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Tiny dresses seem to float from the walls of Emma Nishimura's third-floor studio, a light-filled space in the middle of City Campus.

They are as delicate as air and as heavy as history.

They tell the story of Emma's Japanese grandmother -- and a shameful chapter of Canada's history.

Emma is a printmaker in the first year of her graduate program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. But the almost-29-year-old from Toronto sews, too, a skill she learned as a girl.

The dresses on her walls are fashioned from translucent Japanese paper and modeled from her grandmother's patterns -- patterns Emma discovered in a cardboard box four years ago during an archaeological dig into her past.

She was looking for old photographs, says the matter-of-fact daughter of a Scottish-Canadian mother and a Japanese-Canadian father.

She'd graduated from college and had just received a grant "to create a body of work to investigate her heritage," something that began to haunt her as she grew into adulthood.

She opened the carton that once held boxes of margarine.

She pulled out five large sketch pads and dozens of doll-sized dresses and shirts, jackets and pants fashioned from brown craft paper.

The sketchbooks were dated from the early 1940s, the time her grandmother spent taking a drafting class in Vancouver.

The patterns must have been part of her grandmother's coursework, Emma says now, box open on top of a table in her studio, "Baachan's Patterns," (Grandmother's Patterns) printed in black marker across one side.

Emma spreads the mock-ups on the tabletop. Crisp brown paper clothing, all perfectly made and intricately detailed.

She opens one of the sketchbooks and pulls out several sheets of smaller paper.

These, she says, are from the internment camps.

She points to a date on one of the pages: Feb. 1, 1943.

"My grandmother made clothes for other people in the camps."

Nichika. Mrs. Tizuka. Michiko.

The measurements are written in pencil, sketches of clothing below. The words in both Japanese and English.

It was an amazing discovery, and an amazing opportunity.

She's been lugging the margarine box around since.

"I wanted to find a way to find my own story and find a way to share her story."

She explains her work this way in her artist's statement: "Growing up I was very much haunted by the stories of my Japanese-Canadian grandparents. I witnessed their sadness, shame and anger in response to their internment during the Second World War ..."

Her grandparents met in the camps and married after, moving east, scattering across the vast country like so many other Japanese-Canadians after the war.

They didn't talk about it, although her grandmother harbored a great hatred for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Emma says.

Miyeko -- Mary -- Nishimura, died in 2004. She suffered a lot in her life, Emma says. She was born in Canada and spent part of her girlhood in Japan -- left there with her older sister for six or seven years -- to help care for her own grandparents.

"Then she came back and a few years later they were sent to the camps."

Her grandmother's family had to leave everything behind when they were interned, Emma says.

She's not sure how the margarine box and its treasures survived.

She's making life-sized clothing now from the Japanese paper; she carries it with her to "feel the weight of it."

And she's transcribing interviews with her Japanese aunts, incorporating the words into her art.

There was a lot of silence around her grandmother's story in her family and in the history books of Canada.

When she came to Nebraska, people here didn't realize the camps existed in her country, too.

"Even though it happened 70 years ago, it's still a really important story to share and to keep remembering."

Growing up, Emma spent a weekend sewing with her baachan.

Never again, she told her parents when she got home.

"She was just very particular. Everything had to be a certain way."

Emma Miyeko Nishimura sits in her sunny studio, remembering the weekend, remembering her grandmother, tiny dresses on intricate printed backgrounds floating in the air.

"I too," she says, "am very fastidious." 

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Reach Cindy Lange-Kubick at 402-473-7218 or clangekubick@journalstar.com

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