Interview: JUDY SHINTANI, with Anna Vaughan

Crossing to Safety, March 3rd – 31st

As a cultural narrator, Judy Shintani focuses on remembrance, connection, and storytelling. She works with organic and recycled materials, textiles, ethnic remnants, paint, and video. Her process involves researching histories, collecting materials, and interacting with collaborative participants and communities in order to reveal their stories. She received her MA in Transformative Art from JFKU in Berkeley, her BA in Graphic Design from San Jose State, and is a 2015 Joan Mitchell Emerging Artist Grant nominee.

Shintani will showcase her work with ten other San Francisco Bay Area artists at Abrams Claghorn on March 3rd though 31st (reception on March 12th.

Anna Vaughan, an accomplished artist in her own right and resident artist at Abrams Claghorn, took some time to sit down and talk about her works.

Anna: Hi Judy. Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about your art practice today. It’s inspiring to see all the different approaches that you take- installation, performance and collaborative works- to name a few. I imagine that all of these different processes have a way of interweaving and informing each other.

Can you tell me more about which pieces you chose for the exhibit, and how you came to select them?

Judy Shintani: My work for this show originates from a two month residency period at the Santa Fe Art Institute, where I was around the end of 2015. We were working with the theme of immigration, and I choose to create work around the Japanese Internment camps located there in New Mexico.

I asked participants to think of someone they wanted to remember. Then they struck a pose familiar to that person, and I traced the shape onto the gallery walls. I also went to my home town of Lodi and traced my father. He is eighty-eight, and spent his teenage years in the Tule Lake Segregation Camp. So the outlines are particular people, but they are also meant to be representative of everyone or anyone. Hence, there are no ethnic references in the drawings.

Ultimately, I’m working with the idea of how experiences ripple through generations. The red line that traces us is like a lifeline that connects us. Experiences ripple through all families. It just so happens that in my particular family, a big experience was the internment. And I wanted the viewers to relate to that experience, by relating to their own family experiences.

Experiences ripple through all families.

I am also working with another artist, Chris White, to help me create the screen for the tracings. The screen will be patterned off-of the traditional Japanese art-screen, called a “byobu,” which translates to “protection from wind.” The byobu were created to divide interior spaces and enclose interior spaces. In the case of my art installation, it symbolizes the spaces that can separate those who are labeled “different.”

Anna: I love that you are using art as way to connect with family and community around a sensitive topic. Your process sounds respectful and inclusive toward the collaborators. I imagine that this practice may create a healing space. Have you found that to be true? And is healing part of your intention?

Judy Shintani: Yes, I know that art is my healing modality, and a healing tradition. I think that creativity gives people hope, because it is action oriented; a sense of being in-the-now. It transforms feelings and thoughts, and shows a person their own inner wisdom. It has been around for a far greater time span than any established religion. We see evidence of it in cave drawings, and on rocks; it exists in every culture. I consider it the ultimate medicine.

I see my work as a way in for healing, pondering, meditating, and engaging. If I do it with heart and intention, then I think the viewers and participants sense my intention, and it makes it a safe place to experience difficult things. When I created the space that surrounded the viewers and participants with traced, imagined ancestors from different cultures, I also held a participatory walking meditation, a community altar, and an invitation for people to tell their stories. I was honored that people felt called, and safe enough, to collaborate. There were tears during the tracing, and strong emotions during the walking meditation, speaking, and listening.

Making the work about the internment is my own healing and meditation – for me, my family, ancestors, and culture. I see it as “bringing to light” unspoken and unreleased issues around the this unjust history. And it is not just for my family- as this kind of injustice still occurs in the United States, and in the world. It is not just a singular event that happened seventy or more years ago.

To this day, Central American mothers and children refugees are being held in camps in Texas. I find this appalling. It is shocking that internment camps are being suggested as a solution to people illegally immigrating to the US.

To this day, Central American mothers and children refugees are being held in camps in Texas. I find this appalling. 

This is why I continue to do art around this issue: to remind people, and perhaps expose them to this history, for the first time. The shadow side of us still exists, and fear makes us forget that we are each other.

Anna: I had no idea about the camps in Texas. That is truly heartbreaking. Hopefully more people have heard about the Japanese American Internment Camps, but the rippling-after effects of trauma are something that many may not think about. 

If I have it right…? A process of your art “gives way” for healing both individuals and society through the conscious act of remembering, thus giving light to the “shadow side-” and exposing fear. It’s almost as if the art gives a physical structure to the underlying stories and emotions in the human psyche.

How did you come to create these healing rituals?

Judy Shintani: I think you have aptly explained my process. Creatively examining our history is far more engaging way to approach past experiences than through, say, reading a text book. I hope to bring personal stories to light, and create empathy – a thought like, “that could be my child, or my grandmother behind bars!”

One way I was inspired to create healing rituals is due to a time my father and I went also to a retreat at the Tule Lake Segregation Camp- where, as I stated before- he spent his teenage years imprisoned. He was 82 at the time we went back.


They asked a question of the elders there:

“How often do you think about being in the camps?”

They had people raise their hands-

“Every ten years?”

“Every five years?”

“Every year?”

“Every month?”

My dad still had his hand raised for “every day.”


That stunned me, because I had no idea the internment was still so prominent in his daily life. He rarely spoke of the experience. It made me think how much trauma is carried on, and friends and family may not even know. That is why I want to provide a voice; imagery, writing- to express what is not being vocalized. And the process provides a way for me to deal with this trauma, too; something to do, instead of just feeling helpless and angry.

My masters is in transformative art from JFKU. I specialize in working with community and art as a process. I work with what I know, have experienced, and am called to create. Others that have similar experiences can relate. I believe there is a universal force; a morphic field that we move in, and connects us. But overall, healing must be done by the individual. I simply offer the time and space for it to be explored.

Anna: I think I understand what it feels like to be “called” to make a piece of art. Sometimes I wonder: Why do I spend so much time in this uncharted territory? It seems to me that, with artists and healers, there is an irresistible pull to follow one’s own path.

Are there other artists, or healing traditions, that inspire your work?

Judy Shintani: Reiko Fujii is a name of another Japanese-American artist who has worked with healing around the Internment. She embedded ancestor images into stunning glass kimonos, and made documentaries with interviewed internees. Flo Oy Wong also does deep work about her family and Chinese Americans and immigrants. As an elder Asian woman artist, Flo inspired me when I was a new artist, and she continues to be a mentor. Ester Hernandez is another artist who works with history and culture. She also lived in the Central Valley of California, where I grew up.

Anna: Your list of inspirational people reminds me of how important it is for educators and individuals to seek out examples of creative people from a wide range of backgrounds. We all need to be able to connect to the lives of people who reflect our own life experience in some way.

Thank you for this enlightening conversation, and for following your calling to create a space for healing to happen.

Do you have any parting words of wisdom for us?

Judy Shintani: Yes. Do not underestimate the power of art and inner wisdom. Those two can take you far on your life journey.

In Februray 2015, NY Times Magazine published an article to cover family experiences in US detention camps. Follow the link to open in a new page: “The Shame of America’s Family Detention Camps

All are welcome, March 12th, 5 -7 PM, for the opening of this multi-disciplinary show: Crossing to Safety.

Our Facebook event is linked here.