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Dream Refuge

for children imprisoned

Artist Statement

Na Omi Judy Shintani

As you enter my Dream Refuge for children imprisoned exhibition, please experience 
this sacred space with reverence and thoughtfulness in quietude. Through experiencing this healing installation, it is my hope that the viewers may feel compassion, empathy, 
and new understanding of this appalling time in United States history.

While the children safely slumber, hear the realities of their experienced trauma and know that it may still affect them now. The drawings represent Japanese American children that were incarcerated for years in American concentration camps during WWII (my own father being one of them), American Indian boarding school children who were denied 
their culture and taken from their communities, and the Central American children 
who are imprisoned, separated from their families, and living in squalid, unsafe conditions at the border. 

I conducted interviews and collected writings of those incarcerated during 
their childhood. You can hear their voices expressing portions of their stories, 
and you can read the complete writings with photographs in binders throughout the room. 

If so moved, please participate in the community altar by writing your thoughts and blessings and placing them there.

I began this process with “The Innocent Dreamer” the first sleeping child I drew in honor 
of the Japanese American children imprisoned at Tanforan Race Track in San Bruno 
after the Pearl Harbor attack.  I stuffed the girl’s mattress with hay and was instantly transported to that time, experiencing the smell and itchiness, and the insult of having 
to make my bed to sleep in a horse stable. The life size child drawing elicited tearful memories of those who were children in American concentration camps. She touched 
all kinds of people’s hearts and souls. She brought home the horror of imprisoning children 
as terrorists in our country.

Then the shock of the treatment of Central American children at our borders 
bombarded me, and I did what I always do - express my activism through art. 
I expanded the project to include more sleeping children to connect the US history 
of incarcerating children to the atrocities happening to children being imprisoned 
and separated from their families today.

Art and the unconscious can be so magical. Interestingly, I felt something familiar as 
I drew these sleeping children for over a year. Suddenly I recalled the vision that came to me almost 10 years earlier. I was in a beautifully lit large cave and before me were many sleeping children. I was told I was the caregiver of these rainbow children. Thank you for being part of my recreated dream and honoring and acknowledging the history and resilience of these children. Let us embrace all children as our own, as ourselves, 
as our future.




I wanted to get out of the studio and be physically present where the children at the border were being held. I got that opportunity when I connected with Satsuki Ina, herself a child in the camps. She invited me to come on her pilgrimage to Crystal City and a protest at the largest detention center in the United States in Dilly, Texas. 


To prepare I conducted a workshop at the Half Moon Bay Library where Mallory Nomura-Saul and I taught families and people of different heritages how to fold cranes. We added these to the 30,000 tsuru (cranes) that were hung on
the detention center fence during the protest. They were colorful signals to
the children that people were fighting for them and they were not forgotten.


I got to see some of these children and parents at the Greyhound Bus station
when we handed out backpacks with food and some art supplies. The proximity
and historical connection of the Japanese Incarceration and the imprisonment of
the asylum seeking children was so deep and disturbing. This cemented my desire to make this connection in my art.


The inspiration for the drawings came from different places. My two nieces posed
in sleeping positions and I photographed them. I received photos from some of
the people I interviewed. I researched images of children at the detention centers and those held in Mexico, as well as Japanese American children of WWII camps and children in Indian boarding schools. I took qualities from the different images to create drawings that would represent any incarcerated child. What was interesting to me was that even though the children came from three different ethnic groups
they had similar physical appearances – that their similar “otherness” was a big reason why they were separated and imprisoned away from the majority of Americans.


I wanted to add some sort of protection for each child. I discovered semamori,
an embroidery amulet that Japanese parents sewed onto the back of their children’s clothing for protection. I found old books with a series of different semamori images. I selected and sewed a turtle, butterfly, humming bird, and flowers.
I chose to sew a pine needle image on a teenage boy that reminded me of my father when he was at Tule Lake Segregation Camp. This image is a connection to my deceased mother whose maiden name means “pine tree on the hill”.


For the American Indian children I created red felt circles filled with cedar and sage given to me by Lakota Muriel Antoine. I stitched the yellow circle with a cross in it – symbolic of the four directions.


Advisor Belinda Arriaga advised me that the Central American children carry crosses with them for protection and comfort, so I used purple ribbon and red thread to create cross talismans for them.

To collect stories of those who had been or are incarcerated as children I sent
out emails to my communities asking for memories. I also tapped my Facebook followers and Japanese American Facebook groups. Much of my research was
done through networking and introductions. 


Some stories were emailed to me. I provided a questionnaire which some followed and some did not. Some of the storytellers chose to be interviewed and that took about 2 hours each. Those writings often took a few rounds of edits. I learned so much from each person.


After some discussion with advisors, I decided to try something new – create recorded stories to broadcast within the installation. 


Linda Ando reviewed the stories and suggested passages to use for the recordings.

Kallan Nishimoto at Flytrap Studio in Oakland did three recording sessions.
Others were voices for those who could not attend the sessions. Ray Day recorded the children who read in English and Spanish. He then edited the stories together using my script. We reviewed a lot of music and decided to go with original shakuhachi (Japanese flute) music by Devon Osamu Tipp,


The binders contain the full interviews and are available for deeper understanding of the project. 

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