Thursday, September 10, 2009

Judy Shintani's Healing Family Trees Grow on History and Hope


On June 27, 2009 the ArtXchange Gallery offered a free, hands-on "Remembrance Art Workshop" presented by Judy Shintani. The event was organized in conjunction with Legacies of War, which in turn is a project of the National Interest Project (PIP), a New York based 30-year-old nonprofit. The "Legacies of War National Traveling Exhibit" creates awareness about the bombing of Laos, and campaigns for removal of unexploded bombs that remained in the ground.

According to statistics ±10,000 Laotians make their home in Washington State, of those ±7,000 live in Seattle proper. The local chapter of "Legacies of War" received a Grant to collect the stories of Laotians here. In 2010 the resulting project "Our Shared Journey" shall be shown at the Wing Luke Museum.
Sakuna Thongchanh the Legacy of War organizer in Seattle said, "This will be an important moment in time, since no other museum so far has been willing to give the Legacies of War Exhibit a home."

Judy Shintani shared images and stories of her work as a "transformative" artist. Thus presenting the notion that turning painful memories into art is a healing action.
Nametags hanging from Shintani's "Family Tree" for instance are reminiscent of those worn by her relatives on their way to the internment camps. Adorned with portrait pictures however, those same tags are the leaves on the branches of the family tree, a way to honor her heritage.

During the June exhibit at the gallery, visitors were invited to write their thoughts on strips of rice paper that they could add to Shintani's "Remembrance Shrine". Those comments were the inspiration for the "Remembrance Tree" that Shintani created especially for the workshop on the 27th. This "extended family" tree will become part of the Legacies of War National Traveling Exhibit.

On that Saturday afternoon, the scrawny chicken wire body of the tree was dressed with memorial "leaves", created by those present. After a short meditation, everyone —outfitted with scissors, glue, markers and natural elements reminiscent of Laos, such as tamarind pods, banana leaves, flowers, medicinal bark and herbs— embarked on the art project. Memories surfaced and were put into words or visualized.

Darasavanh "Dara" Kommavongsa Craven wrote about her father's sugar cane orchard, raved about the perfume of papayas, then spoke of having been taken from her mother by her Freedom Fighter father when she was 6-months old. Mother herself of a Kindergartner she hopes to be re-united with her mom some day. She posed for the camera, holding up a picture of rice paddies and one with U.N. helmets and weapons.
"Perhaps someone will recognize my features and maiden name, and bring us together," she said with a brave smile that belied her emotions.

Khamsavart "KV" Saengthasy drew rice paddies and pole houses, and probed added an elk-like bison and a line with drying clothes. Just a three-year-old when he left Laos for a refugee camp with his parents and sister, he mostly recalled the smell of rain and mud. He grinned remembering cousins falling from the elevated floor into the muck

KV's father Khampaeng Saengthasy penned his account of fleeing his homeland, illustrating the memory with a drawing of a fort-like refugee camp and passport size pictures of his wife, himself and their two children.

"That's the prison I was in, as a small child," KV said pointing at the watchtower on a corner of the encampment. He shrugged, "I hadn't done anything wrong."

Meanwhile female relatives of the gents created artistic blossom holders and collages using banana leaves and photo copied family pictures; filling in the empty spaces on Shintani's Healing Art tree.

The aim of Legacies of War is: "to provide space for healing the wounds of war and to create greater hope for a future of peace." People such as artist Judy Shintani and gallery owner Cora Edmonds help the organization reach that goal.

Previously published in the International Examiner Volume 36, number 15, August 5-18 2009