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4 paintings in Collection

Rose Nobuco Niguma


(1915-2014) United States

Works in Public Collections

Oregon Historical Society, Portland, OR; Portland Art Museum, OR; Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, Portland, OR

Other resources

Interview with Rose Niguma, Densho Digital Repository with Japanese American Museum of Oregon, 2004

Born 1915 Hood River, OR
Died 2014 Portland, OR

I am a Nisei, pioneer woman artist, who persevered and worked both in abstraction and figurative expressions.

Rose Niguma grew up in Oregon, living almost all of her life in Portland, except for three years spent in the Minidoka Internment camp (1942-45) in Idaho, an experience that greatly impacted her life. Her paternal grandfather was an orchardist in Hood River and her father and uncle worked there together as adults. Rose’s mother came to Portland when she was 19 and was deeply loyal to the city. The family moved from Hood River to Portland and the parents divorced when Niguma was in high school. She and her three siblings assisted their mother in the family’s grocery store.

Niguma knew at a young age that she would pursue art. She vividly remembers reading about Italian Renaissance painter Titian in the encyclopedia when she was 9 and being excited by the artwork. Her parents knew Japanese artists Toshikata Mizuno and Furuya Kōrin and Niguma was influenced by the conversations about their life and work. She was encouraged to draw by her mother and after high school she enrolled in the Museum Art School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art) where she would return twice, graduating at age 64 with a degree in painting in 1979.

Niguma was 26 when Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 ordering all people of Japanese descent, including those who were U.S. citizens, to be incarcerated in internment camps. In response to the invasion at Pearl Harbor, Rose and her family were forced to leave their home in Portland and were taken to Minidoka Camp in south central Idaho.

A dry, dusty place surrounded by sage brush, the camp was a radical departure from the lush landscape and climate of the Pacific Northwest. While we were interned at the Minidoka Concentration Camp in Idaho, we felt imprisoned among the sandstorms, tumbling sagebrush, rattlesnakes, ticks, howling winds, and yelping coyotes at night. Roses did not survive in that climate. The adjustment was difficult for the whole family but Niguma stayed busy while she was in the camp, teaching nursery school in her block and eventually overseeing all the nurseries in the facility. She earned $19 a month. She also taught Sunday School but was acutely aware of the irony of doing so. “I was living with an injustice and living with it daily.”

Upon release from Minidoka, Niguma prodded her mother to move to New York to start a new life, but her mother insisted on returning to Portland. The War Relocation office helped Rose find a room near Portland University and she found a job teaching, but she was eager to resume her studies at art school. In 1946 she enrolled again at the Museum Art School where she taught weekend classes for children to assist with her tuition.

Northwest painting legend Louis Bunce was Niguma’s teacher. Like many artists of his generation Bunce studied at the Art Students League in New York, absorbing the styles and philosophy of European modernists. Working initially through variations of surrealism and cubism, by the time that Niguma was working with him, he had largely adapted the approach of Abstract Expressionism. Niguma was influenced by Bunce and the New York School painters, recognizing a freedom and optimism in their approach that greatly appealed to her.

All of Niguma’s paintings in the Wolfson Collection were made after her release from Minidoka and, while she did not title or date her pieces, more than likely they were made while she was studying with Louis Bunce. Untitled (The Gorge) is an abstracted landscape that recalls her longing for Oregon while she was interned. The tan and green form in the middle of the composition is Niguma bent with sorrow and surrounded by the landscape of the Columbia Gorge—its waterfalls, trees and the river. The bright palette is typical of Niguma who preferred bold colors, believing they signaled an optimistic approach to life.

Untitled (Landscape) is a reflection on the barrenness of Idaho. The fallen fruit a reference to the despair she felt being taken from her home as well as, perhaps, her troubled relationship with her father and the family’s history as orchardists in Hood River. The missile-like shapes of the buildings in this work reference the war and the fear that must have been ever pervasive during internment.

In Untitled (Abstract with Church) and Untitled, (Abstract with Cross) Niguma’s approach is more abstract and the palette softer, warmer and more muted. While Niguma studied abstraction, traditional composition was important and her abstract works often included some central subject that was recognizable. Her love of the Northwest’s landscape is evident in these images where the planes of color are rounded shapes suggesting land masses, mountains and the sky. Niguma resisted the hard edges of some abstractionists, stating: I like curves. It makes the movement.

In a 2004 interview conducted by the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, Niguma reflects on her life as an artist and how art was an essential means of communication for her, something that she had to do every day regardless of a marketplace. I don’t know what is inside of me that comes out…I don’t exactly call it obsession but it’s almost like it…

In addition to making art, Niguma spent some 25 years caring for her brother who had gone blind and then suffered a stroke. As she explained it, her life was fairly restricted—moving daily between caring for her brother and going to her studio. She had a number of studios in Portland during her lifetime and worked steadily but she did not receive any significant attention or care to market her own art. She found Portland’s taste provincial, stating: People didn’t understand abstraction….it has to be representational.

While Niguma was deeply troubled by the discrimination and racism evident in the internment experience, she was a proud American and worked to defend and make visible the contributions and loyalty of the Japanese American community. She was distressed to not find the work of Japanese artists in museums so she took it upon herself to organize exhibitions of art by the Japanese artists she knew including one at the Oregon Historical Society. Niguma located the spaces, recruited artists and raised public and private money to mount these exhibitions throughout Portland.

Rose Niguma’s tenacity and determination were built from her life experience. She states Because art was denied to me, because of so many obstacles, I really wanted to learn. Niguma was never interested in marrying or having children. She wanted first and foremost to be in charge of her own life and be free to make art. Despite many hardships, she persevered and continued to find release and joy in her painting up until her death at 99.

The camp was so unjust, so unfair. It left a scar on me…I was bitter for a long, long time but one thing that I loved was art and when I returned to it, it just softened it.

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