There are so many exhibits in Little Rock for the “Life Interrupted: The Japanese American Experience in World War II Arkansas” project that this writer is going to have to take them one by one.
First: “Henry Sugimoto: Painting an American Experience,” at the Cox Creative Center.
The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and the Central Arkansas Library’s Butler Center collaborated to present a moving and unique exhibit of drawings and paintings by Sugimoto, a professional artist working in California, France and Mexico before the U.S. government put him and his family on a train to the Jerome Relocation Center in southeast Arkansas in 1941.
Sugimoto wrote that he took only a few pigments and three brushes with him. At camp, he was able to collect canvas from other internees who’d wrapped what few belongings they were allowed to bring in the material.
As a painter of French scenes, Sugimoto is perfectly capable, using short brush strokes and varied surfaces to put his own spin on Cezanne and Monet and the Vlaminck work he took inspiration from. He even painted haystacks.
But it was in Rohwer and the “snake-infested swamp” of Jerome, behind barbed wire, that Sugimoto’s work secures its place in history. These paintings, in a dry, desert palette of red ochres, browns and greens and in a style that borrows from Japanese brush painting and cubism, are compelling in both technique and story. He paints families in their one-room homes, the children doing schoolwork, the mother doing handwork, the father reading. He paints women at work in the community washroom. In “Our Mess Hall,” he paints internees at a long table from an angle high over their shoulders, so that their plates march flat across the table and the picture plane. It’s a composition that requires the viewer to look back and forth to read the painting. Signs on the mess hall walls state: No second servings! Milk for children and sick people only!
Stanley Kanzaki and Aileen Yamaguchi, New Yorkers in Little Rock for the conference, murmured before the painting. The milk was soymilk, Kanzaki said, very cheap then — and, he laughed, very expensive now. Yamaguchi recalled a home economics teacher who was in charge of food orders padded them so young internees got enough to eat.
Sugimoto’s narratives take on a primitive air when his paintings make strong statements — like “Old Parents Thinking about Their Son on the Battlefield,” which poses a couple on their camp doorstep with the image of their American soldier son floating in the air above them, and “Reverend Yamakai Was Beaten in Camp Jerome,” a flat rendering of two internees bloodying a man of the cloth. The story is told in Japanese on the side, in English at the bottom: “I felt as my own child hurting me for they were of my own kind.”
But Sugimoto treads on more modern artistic ground when he poses round, pink, featureless babies in angular diapers on a blanket guarded by a sentry. One baby is waving a flag, one is saluting with a fat little fist, one is looking away with a fist on his heart. “Freedom Day Came,” of a stylized, dimensionless man peering into an open cage at a yellow bird yet to leave, feels modern and bright.
The library’s collection of watercolors and pencils on paper is a terrific addition to the JANM works. In these small drawings we find a third Sugimoto: An artist whose touch is linear, his feel airy, his colors more pastel and varied.
A video of Sugimoto’s life — featuring film taken at Jerome by a federal agency, an interview with his daughter and his own words read by an actor — tells one hell of a story too. Memories of the family’s fearful travel to Arkansas, Sugimoto’s fears his “life as an artist was over,” the encouragement he got to paint publicly (rather than furtively, in fear he’d be punished) in what one suspects was a public relations effort to show the good life in the camps combine to portray a singular American experience.
The exhibit runs through Nov. 21.