by Hope McMath

I rarely turn down an offer to meet with an artist to discuss their work. When that call comes from someone I have known, admired, and collaborated with for several years the invitation is especially sweet. Agnes Lopez is one of our region’s most successful commercial photographers and I have had the pleasure of intersecting with her work, most notably on the Chef’s Canvas publication. This project combined the work of local chefs with the beauty and power of the permanent collection of the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. The resulting publication is stunning and has won national awards, thanks in great part to Agnes’ artistry.

Agnes said she wanted to discuss a ‘personal passion project’ and I was incredibly moved when she gave me a glimpse into the Faces to Remember Project over a cup of afternoon coffee. This was work that would take her remarkable skills as an artist and help build community by capturing the images of people too easily forgotten. I was stunned by the work and felt strongly about including a selection of portraits in the (Re)Set the Table exhibition at Yellow House.

We have all experienced feeling welcome or unwelcome at literal tables, in spaces and places of power and influence, or in the systems that serve society. Agnes’ portraits of a Holocaust Survivor, a World War II veteran and Bataan Death March survivor, and one of our community’s first African American teachers are jaw-droppingly beautiful and intense in their ability to connect to the viewer. They are the ideal embodiment of the show’s themes of inclusion and representation, illustrating how culture, race, and age too-often separate us, but also have the ability to speak to our collective humanity.

“My work focuses on an appreciation for design and the beauty of people and things,” said Agenes. “As I get older, I realize how important it is to turn my camera towards the people who mean the most to me. The Faces to Remember Project, is about preserving and sharing the histories of people whose stories need to be told. I have made it my mission to tell these stories.”

It is also her own story that Agnes tells through these photos, especially that of Patricio Ganio. Born in the Philippines, Ganio was part of the force that fought the Battle of Bataan against the Japanese in World War II. 80,000 Allied forces, including American and Filipino servicemen, surrendered in April 1942. Survivors were captured and marched without food or water for 70 miles to prison camps in what is called the Bataan Death March. Thousands died along the way. After his release, Ganio fought with guerrilla forces, served with the U.S. Army’s 25th Division as a first lieutenant, and received a Purple Heart.

As a commonwealth of the US before and during the war, Filipinos were American nationals, and the 260,000 Filipinos who fought were promised the benefits afforded to those serving in the US forces. Congress passed the Rescission Act in 1946, stripping Filipino soldiers of the benefits they were promised. In 2009 the US authorized the release of a small, one-time payment to eligible Filipino veterans. In 2016, the Filipino Veterans of WWII Congressional Gold Medal Act passed, awarding a Medal, collectively, to the Filipino veterans of WWII.

After the war, Ganio had a 30-year teaching career and worked for the Philippine embassy in Washington. In 2003 he moved to Jacksonville to be near his children. He is now 97 years old.

Mr. Ganio is a living testament to the tenacity, beauty, and struggle of the culture that is Agnes’ own. She has used the process of capturing a photographic portrait to connect deeply to another human being, to herself, and then lift up that lived experience for all of us to witness. There is no doubt that the spark she shared weeks ago over a cup of coffee has ignited into a flame that will not be extinguished. This is only the beginning of what promises to be an artful journey of discovery for Agnes Lopez, the people she documents, and for all of us fortunate enough to participate. I am humbled that Yellow House could play a role in the launch of this important work.

Come and view the portraits of Patricio Ganio, Bevelyn Washington Demps, and Ella Lucak Rogozinski at Yellow House during the closing weeks of the (Re)Set the Table exhibition. Check out the bottom of the homepage of our website for our hours or call to set up a time to visit. And follow Agnes as she continues the Faces to Remember project.