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Sculpture commemorating Japanese incarceration now permanent fixture in Puyallup

The Camp Harmony sculpture stands outside Puyallup Public Library.
Mayowa Aina
"Camp Harmony," a sculpture by Washington artist John Zylstra, has become a permanent art installation outside Puyallup Public Library.

During World War II, more than 7,000 people of Japanese descent were forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated in a prison camp in Puyallup.

Now, a sculpture by Washington artist John Zylstra reflecting that history is a permanent fixture in front of the Puyallup library.

“Because it had such strong ties to the history of our community, we felt very, very strongly that it needed to stay here,” said Becky Condra, president of Arts Downtown in Puyallup.

Arts Downtown is a nonprofit organization that manages a rotating outdoor sculpture gallery, currently showing 51 different pieces across the city. ‘Camp Harmony,’ Zylstra's sculpture, was part of the gallery. And, after two years on display, the tall, black, metal art piece was scheduled to leave the rotation, but Arts Downtown decided to purchase the artwork and donate it to the city.

“Because such a grave injustice was done to Japanese-American people, the community, we felt a moral obligation to do something positive.”

The organization often purchases artwork for the gallery. But this piece was special, Condra said.

Unlike other pieces of artwork purchased for the collection, the organization held an official dedication ceremony for the piece. It featured the artist and keynote speakers, including Cho Shimizu, who was incarcerated at the camp, and Lori Matsukawa, who produced a documentary series on the camps.

The sculpture’s title, "Camp Harmony," refers to the unofficial name for the Puyallup Assembly Center, the camp where people were incarcerated, which stood where the fairgrounds now are.

In his artist statement, Zylstra says: “The sculpture is less about these historical issues than it is about contemporary issues of ethnicity and profiling. 'Camp Harmony' serves as a warning to be ever vigilant regarding conclusions drawn too quickly and specific assessments made of the human condition.”

Puyallup Public Library staff member Debi Rinehart attended the dedication. When asked about her impressions of the sculpture, she pointed out a small bit of barbed wire sculpted at the bottom.

“It’s not the first thing that you would notice, but it’s there as a reminder that this should never happen again and how awful and horrible this was and unfair to the Japanese people that were interned.”

Rinehart also pointed out a small silver leaf hanging from the top of the structure and called it a symbol of hope.

Its current location, in front of the library, is fitting for those who want to continue to learn about this history, Rinehart said.

“I feel like it's just the perfect spot for it, a place of learning and searching and that we can't forget" about what happened.

Mayowa Aina covers cost-of-living and affordability issues in Western Washington. She focuses on how people do (or don't) make ends meet, impacts on residents' earning potential and proposed solutions for supporting people living at the margins of our community. Get in touch with her by emailing