Her mother’s diary and the detention of Japanese Peruvians in a prison southeast of Dallas inspired artist Kathy Lovas to create her newest work.
“Seagoville Assignment”, created at Handley-Hicks Gallery in East Fort Worth, conveys the despair of the prisoners rounded up in Peru during World War II and shipped to the United States. But it also shows the everyday lives of Americans as seen through the eyes of Ms. Lovas’ mother, who was a junior officer at the detention center in Seagoville.
“My mother had married my father in Anchorage, Alaska, where he was stationed,” said Ms. Lovas, who teaches photography at the University of Texas at Arlington and at the University of North Texas in Denton. “The women were evacuated in October 1941, and she went home to Minnesota, but it was too late to get a teaching job, which is what she had done before.”
But Katherine Cleary Johnson learned of a job at the Seagoville prison through a friend and in 1942 came to Texas to work. The 34-year-old bride had kept a diary since high school and continued it during the few months she was in Seagoville.
“I knew my mother kept diaries for years and years, but I had only read bits and pieces,” Ms. Lovas said. “After she passed away in ’96, I read through them.”
She was fascinated by her mother’s work at the Seagoville detention center and began doing research on the prison and the people detained there. She found few people who even knew that the facility, now a federal penitentiary, was used to house people the U.S. government termed enemy aliens.
“I never knew there was a Japanese prison of any kind around here,” said Bettye Hicks, co-owner of the gallery. “I found the historical aspect of the story intriguing, as well as the human aspect of it.”
From Japan to Peru
Several thousand Japanese had immigrated to Peru before World War II in search of better financial opportunities, Ms. Lovas said. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Peruvian officials were afraid some of their newfound residents might be spies.
“They made a deal with President Roosevelt to come get them and bring them here,” Ms. Lovas said. “They were given one day’s notice and allowed to bring one bag of belongings. They were put in detention centers, including three prisons in Texas that had been taken over by the Justice Department.”
Ms. Lovas does not attempt to relay details of the prisoners’ ordeal in her artwork. Instead, the work evokes the ongoing emotions of the time and lets the viewer choose what to experience.
Just inside the gallery door, Ms. Lovas has placed two chairs facing each other. Above one is a clipboard containing excerpts from her mother’s diary describing her social life, what movies she saw and where she went after work. Above the other chair is a copy of the “Enemy Alien” or “Prisoner of War” for each prisoner was required to fill out, with questions such as “Have you ever been a prostitute?” and “Have you ever attempted to enter the United States illegally?”
“The idea of the two charts is that people will take them down, sit on the chair and read through them,” Ms. Lovas said. “You’re then confronted with three pillars, or walls, forming an entry passage. I made it narrow so in a sense it’s stopping you yet allowing you to come through, so there is that sense of discomfort the prisoners might have felt.”
The gallery’s main floor contains more than five dozen fingerprints, enlarged and mounted in identical black frames, each tied with matching cords. Ms. Lovas pulled the prints from a male prisoner’s completed “Enemy Alien” form.
“They fingerprinted them as they came in,” she said. “I used the same 10 prints from this man, but I don’t give his name because I wanted him to stand in for everyone.”
The prints are laid out in rows and interspersed with squares of cloth tied as though someone has hastily gathered their belongings. There also are empty spaces that allow people to walk among the prints.
The framed prints guide the viewer to a wall on which hangs a fabric panel printed with images of two women, shown from the neck down. Ms. Lovas reproduced the images from photos she found of detainees being shipped to Japan in exchange for American prisoners of war.
The detainees’ repatriation to Japan might suggest completion of a circle, except many of the detainees were born in Peru and had never set foot in Japan. Those left in the United States when the war ended were without a real home.
“There was a question of what to do with them because Peru didn’t want them, and some didn’t want to go to Japan,” Ms. Lovas said. “A lot of them were sent to a place called Seabrook Farms in New Jersey to work, but it was almost a plantation mentality there.”
Ms. Lovas said her mother didn’t talk much about the war, which was common for that generation. Her diary contains more facts than emotions, so Ms. Lovas can only guess how she felt working among the prisoners.
“I didn’t live then, so I don’t know how people interacted with one another,” she said. “Although there may be some questioning by my mother, I think for the most part you just did your part for the war effort.”
After deciding to create the exhibit for Handley-Hicks Gallery, Ms. Lovas made a startling discovery in her mother’s diary: Her mother quit the prison job to join her husband, who had been assigned to a base in San Antonio, and the couple spent a night in Handley, which has since been incorporated into Fort Worth.
“I called Bettye and told her, ‘You’re not going to believe what I’ve found in her diary,’” Ms. Lovas said. “My parents decided to see a little of Texas before going to San Antonio, so they went to Fort Worth. But they couldn’t find a room, so they had to come out to this little town for the night.”
Ms. Lovas loves the idea that her mother might have passed by, or even shopped in, the building that houses the gallery. It makes “Seagoville Assignment” seem all the more appropriate for the gallery.
“The whole story behind this exhibit is just so interesting,” Ms. Hicks said. “It’s like it was meant to be here, and it really speaks a lot to how we deal with people who are different from us.”
“Seagoville Assignment” will be displayed through Oct. 12 at Handley-Hicks Gallery, 6515 E. Lancaster Ave. in Fort Worth. There is no admission fee.
Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. For more information, call 817-446-5004.