PUTTING PAIN TO PAPER

Art to help heal the soul

by John Hart Benson and JR.

Artists Without Borders and its offspring, Kids Without Borders, are devoted to providing humanitarian relief to the victims of war and ethnic strife. As such, they share obvious connections with Doctors Without Borders.

Instead of pills and poultices, however, the two organizations do their healing work with crayons, frogs and sometimes even Japanese clowns.

In a recent lecture at a Kyoto Women Artists’ Association event in Kyoto, founder Hector Sierra expounded on his belief that art is no less important to refugees of war than food and water.

“War victims are given lots of relief in terms of material goods — hardware — but little in the way of what I call ‘heartware,’ ” said Sierra. “I see art as a kind of software which offers both catharsis and spiritual nourishment. As such, its potential for doing good is immense.”

A Columbian now based in Tokyo, Sierra established Artists Without Borders last year after returning to Tokyo from a harrowing trip to Kosovo. Helplessly watching the NATO-led bombing of Yugoslavia on Japanese television, he wondered what he as an artist could do for the victims of the conflict.

Sierra decided that his efforts should first focus on children, and, taking his cue from Doctors Without Borders, he set about the task of organizing a humanitarian relief mission.

With the help of two friends, he created a Web site and a distinctive logo as the first steps toward gaining support from the local community.

Response was disappointing at first, but within three months individuals, schools and companies were expressing interest in the form of time, money and materials.

Shortly thereafter, bearing boxes of crayons and paper, members of the newly-founded organization set off on their first mission, a visit to Kosovo. It was, Sierra claims, a resounding success for both the Japanese donors and the recipients.

Origami proved to be an especially well-received activity and has since become a staple of Sierra’s missions.

“Many of the refugee children have no toys. Then we teach them to make a frog like this,” Sierra said, using his forefinger to send an ingeniously-folded amphibian hopping across the table, “and suddenly they do. It’s a tremendous boost to their spirits.”

Another popular activity was Japanese calligraphy. Refugee children were inspired by the Chinese characters drawn by Japanese elementary school students to create what Sierra dubs shuji-e, landscapes incorporating their versions of these characters.

Not all the drawings are light-hearted, however.

Among those by children from Kosovo and East Timor exhibited by Sierra in Kyoto last month were many which revealed a wrenching contrast of execution and subject matter: naively rendered tanks roll past a flaming building; beneath a black sun toylike planes rain bombs.

The art workshops conducted by Sierra obviously allow a much needed outlet for internalized trauma, in addition to their entertainment value.

Since its first mission, Artist Without Borders has steadily expanded. Sierra noted that the past summer, with missions to Armenia, Yugoslavia, Georgia, Abkhazia and Chechnya, was especially taxing, but rewarding.

Sierra attributes the emergence of these and other ethnic hot-spots around the world to the shift from ideology to nationalism occurring in those areas, a phenomenon that forms the subject of his doctorate studies at Nihon University.

Sierra’s own introduction to the complexity of ethnic-related conflict began in 1983, when, as a 17-year-old exchange student, he went to the Soviet Union to study film making. (When asked why he chose to study that subject in the Soviet Union, Sierra smiled wryly: “Because they offered me a scholarship.”)

The Soviet Union was also to offer Sierra a mentor in the form of Armenian director Serghei Paradjanov, whom Sierra describes as a “magical and powerful” presence.

From Paradjanov Sierra gained insights into Armenian and other ethnic issues, a realization that art transcends borders and a respect for children’s art.

Sierra sees his present existence in Japan as pregnant with opportunity, noting that Japanese society is on the brink of great changes. Convinced that exciting challenges are in store, he envisions Artists Without Borders as playing a valuable role in the coming transition period.

“It’s a win-win type of situation,” Sierra explained. “Artists Without Borders is great for those on the receiving end, but it’s also great for Japan. Our member artists get publicity, Japanese culture is promoted, and by allowing them to interact with the larger world, Japanese kids gain a sense of how blessed they are to live in such a peaceful environment.”

Sierra admits, however, that the future also presents daunting challenges. Artists Without Borders should, Sierra feels, have permanent missions in each of the areas it has serviced, but is hampered by a lack of funding as well as a lack of skilled professionals.

Sierra said his immediate goal was to find a venue for an exhibition featuring a version of Hiroshige’s “36 Views of Mount Fuji” as imagined by Chechen children. When this journalist suggested that a Japanese elementary school would be a logical site, Sierra was quick to object:

“No, it should be a gallery or museum. After all, these drawings are art!”