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Ishigo, Estelle

1899 - 1990

Estelle Ishigo is probably best known as the chronicler in art of the Wyoming Heart Mountain Concentration Camp experience. Of English, Dutch and French ancestry, Ishigo was married to a nisei and spent most of her life among Japanese Americans. Estelle Peck was born in Oakland in 1899 and moved with her family to Los Angeles at the age of 12. A sympathetic teacher noted her interest in art and directed her to Otis Art Institute, where she found her calling and met Arthur Ishigo (1902-1957), a San Francisco-born Nisei who was working as a chauffeur for California Lieutenant Governor Robert Kenny. Antimiscegenation laws at the time prohibited interracial couples from getting married, so in 1928, Peck and Ishigo took a trip across the border to Tijuana to be wed. Hoping for a career as an actor, Arthur worked as a janitor at Paramount Studios while Estelle worked as an art teacher. Shunned by her family and by other Caucasians, the couple lived among the Japanese American community.

With the outbreak of World War II and the removal of all West Coast Japanese Americans to inland concentration camps, the couple faced a dilemma. As a Nisei, Arthur was required to go while his wife was not. Though he wanted her to stay behind, she accompanied her husband first to the Pomona "Assembly Center" in California, then to Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Throughout the war years, Estelle drew, sketched and painted what she saw, providing a valuable document of life in the American concentration camps. "Strange as it may sound, in this desolate, lonely place I felt accepted for the first time in my life," she later wrote of her time at Heart Mountain. She and her husband remained there in order to record the last days of the camp until the camp closed. They and the others who were left were given $25 and put on a train to the West Coast. "I felt as if I were part of a defeated Indian tribe," she remembered.

The couple lived for several years in poverty in a succession of trailer parks until Arthur got a job as a baggage handler at an airport. After Arthur died of cancer in 1957, Estelle took a job as a mimeograph operator to make ends meet. In 1984, fellow Heart Mountain inmate Bacon Sakatani found Ishigo living in dire poverty in a squalid apartment, both her legs lost to gangrene. Former Heart Mountain residents made her last years pleasant ones and oversaw the republication of her 1972 book of drawings, Lone Heart Mountain. In 1990, film maker Steven Okazaki made a documentary of her life titled Days of Waiting. She passed away before seeing the film, which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.



 

 

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