Obata Chiura was born Obata Zoroku in Okayama, Japan and grew up in Sendai. He was raised by an older brother, Obata Rokuichi, a fifth-generation artist of the samurai class. Beginning at seven years of age, Obata studied painting in sumi (black ink: 墨) with the Sendai painter Moniwa Chikusen. By the age of fourteen, when he ran away from home to avoid military school, he apprenticed for about three years with the Tosa-school artist Murata Tanryô (1874-1940; 邨田丹陵), and later with the Nihonga artist and printmaker Terazaki Kôgyô (1866-1919; 寺崎広業) and Nihonga-style painter Gahô Hashimoto (1835-1908; 橋本雅邦). Obata also had training in Western-style painting, an influence that was to last his entire career. After taking the name Chiura ("Thousand Bays": 千浦) inspired by the landscape near Sendai, he emigrated first to Seattle and then to San Francisco in 1903.
During the 1920s Obata devoted much of his time painting landscapes throughout California. In 1921, he co-founded the East West Art Society in San Francisco. He spent the summer of 1927 on a sketching tour of Yosemite and the Sierra high country, producing over 100 paintings and drawings. Obata had been invited on the trip by his friend Worth Ryder, (1884-1960), an artist, curator, and professor of art at UC Berkeley (from 1927 to 1955). The following year, he had his first exhibition in America. Also in 1928, after his father's death, Obata returned to Japan, where he supervised the production of 35 color woodblock prints of California landscapes for his "World Landscape Series," the majority of which were views of Yosemite National Park. Published in limited editions of 100 by Takamizawa Print Works in Japan, the prints were exhibited at Ueno Park, Tokyo in 1930, when his painting of Lake Basin in the High Sierra won first prize. The woodblock series is much admired and highly collectible today.
Obata held many successful exhibitions in the 1930s, kicking off with solo shows in 1930 at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, and the California School of Fine arts, both in San Francisco. In 1932, he began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, and that same year, had a solo show at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. His career was dramatically interrupted when in 1942, a presidential executive order resulted in forcible internment of Japanese-Americans and resident aliens in war relocation camps. Obata and his family suffered internment, first at the Tanforan detention Center, San Bruno, California (where he established an art school), and then at the Topaz War Relocation Center in Topaz, Utah, where he founded and directed the Topaz Art School. During his internment, Obata made about 100 sketches and paintings. One night in the spring of 1943, after he signed an oath of allegience to the U.S. government (to protect himself and his family), Obata was assaulted by fellow inmates who found the demand to sign such a document an insult to their status as natural-born citizens. The beating was so severe that it required a two-week hospitalization. He was released from Topaz, moving with his family to St. Louis where Gyo, one of his sons, was studying architecture. Obata found employment there with a commercial art company.
In 1945, when the military exclusion ban was lifted, Obata was reinstated as an instructor at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1949 he was promoted to Associate Professor of Art. A popular professor, Obata played a pivotal role in introducing Japanese art techniques and aesthetics that became one of the distinctive characteristics of the California Watercolor School. His solo shows resumed, as did his sketching and painting trips in the high country, often with the Sierra Club. In 1954 he retired from U.C. Berkeley. University president Robert Sproul stated, "When you came to the Berkeley campus you brought with you the outlook of another land, a special background and training, the knowledge of special techniques. Transplanting to the West the art of the East, you infused into the Art Department an element that has given it singular distinction." Starting in 1954, Chiura and his wife Haruko (an ikebana teacher) led the first of the "Obata Tours" to Japan, taking Americans on regular visits to renowned gardens, temples, and art treasures in Japan; that same year, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. From 1955 to 1970, Obata traveled throughout California, giving lectures and demonstrations on Japanese brush painting, and leading tours. In 1965 he received the Zuihô-shô (Order of the Sacred Treasure: 瑞宝章), 5th Class, Emperor's Award, for promoting good will and cultural understanding between the United States and Japan. Still intent on sharing his knowledge of the art of painting, Obata published an instruction booklet, Sumie, in 1967, and a guidebook, Through Japan With Brush and Ink, in 1968.
Posthumous exhibitions of Obata's works have been given by the Oakland Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and, in 2000, the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. The Smithsonian American Art Museum organized an exhibition of Obata's Yosemite woodblock prints, shown at the American Art Museum in Washington, DC in early 2008 and then at the Wichita Falls Museum, Wichita, TX (2008) and Federal Hall National Memorial, National Park Service, in New York City (2009). The Smithsonian American Art Museum (Renwick Gallery) houses works by Obata, including a set of progressive proofs numbering 130 in total for the design "Evening at Carl Inn" (1929-30). Other institutions with works by Obata include the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA; Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA; San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA; and the Yosemite Museum, Yosemite National Park, CA.
Although many of Obata's paintings and watercolors feature natural realism, he was more interested in capturing kiin seidô ("living moment": 気韻生動), i.e., the essential nature of a scene. This quality of observation and perceptiveness was transmitted through the artist's intuitive connection with the spirit of the subject. Kiin seidô is evident in Obata's painting through the interplay of wet and dry brush strokes, and simplified forms and empty space — enhanced with pale colors. The energy of Obata's brushwork is an expression of living natural beauty. Remarkably, Obata succeeded in capturing the essence of his approach to painting in his woodcuts, and it is often the printed works that are the most familiar to collectors and curators.