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The exhibition that opens Friday in Concordia Hall of the Arkansas Studies Institute is not just about art. These drawings, carvings, paintings, shoes, bird pins and belts were made, with and on whatever materials they could find, by incarcerated Japanese Americans at the Rohwer Relocation Camp, and they are evidence of people who were determined to bring beauty into the injustice of their lives. The exhibition is called "The Art of Living."
The U.S. government's decision to move some 110,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps — not pussyfooting around, Roosevelt called them "concentration camps" — during World War II is an ink-black spot on American history. It's a history Arkansans are perhaps more familiar with than many Americans since Arkansas had two of the country's 10 relocation centers, at Rohwer, near McGehee, and Jerome, near Dermott. There, 16,000 Japanese Americans, uprooted from their homes and stripped of their positions, lived in tiny 25-by-25 foot spaces carved out of communal barracks.
The work in "The Art of Living" — skillful portraits in pastels and pencil, camp scenes, watercolors of floral arrangements in both Eastern and Western styles, patriotic posters, birds made from scrap wood — was saved by Jamie Vogel, who gave art lessons to the children and adults at Rohwer, along with other artists among the internees. One of those incarcerated artists was Henry Sugimoto, whose images of his fellow internees and camp life were on display at the Cox Creative Center during the "Life Interrupted" reunion of internees in 2004.
Vogel left her collection to Rosalie Santine Gould of McGehee when she died and Gould donated the collection to the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, located in the Arkansas Studies Institute, last year.
There is much beautiful work here, though the subject matter is not — scenes of the camp mess hall, the guard tower, swampy grounds. Posters stirring people to buy war bonds — including a drawing of a sword-wielding Uncle Sam marching across the ocean toward Hitler — showed the patriotism of these people who had been treated with such suspicion.
Some of the work is signed, some isn't; Colin Thompson, art administrator and gallery manager, said the Butler Center will work to fill in the gaps in what is known about the artists. Sugimoto, who is represented by three post-incarceration works in the exhibition, had a successful career in New York City; others, Thompson speculates, may have made art only at the camp. Internees' return to freedom was difficult, since many had lost everything before or during their incarceration. Only one Japanese family stayed in Arkansas.
A reception at Concordia Hall, 401 Clinton Ave., from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 8, is part of the 2nd Friday Art Night walking and trolley tour of participating Little Rock galleries. Hearne Fine Art (1001 Wright Ave.) will feature paintings by Charly Palmer, Christ Episcopal Church (509 Scott St.) will show work by Arkansas Arts Center students and the Historic Arkansas Museum features work by Jorge Villegas and Jim Volkert in its gallery of contemporary art.