Sowing the Seeds of Return

by Nick Slie

Teiichi Sato

Teiichi Sato did not wait for official permission to start digging a homemade well on his land. Faced with the dilemma of having no water after the 2011 tsunami washed his hometown of Rikuzentakata into the ocean, Teiichi started to dig. He started with a spoon and, as he dug back the layers of more dense earth, he improvised tools to suit the task at hand. In a little less than a month, through sheer will, Teiichi had well water running outside of his small seed shop.

While this may seem like a minor victory for some, it was a huge deal for Teiichi. On the day the tsunami arrived, he happened to be driving into the mountains to visit his mother; thus, he watched as the ocean destroyed his home. That was 2011. I visited his reconstructed seed shop last February. Everything about Teiichi’s shop and story was immediately familiar to me. From the signs outside that read, “I came back” and “I sow the seeds of hope in my heart,” to the hand painted picture of large ocean waves overtopping trees while an ancient Samurai spirit stood guard, Teiichi’s humorous spirit struck me from the second we walked into his improvised place of business (which also stands as a site of resistance/museum/home). My emotions immediately ran to the surface. I was reminded of all of the people in New Orleans who came back, determined to rebuild and piece together what was left of their lives. Although the circumstances of Hurricane Katrina and the Tsumani that destroyed Rikuzentakata are drastically different, the actions that ordinary people take when faced with the disappearance of everything they know to be true are quite similar. Teiichi, just like the citizens of New Orleans, was going to rebuild his life and there was very little that would stand in his way.

I came back

The U.S./Japan Connection: Building a Community is the NPN/VAN program that nurtures cultural exchange between artists and organizers in both countries through learning, relationships, and reciprocity. I was invited to travel to Japan with the NPN/VAN cohort of Ron Berry (Fusebox, Austin), Roell Schmidt (Links Hall, Chicago), Steve MacQueen (Flynn Center, Burlington), Kyoko Yoshida (US/Japan Connection Consultant), and MK Wegmann. The purpose of my participation was to witness the creative responses of artists and activists from several Japanese communities that were impacted by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and to share some of my experience of utilizing art as a catalyst for recovery in a post-disaster area.

Japan is one of the most sublime places I have ever witnessed. The people, the food and the landscape are just breathtaking. Spending so much time in a sinking city myself, I was deeply aware of the way my senses quickly shifted on a mostly mountainous island. Before taking this trip, I had a basic understanding of NPN/VAN’s international program, but did not appreciate the full scale and rigor of these meetings. This journey allowed me to experience the power and insight gained from these exchanges, while also illuminating a newfound understanding of my work after Hurricane Katrina.

I was called to my creative practice as an individual; however, my most significant work has been expressed through the collective efforts of my company, Mondo Bizarro. When Hurricane Katrina hit, we were a young company, slowly discovering who we were and the impact we wanted to have in the world. The experience of losing our home and rebuilding after Katrina evolved our practice measurably, inviting us to mature into an organization that could meet the challenge of the post-storm era. During the months following the storm, we stopped asking how. “How” was no longer a valid question. For our work as artists to have a deep impact, we needed to dream in the scale of the devastation that occurred. The how would evolve with time. It was a moment to dream and risk big. As a company we risked and failed and risked and failed. Failure became one of our great teachers imparting the important lesson that the most successful art has the most elegant failure.

Seed seller

It is a risk to come back to a place where everything you once knew is gone. It is a risk emotionally, physically and spiritually. What was will never be again and you have to dance with the competing energies of nostalgia and progress. And, in case of Tohoku, the region where Teiichi lives, people are faced with the disappearance of their entire lives and the environmental impacts of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. This has deeply impacted not only the residents of Tohuku, but also folks living in larger cities like Tokyo. The number who have relocated or are planning to do so, including some government agencies, keeps growing in the context of the unknown long-term environmental impacts of the Fukushima disaster.

But what do you do when you cannot relocate? What do you do when you can trace your ancestry continuously for more than a millennium and cannot conceive of leaving? For thousands of people across the globe who experience the loss of home through the power of water and the human engineered environmental impacts that ensue, there is only one alternative: return. It’s what Teiichi Sato did, what we did, and it is what NPN/VAN did. You return and you begin the long process of rebuilding your life. Sometimes it starts with an absurd action, like digging a 25-foot well with a spoon. But you pick a task, put your head down and start working. At its worst, rebuilding is an often myopic, isolating experience. At its best, it is a reminder that we have an enormous capacity for social coordination and collaboration. And this is, for me, the real value of the cultural exchange NPN/VAN is undertaking with the U.S./Japan Connection. Programs like this help us understand that our work is connected across thousands of miles. It reminds us that, while there are nuanced differences, the story of utilizing one’s creative energy toward the reconstruction of home is mostly the same. In a world where the water continues to come, where many homes continue to face the threat of disappearance, knowing that people like Teiichi Sato are digging wells is enough inspiration to keep us grounded in the myriad possibilities toward which we can apply our energies when faced with seemingly impossible odds.

the well

Nick Slie is co-founder and co-artistic director of the New Orleans-based performance collective Mondo Bizarro. Nick is passionate about telling the stories of south Louisiana and its disappearing wetlands.

June 2016




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