A painter and writer uses her art to overcome trauma

Author profile of Japanese-American Lily Havey.

  • Author Lily Havey with stained glass artwork in her Salt Lake City home.

    Stephen Trimble
 

Lily Havey has spent more than 40 years in a Salt Lake City home that resembles every other brick bungalow in her East Bench neighborhood. But I know I’ve found the right house when I walk up to the door and find it framed by skeins of stained-glass flowers.

Lily and her husband, John, live in a house filled with art. Piles of needlework teeter on a baby grand piano. She retrieves stained-glass pieces hidden in corners — a contemplative self-portrait; a tiger with sunlight blazing in its eyes. Havey’s own watercolors and the bold-stroked sheets made by her calligraphy teachers hang on the walls; hand-knitted sweaters and hand-sewn clothes fill her closets. 

Now in her 80s — thoughtful, compact, impulsive, a “lapsed Buddhist” who can’t sit still long enough to meditate — Havey keeps looking for new ways to release her artistic energy. Art has helped her adapt to trauma and change, and she’s still seeking healing by creating — most recently, Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp, a charming and bittersweet book of her paintings and stories (University of Utah Press, 2014).

Lily Havey was 10 in 1942, when Executive Order 9066 uprooted her family from a poor Hollywood neighborhood. She was Yuriko Nakai then, already a gasa gasa girl — always restless, always pushing boundaries. 

Yuriko thought they were going camping. Instead, the United States government was corralling Japanese-American families, fearful that these loyal citizens might collaborate with the enemy. The Nakais took the long train ride to southeasternmost Colorado, to the relocation camp at Amache along the Arkansas River.

When the war ended three years later, the family moved to Salt Lake City.  Havey won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory, where her initial dream of becoming a pianist waned. She majored in pedagogy and came home from Boston to teach piano and high school English and creative writing.

After 13 years, Havey quit teaching. She needed a new outlet. She recalled a treasured childhood memory of ruby glassware — its reflection and light and shadow — and took a class in glass art in the early 1970s. She began with suncatchers, she says, adding:  “It just escalated from there.”

When asked about her life, Havey often pauses, gives a self-deprecating laugh, then offers a matter-of-fact reply. She pauses now, and when she begins speaking about how her life intersects her art, her answers brim with warmth and strength.

Havey remembers Amache “in one sense, as a big adventure. The cactus and colors, the pale green, the rabbitbrush and little yellow flowers — I was enthralled.”

But she also carries frightening memories. Once, on a nighttime dash to the toilet, she was followed by a soldier’s searing spotlight shining from a guard tower. “That felt like a physical blow. I’ve always felt this unease with bright lights, with loud noises, with tight spaces. I have this strong startle reflex. And then I read about veterans returning with post-traumatic stress disorder and how that could be alleviated by reliving what had caused it.” 

Havey thought perhaps she could relieve her traumas through art. “But stained glass is rigid, not plastic enough to revisit my life in the camp. So I started painting.” 

Her watercolors resonate with the emotions and dreams of a young girl adapting to wartime, given meaning by the same woman pondering those memories decades later. “We are talking 70 years ago,” she mused. “How true are the memories? They are true for me. And so I started showing these paintings at museums. The curators wanted captions, and I visualized the scenes and wrote what I saw. It was as if I had a video camera: For the stories in the book, I just let the movie run.

 “I didn’t write, thinking, ‘I’ve got a message.’ I wrote because of a need to vent, and over time, my unease lightened.”

At Amache, each member of Havey’s family sought his or her version of gaman — the Japanese word that describes the skill of enduring the most awful challenges with patience and dignity.  Traditional Japanese-Americans urge their children to demonstrate gaman. Endure. “Shikataganai,” they say: “It can’t be helped.”

Havey endured, but she retained her gasa gasa energy and an artist’s yearning. And art has helped her adjust and heal: “As I read from my book over and over again to audiences, the emotional part of it gets less and less.”

Now that she’s reached that place of peace, she’s ready to write her mother’s story. “As a sewing teacher in camp, she became a sensei. She adapted well. My father did not adapt well at all. That experience was a catalyst in his defeat.” Lily Havey has no intentions of retiring until she writes her mother’s book. Like her mother, she has adapted well.

 

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    Introduction: Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with offices located in Kanab and Escalante, Utah. We are committed to the conservation...
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...