It is fitting that student artwork be hung in schools. So the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is the apt place for the current exhibit “Lasting Beauty: Miss Jamison and the Student Muralists,” paintings created by Japanese-American teen-agers interned at Rohwer during World War II.The exhibit is part of UALR’s and the Japanese American National Museum’s “Life Interrupted” project on the little-known role Arkansas played as thousands of Japanese-American citizens were uprooted from their homes and incarcerated here. The title of the exhibit expresses Miss Rose Jamison’s hope that because “art is of lasting beauty,” as she wrote, perhaps the story of student muralists of Rohwer Relocation Camp told also would live on.
A grant from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation gave new life to these paintings, made on bedsheets before the eight student artists created the murals at the Rohwer community center. The center and its murals are gone, but Rose Jamison saved the sheet sketches, bequeathing them and other objects made by her students to museums and various people, including the former mayor of McGehee, Rosalie Gould.
Back in Arkansas for the first time in 60 years, the murals depict the camp’s attempts at normalcy — innocently, it seems, and not as propaganda. A Christian minister takes center stage in Michi Tanakas’s mural “Community.” To his left are high school students walking to class and dancers in bright kimonos; on the right, boys are playing basketball and girls sewing. It looks like any community, though we know it was one in which life was so hard that Jamison nearly left many times, staying only for the students.
The muralists also addressed the events that brought them to tarpaper barracks in the Arkansas Delta. Mas Kinoshita’s ably wrought mural of the bombing of Pearl Harbor shows a dramatic white flash knocking people to their feet and, on the left, sailors in lifeboats.
Nobie Tanimoto painted the story of the trip to Rohwer: A black train chugs across the mural, crossing a cotton field where black workers are stooped over the crop, past a cypress swamp and toward the camp’s guarded barracks. Executed with real skill, Tanimoto’s painting nevertheless betrays itself as a student mural: Hovering above the camp is a big comical face with a goofy grin and a coonskin hat. It is, a look at the school yearbooks included elsewhere in the exhibit reveals, the Rohwer mascot, “Li’l Dan’l.”
That awareness of the unusual place these teens found themselves in and their resilience is put into words in Rohwer High’s last yearbook, published in 1943. From the dedication: “Our lives have hardly been roses. The ever-present insects, the mud, the penetrating cold have made life miserable for those of us laboring over books. Many were the times when we wished to desist from our labors and declare ourselves free; yet we plugged on. … With many a fond backward glance toward Rohwer, with its joy and gloom, its love and hate, its laughter and tears and its bleaknesss and beauty, we will start climbing the ever-ascending trail to a brighter and more glorious tomorrow.”
In Gallery II are fine watercolors by Kinoshita, a large painting by Henry Sugimoto of his family’s arrival at the camp at Jerome, his and his wife’s heads bowed in despair; and intricate wood carvings of women, shoes and bonsai trees. It was in this gallery that 10-year-old Tory Grant, a student at Jefferson School, began to recite for his brother, Marco, all that he’d learned about the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. It was considerable and his facts were straight. The “Life Interrupted” project has done its job.
If you want to buy art from top area artists, support a non-profit and have some competitive fun at the same time, check out “8” by 10” Night” from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 8. The event, a benefit for the Thea Foundation, is co-sponsored by Heights neighbors Local Colour and Hurst Gallery.
All paintings are the same size, the same price and will be sold at the same time, when a bell rings 8 p.m. Local Colour is at 5813 Kavanaugh Blvd.; Hurst is next door. Half the proceeds go to the Thea Foundation.