LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Inside a storefront in downtown Little Rock’s busy River Market district is an art exhibit that brings to the surface the emotions felt by the victims of a dark chapter in U.S. history — paintings, sculpture and drawings by inmates of a Japanese internment camp.
The works were created at the Rohwer Relocation Center in southeast Arkansas, one of 10 camps set up to hold Japanese detainees who were forced from their homes after the U.S. entered the Second World War.
The pieces, on display through Nov. 26, evoke a range of emotions. Some focus on fences and watchtowers.
Others are propaganda posters for the U.S. war effort. Others are fashion sketches, showing the shoulder pads and thin waists that were in vogue at the time.
The exhibit is called The Art of Living: Japanese American Creative Experience at Rohwer.
The works were preserved by Jamie Vogel, a teacher at the Rowher camp. Vogel died in 1994 and willed her collection to a friend, Rosalie Gould, who last year donated the works to the Butler Center.
The approximately 125 works on display represent fraction of what’s in the trove that Gould donated.
People entering the gallery space first see photographs of the camp, including murals depicting camp life that were painted by inmates, proudly standing by their work. Then comes the rest of the art.
The camp, now a National Historic Landmark, held more than 8,000 people and the works illustrate the diversity that comes with a group that large, even if they have a common story.
On the walls are portraits, landscapes and still life paintings. In display cases are small painted birds carved from scrap wood, art from cypress knees, sandals fashioned from fabric and wood and a homemade book made from cloth and paper.
A woman’s face is painted on a pecan. One portrait is of a young man who looks like he’s furious.
Some works are realistic, others are impressionistic and some are in traditional Japanese style. The cypress knees — part of the root structure of cypress trees — were used as decoration outside the doorways of camp buildings, and the carved birds offered inmates a way to make some pocket money.
Once it was clear that the inmates weren’t a threat, many were allowed to travel outside the gates for school or work.
While out, they’d sell the birds to townspeople, who would wear them as pins.
The birds are remarkably well preserved and include some local specimens.
Nathania Sawyer, who organized the show, said camp residents would use Audubon prints as models, as well as National Geographic magazine. Inmates in other camps gained a reputation for similar birds, as well.
Some of the works show the unhappy conditions in which the inmates were kept, dismal winter scenes full of mud puddles, leafless trees and buildings tacked together from coarse wood.
But others show bright landscapes and conveyed the sense that the detainees identified more with the U.S. than their ancestral land.
“Most of the people who went to the internment camps, more than two-thirds of them, were born in America,” Sawyer said. “They thought of themselves as Americans.”
That’s quite clear in the propaganda posters. One says “Lets Lick Hitler with War Bonds,” and includes a caricature of the dictator. Another touts the Boy Scouts.
Some men from the camp were members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most decorated units in the European theatre.
Butler Center Director David Stricklin said it’s moving to see what those unjustly captured people created.
“There is nothing like walking up to this painting (by) somebody who was uprooted and dropped into the middle of the Delta,” Stricklin said.
The camp was one of two in the area and was on a miserable piece of land when it opened in 1942. By the time it closed in 1945, the detainees had cleared the land and made it farmable.
The skills some of the internees brought is illustrated by a toolbox that is on display.
Among the 22 different tools are chisels, awls, a plane, and cutters that were used for carving. Next to the tools is what at first glance appears to be an ordinary wooden folding chair with a canvas seat. Two horizontal back slats feature delicate, polished carvings.
“When you look at this you realize there were some amazing talents,” Sawyer said.
Many of the artists never picked up a brush or a carving tool again after leaving the camp, busy as they were trying to reorganize their lives, he said.
“That’s one of the shames of this,” Sawyer said.