shells. In 2022, Hideo and his wife Rita donated these items to the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, becoming the largest single donation of camp art in JAMO’s collection.