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If you go
What: “Freedom Riders and Bus Boycotters”
Where: Fort Wayne Museum of Art, 311 E. Main St.
When: Saturday through Jan. 27
Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (open until 8 p.m. Thursday); noon to 5 p.m. Sunday
Admission: $5 adults, $3 students; free Sunday and Thursday
Special event: Charlotta Janssen and Janet Braun-Reinitz will speak at 7 p.m. today; admission is $5
Related exhibit: “Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Freedom Riders,” featuring the work of photographer Eric Etheridge, happens now through Dec. 30; Etheridge will speak at the museum Nov. 29
Charlotta Janssen paints mugshots from the civil rights movement, like this one of Ralph Abernathy.

Portraits of freedom

Painted mugshots reflect momentous civil rights events

When people who have never been in a mugshot peer at mugshots, they are generally looking for certain things.

Among them: Shame, contrition and a sneering defiance redolent of moral bankruptcy.

But Brooklyn artist Charlotta Janssen saw far beyond that mingy list when she happened upon two sets of historically significant but previously unheralded mugshots in late 2008.

These were, to be sure, no everyday mugshots.

They depicted people who had been arrested in two important nonviolent protests of the civil rights movement: the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and 1956 and the Freedom Riders campaign of 1961.

Both campaigns flouted Jim Crow laws, designed to enforce the principle of “separate but equal” in race relations, as they were applied to public transit and interstate transportation throughout the South in those decades.

Janssen said these mugshots weren’t portraits of people, they were a “portrait of a moment.”

“What I really love about the Freedom Riders is that it was a truly colorblind movement,” she said. “It was idealistic, but it was also very well thought through. Idealism alone won’t change the world.”

Janssen intended to turn 12 of those mugshots into portraits.

“When I started, I was a little ignorant,” she said.

At last count, Janssen’s portraits – infused with text and seasoned by a process that rusts canvasses in a manner that mimics the way rain rusts public sculptures – numbered 90 or more.

An exhibit of the portraits, “Freedom Riders and Bus Boycotters,” opens tonight with “an artist conversation” with Janssen and reminiscences from Janet Braun-Reinitz, the first Freedom Rider that Janssen painted.

Braun-Reinitz, who lives near Janssen in Brooklyn but resided in the lower east side of Manhattan 50 years ago, said she was 23 in the spring of 1961 and was a member of the New York chapter of C.O.R.E. (Congress of Racial Equality).

“I went to a party right after the first bus burned,” she said, referring to an episode that involved Klansmen whose disagreement with the protesters manifested itself as a probable attempt to burn them alive. “(Pacifist) Jim Peck was there with his head bandaged. It was very dramatic. I thought, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’ ”

Braun-Reinitz said she “could not have been more naive and more idealistic.”

“I had never been in the South,” she said. “I had never seen a ‘Colored Only’ or ‘Whites Only’ sign.”

She quit her job in the complaint department of a department store, flew to St. Louis and boarded a bus with a stated destination of New Orleans but with many stops in between.

They arrived in Little Rock, Ark., she said, to find that the bus route had been published on the front page of the paper, thanks in all probability to information gleaned and passed along by the administration of Gov. Orval Farbus.

“He may have even admitted it,” she said. “I definitely believe he was behind it. It pleases me to believe he was behind it.”

Given the size and tenor of the crowds that awaited them, “the only safe thing to do” was to allow themselves to be arrested, Braun-Reinitz said.

In jail, Braun-Reinitz said she had “her first and only taste of grits.”

“We went to court on Monday – I think it was a Monday – and were sentenced to six months in the county jail which would be suspended if we left the state within 24 hours,” she said.

Braun-Reinitz, whose lifetime of activism has brought her in proximity to community organizer Saul Alinsky and Malcolm X, said the Freedom Riders weren’t heroes.

“The real heroes were the people who lived in those towns,” she said.

And Janssen said this artwork – which has been written up in The New Yorker and championed by Oprah Winfrey – isn’t about her. She’s just “riding its coattails.”

“A lot of gallery shows celebrate an artist’s ego,” she said. “The artist is encouraged to share how horrible his childhood was.”

Janssen said a friend who was the focal point of such a show admitted to her, “I hate it.”

“I don’t feel that,” she said. “I am a part of something that is bigger than myself.”

spen@jg.net

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