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