Ishii’s work is a manifestation of his philosophical and spiritual views on life. The poetry of his art is like a haiku or tanka, stripped of the superfluous, revealing only the essential. He layers strong elements with the subtle, blending the traditional with the abstract, surrealism, and metaphor, as masterfully as he blends color and composition; tastefully, yet boldly. Then the narrative begins, developing and flowing through his art as he clarifies his messages with which all of his works are imbued. His messages are simple, yet can affect the viewer profoundly.
Daniel Ikuo Ishii was born in San Francisco in 1941 as World War II was into its second year. And like the over 110,000 Japanese Americans living along the Pacific Coast, he and his family were relocated to several of the internment camps hastily erected around the Western United States starting in the spring of 1942. They were eventually sent to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in Northern California.
One day at the Tule Lake Segregation Center, young Daniel and his brother, Douglas, were hailed to come in to a small, spare, single-room living space. The walls and floor were rough board spaced with large cracks as the wood dried and shrank. Newspaper was stuffed in the gaps to insulate against weather, the desert wind howling at night–sometimes for days–and from the ever present grit of sand that drifted in creating a thick, brown haze through which a small light bulb glowed overhead.
On one side of the room were three metal army cots with coil springs and a thin, pinstriped mattress rolled up neatly with a blanket. On the other side stood a small, black, potbelly stove, the floor of wooden rough planks.
One of several old men coaxed the boys to come in. They lived about three doors from the Ishii family and their similarly-designed barracks living quarters. Here it was summer, it was warm, and they had the stove burning. They were cooking something in the coal which all the internees had for fuel.
“I remember we were reluctant to enter. I went first and Doug followed. The old men told us how good it was and something we never had before. It looked of small white lumps of ash among smoldering coal. They kept poking at it. We were about ready to leave. They pulled out from the ash these pathetic lumpy-looking things all covered with gray ash. The man said we could have a taste. It was sweet potato skins, and it tasted so good for neither Doug or I ever tasted something sweet. He was 4 and I, 5.”
The camps were surrounded by high barbed wire and guard towers. Some internees fought back in quiet desperation, under cover of isolation, inscribing names, dates, and poetry on walls now crumbling.
Ishii reflects on those three old men, cooking with toxic coal, there in the last seasons of their lives, walking daily the perimeters of their enclosed world looking for any change–there was none; that they could still discover and share the sacredness of life in the simple form of a bitter sweet potato.
We were one of the first families to arrive to see the barbed wire to go up, the many moats with sandbags to be built so we were like mice in a maze of obstacles. Even as a small child of two you know your father is no longer there, told do not go close to the barbed wire fence or you may be killed. You are now confined to the compound and see and hear the complaints of the misery of all around you. And the memories go on and so life becomes that as a beginning never to forget.
“So I walk and my memories take me there from time to time…We live through a tragedy. We live through it over and over, becoming entangled in it and trapped within its grasp. We hold the key to let go and heal.”
Ishii’s 103-piece series, “Within The Folding Fabric,” speaks to the experiences of the over 110,000 Japanese Americans forceably removed from their homes, and speaks not only to the internees, themselves, but to all peoples for all time.