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Not all black and white

Butler Center's photography show provides context to Japanese American internment.By Leslie Newell Peacock

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BABIES IN PRISON CAMP: A photograph by Paul Faris in "The Art of Injustice."
  • BABIES IN PRISON CAMP: A photograph by Paul Faris in "The Art of Injustice."

Camellias are carved into the small doors of the Buddhist shrine, a lotus blossom is carved under the shelf inside, and doves are carved above the shelf. That's what you can see in the photograph in "Beauty Behind Barbed Wire," a survey of art objects made in Japanese internment camps during World War II published 65 years ago by Allen Eaton.

But to Paul Faris, the photographer, and Ann Faris, his wife, the altar was more than an example of "excellent design and craftsmanship," as the book describes it. It embodied the grief of a couple who, arriving at Rohwer, Ark., on Sept. 30, 1942, lost a 1-day-old baby boy on May 3, 1943. The Farises — described as a "journalistic team" by the curator of the exhibit "The Art of Injustice," opening Friday, Aug. 11, at the Butler Center's Concordia Hall — recorded life, in addition to beauty, in an internment camp.

Paul Faris took photographs; Ann Faris took notes. So we know more than that Heishiro Otani carved and varnished a shrine. We know that he was a native of Tokyo, had lived in the United States since 1930, and learned to carve wood while interned at Rohwer with his wife, Chisato, and baby girl, Keiko. The shrines, known as a Butsudan, were created to help families deal with the death of a loved one.

"The Art of Injustice" includes 40 photographs made by Faris at Rohwer and includes the couple's notes on their subjects. The black-and-white photographs are extraordinary in their own right, artistically capturing bewildered children, artists and artisans creating under difficult circumstances and Noh masks. But they also tell a story of how Americans of Japanese descent, some of them parents of American servicemen but nevertheless uprooted and deprived of their worldly possessions and transported thousands of miles across the country, transformed their rough camp in the Arkansas Delta as best they could.

And there is yet another story the show's curator, Dr. Sarah Wilkerson Freeman, professor of history at Arkansas State University, hopes to tell: how the internment itself provoked a "crisis of conscience" among Arkansans and impacted thinking during the civil rights crises of the 1960s.

The genealogy of "Art of Injustice" begins in the 1940s with a Hendrix College art professor who, as a student of Japanese culture and a collector of Japanese art, decided to visit the internment camps that housed nearly 16,000 Japanese Americans, many of them American citizens, at Rohwer and Jerome.

Floy Hanson was teaching in Memphis when Hendrix began to lose its male professors to the service in the war, Freeman said. An artist herself, Hanson knew Arkansas artists Elsie and Louis Freund and in 1943 traveled to the camps with Elsie Freund. According to a note written later by Louis Freund, Hanson wanted to meet Henry Sugimoto — an artist of some renown before his incarceration at Jerome — and went to the camps with Elsie Freund to meet him.

Sugimoto, secretively at first, had painted huge murals of camp life on sheets, the only material available. The camp administration, learning that, was impressed rather than offended, and allowed him to teach art at Jerome High School, according to accounts in the Densho Encyclopedia of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Seeing Sugimoto's work, Hanson and Elsie Freund agreed: Hendrix should put it on exhibition, and the college did, in 1944. The War Relocation Authority allowed Sugimoto and his wife, Susie, to leave the camp — he'd been moved to Rohwer by then — to attend the Conway college's reception for the exhibition.

Enter Paul Faris, a Hendrix professor of English and photography, who shot a photograph of the Sugimotos standing with the Freunds and Floy Hanson at the reception.

There was yet another Hendrix connection: Nat Griswold, a former professor of religion at the college, was the superintendent of community activities at Rohwer, and as such supported Sugimoto and other artists and artisans in their work. So in 1945, when Allen Eaton was looking for photographers for "Beauty Behind Barbed Wire," Griswold recommended Faris, and Faris and his wife began their trips to Rohwer.

Move forward 67 years.

In 2012, Paul Faris' son and daughter, Tim Faris and Mary Ann Thurmond, asked Freeman to look at their collection of his negatives to help them decide what should be done with them. (Freeman had previously curated an exhibition of photographs by New Orleans shooter Jack Robinson.) Among the negatives were shots of Rohwer.

"Of all the things in the collection I felt needed to be brought to public attention, these jumped out at me," Freeman said.

Included in the collection was the picture Faris shot at the reception. Freeman recognized the Freunds and the Sugimotos. But who was the woman? "That set me on a hunt," Freeman said, and when she identified Hanson, she was able to flesh out the story of how Sugimoto came to be known at Hendrix, and why, in turn, Paul and Ann Faris came to photograph and write about the internees at Rohwer.

And how that experience affected their feelings about the future crisis of a mistreated people.

"That's what's different about the show," Freeman said. "It's not just photographs, but the story, with very rich content and heavy narrative." Freeman enlisted her history students at ASU to research the images and the manuscript left behind by Ann Faris; some of the texts that accompany the photographs in "Art of Injustice" will reveal what became of the subjects of the photographs.

The show, which Freeman has likened to "walking through a book," has been exhibited previously at ASU, Hendrix and the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center in the Presidio of San Francisco, but the exhibition has grown for the Butler Center, with 12 additional photographs.

Since meeting the Faris children, Freeman uncovered additional Faris photographs, including shots of the 1957 crisis at Little Rock Central High School. Griswold, the man who recommended Faris for the photography job, was the executive director of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations during the crisis and active in civil rights efforts across Arkansas.

Freeman had an "epiphany," she said, realizing that the exhibition could illustrate how the treatment of Japanese Americans helped "expand the thinking of some people" when it came to the general injustice of racial segregation and bigotry.

The closing wall of the exhibition, then, will include a print of a photograph made at Central by Faris along with a painting by Louis Freund, "Hiroshima," from the Butler Center's collection, and a poem by John Gould Fletcher inspired by Sugimoto's painting "When can we go home?" The show will also include pieces created by the internees at Rohwer.

Freeman will give a talk about the photographs at 7 p.m. opening night, which is also 2nd Friday Art Night downtown. She's hoping there will be a sake bar.

Thanks to the donation to the Butler Center of art and artifacts collected by Rosalie Santine Gould, who lived in McGehee during the internment and was dedicated to preserving the story of Rohwer, and Mabel Jamison Vogel, who taught art at Rohwer, the Butler Center has been able to host two previous exhibitions related to the camp: "The Art of Living," in 2011, and "The American Dream Deferred," which closed July 29.

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