Shodo, Sonoma and Tomiko Yabumoto

At the age of 6 months, Tomiko Yabumoto became an enemy of the state and moved with her parents to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center, one of the World War II Japanese-American internment camps. All three members of the family were born in California.

When released in 1946 to their Lincoln (Placer County) farm, the family had grown by two. In camp, the children saw their first snow, her mother knitted and made corsages from shells gathered on Tule’s ancient dry sea bed, her father worked in the mess hall and played the shakuhachi, a homemade bamboo flute, and a teenage uncle made a forbidden box camera. The film source? Unknown, but Yabumoto has personal photos documenting family and camp life.

After leaving camp, she assimilated into American culture when the family resettled in Lincoln and later Stockton, where an uncle had bought a hotel. During the dire postwar employment situation she learned about racism. When children called her a “Jap” for the first time, her mother’s instructions were, “tell them you are a Japanese AMERICAN.”

“I listened to ‘The Lone Ranger’ and ‘The Shadow’ radio programs – I was a tomboy, like a lot of girls – and drew with anything at hand. I learned how to play, just like the other kids.” At age 10, Yabumoto asked questions about religion, spoke Japanese and English and understood why her parents were watchful: not so much like the other kids.

After studying painting and fiber arts at San Jose State, Yabumoto taught middle school before joining the Peace Corps. The idea didn’t thrill her parents, but she talked them into it and was assigned to the Punjab in northern India. Staying on after the Peace Corps, she met many Tibetans and others who are curiously present in her life to the present day. In fact, several now live in Sonoma. In Japanese, “so no ma ma” means “things as they are.”

Yabumoto’s paintings and drawings have since been exhibited in the United States, Canada, and Japan and are collected internationally. A friend from her Canada and India days (now also in Sonoma) suggested that they use her batik, create clothing and sell it at a Vancouver craft fair. They sold out, and Yabumoto went to Hawaii for further study. She recognized the flow of the pigment and the wax resist as something almost spiritual.

Invited to a formal tea ceremony (cha no yu) in Hawaii, she felt something unusual as she came into the room. Yabumoto turned to face a tiny Shodo piece. Shodo, or “the way of writing,” migrated to Japan in the sixth-century but was known in China 2,200 years earlier. The Japanese elevated the wet-ink-brush calligraphy to an art form that embraces six distinct styles. Literally the moment she saw it, Yabumoto knew she wanted to study Shodo. Admitting no barriers, she lived in Japan for seven years, becoming a student of Naka Sensei.

“The work with wax in fabric batiking in the ’70s segued into the brushwork of Shodo in the ’80s,” says Yabumoto. “I needed to study something more deeply. Learning the styles of writing offered a foundation to venture into avant garde Shodo.” Her first year in Osaka, she was invited by Naka Sensei to attend the Kyoto Mainichi-ten, Japan’s national calligraphy exhibition. She had no idea that a few years later she would be accepted into the same exhibition as well as the Keisei Exhibitions in Tokyo. Yabumoto commuted two hours every Wednesday to study with Sensei. They continued by correspondence when she returned to the U.S. in 1991.

“Seven years later, when I was feeling isolated, Sensei invited me to show my work with her in Osaka. This year, I invited her to teach and show her work in Sonoma.” Their work and student pieces (created in less than a week) were exhibited at the Sonoma Valley Regional Library in early November. Yabumoto’s mentor also performed calligraphy at the recent Sonoma exhibition. Performance Shodo is a literal combination of the writing itself with the flowing movements that create it. Yabumoto describes the art of capturing movement in calligraphy.

“The character is a point of departure reinterpreted … a challenge to capture the spirit of the characters and allow the energy to flow into the writing. The piece takes on a life of its own through the act of being written.”

Yabumoto may offer Shodo classes locally in 2014. “The library, and Lisa Musgrove, were very positive and supportive of the event,” she says. Perhaps then, as Yabumoto says, “where there was nothing, miraculously there will be the appearance of a line or shape, and the white space will become alive.”

Right here in So no ma ma.