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Moving forward with looking back

Steps made toward memorial to Japanese-Americans who were sent to internment camps from Juneau during World War II

Posted: August 11, 2012 - 11:05pm  |  Updated: August 11, 2012 - 11:07pm
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The proposed Empty Chair memorial to Japanese-Americans who were sent to internment camps during World War II is moving forward. Since the initial article (http://bit.ly/Iv83L6), the committee, led by head Margie Alstead Shackelford, has made significant progress toward completion of the project, inspired by committee member Mary Tanaka Abo’s brother John Tanaka’s absence at his own graduation, where he was to be recognized as valedictorian.

The story, confirmed by classmate Marie Darlin, was that the school held a separate ceremony for John’s graduation and, during the main ceremony when Japanese-Americans had been taken to internment camps, an empty chair was left where John would have sat. This imagery was so powerful for those who witnessed it, that it became symbolic of the emptiness in the community during the time the Tanaka family and many others were removed from the community.

“The concept of an empty chair represents the missing valedictorian of the class of 1942 and, by extension, an entire community of Japanese and Japanese-Americans.” wrote Peter Reiquam, the artist selected by the committee to bring the memorial to fruition.

Reiquam, a Seattle-based artist, has a broad art background, ranging from prints and drawings to sculpture and public arts. He earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in sculpture from the University of Washington in 1982 and his master’s in sculpture from Yale University in 1984.

“He works with public art. Mary met him because she has a friend named Pat Warashina, who is a very famous artist, and Pat recommended Peter. And Mary went and spoke with him at his studio, and I think maybe she was there for two-and-a-half hours and he was really receptive.” Shackelford said in an interview Wednesday.

From the vision presented by the committee, Reiquam created a draft of the memorial and provided details for how he envisions the memorial, much of which is still being discussed by members of the committee.

ReiQuam wrote in his proposal that he envisions a “bronze chair one-and-a-half times actual size. “The increased size of the chair gives it greater presence and stature and invites interaction from visitors to the park.””

The bronze base, he has diagrammed in the sketch provided, which is still being discussed by committee members, depicts boards “ripped from the gym as the internees were ripped from their community, a metaphor for the innocent people who were ripped from the security and comfort of their community,” he wrote.

“When Mary looked at it,” Shackelford said, “because it has like a gym floor under it, she thought at first it was the barracks floor and Peter said to her, ‘You know, that’s ok, when people look at a piece of art, they interpret it in whatever way fits them.’”

As the committee suggested, the names of internees from Juneau would be etched in the base, floorboards in this rendition, as well as some narrative text, written by Tanaka Abo.

Also suggested were japanese symbols for memory, recollection and remembrance, as well as a title commemorating the project as a World War II memorial to the Japanese and Japanese-Americans who were taken from their home in Juneau.

“We’d like it to be finished by the spring of 2014 or the summer of 2014,” Shackelford said, “That gives us two years. The artist felt that he could have it done by then, if nothing else interferes with his time schedule.”

With the artist chosen, another obstacle was finding a location for the memorial. The committee had originally hoped to have the memorial where the City Cafe, owned by the Tanaka family, had been located. After speaking with City and Borough of Juneau Planning Manager Greg Chaney, they were smitten with a new location, in Capital School Park.

“(Tuesday) we presented to PRAC and they endorsed our location at the Capital School Park. Within the park, we don’t have a specific site yet…” Shackelford said.

The motion to endorse was made by Dixie Hood and Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee chairman Jeff Wilson seems optimistic the project will face little trouble getting approval.

Reiquam will be visiting in September, Shackelford said, to walk the park with CBJ officials to determine the best location for the memorial. Karleen and Roger Grummett, also on the committee, brought up the potential of the park being redesigned in the next five years, possibly playing a significant role in the site to be chosen for the memorial, as it would be most efficient to choose a spot that wouldn’t require the memorial to be moved.

“We’re also heartened because the Juneau Community Foundation has envelope us into their organization and will collect our funds and will disburse our funds with the advice of our committee. So we have their backing and their standing in the community. Which makes it easier for us because they also are sending letters to all the people who donate so they can have tax deductible contributions.” Shackelford said.

“Especially for such a short term project,” Karleen Grummett added, “Roger was the one that got that one going.”

“I think it’s wonderful that Juneau has an organization like that, to help out smaller people in the community, who don’t have a bigger organization backing them, but want support for something important to the community,” said Shackelford.

She said they so far have more than $10,000 pledged, which puts them already a quarter of the way to their proposed budget of $40,000, should all the pledged funds come through.

“We haven’t really officially started fundraising, but we started taking pledges,” Karleen Grummett said. “And that’s through people on the committee, people in the Japanese community, people who know people on the committee.”

Different committee members will be speaking at meetings around town, including Rotary clubs and the Chamber of Commerce luncheon to encourage support for the memorial.

Both said they didn’t ask for any of the money so far, it has just been offered.

“There seems to be a sort of synchronicity about all this. It’s like Mary said in an email, ‘It’s sort of like a puzzle and each piece arrives just as you need it and it knows where it fits into the master plan.’” Shackelford said, “I’m just surprised at how quickly this has all happened.”

Quick is an apt description for the committee, whose first press came only in May, when Shackelford and Tanaka Abo were in town and received their endorsement from the Juneau Historical Resource Committee.

“I think our committee members have just made it all happen.” Shackelford said of their progress.

The memorial alone will have meaning to those many in Juneau, but for those too young to know the stories or for those visiting Juneau as tourists, the committee has been in talks with Jane Lindsey of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum about creating an educational component.

Another committee member, Marsha Irwin Bennett, has spoken with representatives of the Alaska State Museum, who expressed interest in having a permanent exhibit that includes the internment when the new museum is built.

There have also been discussions about the City Museum hosting a reception after the dedication of the memorial, but with nearly two years until the committee thinks the memorial might be completed, the only thing set in stone — or bronze — so far, is that this committee has wide support and is making significant progress toward making this memorial a reality.

To follow the Empty Chair Committee’s progress, bookmark their currently-under-construction blog at emptychairproject.wordpress.com and look for updates in the Empire. Shackelford can be contacted directly at mgalstead@aol.com. Donations can be made at www.juneaucf.org.

• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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