Art, music by the disabled gain the spotlight

by Takaki Yajima

Kyodo

Amid growing interest among the public in artwork produced by disabled artists, more support facilities and art studios in Japan are offering opportunities for them to engage in full-fledged creative activities.

Some artists have held solo exhibitions, while others have seen their unique, impromptu music used in television commercials.

One such art facility is Maru, a studio in the city of Fukuoka that supports creative activities mostly by physically disabled people in the fields of painting, carpentry and pottery.

Housed in a wooden home that has been renovated to make it disabled-friendly, the studio currently has 33 members.

Among them is 32-year-old Takenobu Yanagita, who has been a member of the studio for 10 years.

Born with cerebral palsy, Yanagita can’t move his limbs freely. He paints by using his whole body to push his hands, and is totally absorbed in the process as he draws.

“This is a place where I belong, where I live as an individual person,” he said. “My paintings are proof of my existence in this world.”

Yanagita’s works have won praise, in particular his portraits done with water-color pencils. He has held a couple of solo exhibitions, the most recent taking place in May at an art gallery in Osaka.

“The first time I saw his paintings, I was so filled with awe that all sounds seemed to have faded around me,” said Mayumi Kumagai, the 52-year-old representative of the Osaka gallery, Ashita no Hako. “I was drawn into his artwork. Disability or not, it didn’t matter.”

Art by the disabled has been gaining increasing attention in recent years.

According to Taro Okabe, secretary-general of Tampopo-no-ya, an incorporated foundation in Nara, more than 100 people participate each time the group holds art seminars for the disabled. It has organized such seminars since 2003.

Recently, the events have become so popular that applications often exceed maximum capacity.

While the health ministry doesn’t have an exact tally of the number of facilities involved in art activities by the disabled, Okabe said that “we’ve been asked by municipal authorities across the country, such as in Saitama, Niigata and Tottori, to hold the seminar, so I feel interest is spreading nationwide.”

Okabe, 33, is also a member of an expert panel set up by the health ministry and Cultural Affairs Agency.

The art scene involving the disabled is not limited to painting. A well-known example is the percussion group otto&orabu, made up of 30 mentally disabled people at Shobu Gakuen, a support facility in the city of Kagoshima, along with some staff members.

The group’s jam sessions, in which the members have fun beating “taiko” drums and playing stringed instruments, have caused a sensation.

“None of them can recognize music notes as in ‘do-re-mi.’ But because no score is used, there’s also no such thing as a failure or mistake,” said Shin Fukumori, head of the facility and conductor of the percussion group.

The group gained public attention when one of its original compositions was used in a television commercial.

Fukumori recalled that when he first began working at Shobu Gakuen about 30 years ago, most of the activities for those enrolled involved carpentry or other work taken on as subcontractor jobs.

He kept wondering whether “it’s right for us to enforce our set of values of trying to make them as close to nondisabled as possible?”

In the end, Fukumori decided to change the facility’s policy and give the mentally disabled members the freedom do what they want to do.

Once that started and members were able to develop their personality and instill their individuality in what they made, works considered to have “failed” to meet set requirements suddenly became “original and creative.”

T-shirts and objects featuring unique embroidery patterns done by the disabled members are exhibited and sold in the United States and have received high praise.

“I’m glad they can develop confidence in themselves through these kinds of creative activities,” Fukumori said.