Art is breaking out all over Kamiyama in Tokushima Prefecture. Mysterious arrangements of rocks are appearing in the verdant hills of this northeastern Shikoku town. Small wooden huts — equipped with artistic stamps and ink pads for visitors to document their passage — are dotted about the town. An abandoned grade school has morphed into an ad-hoc repository of carvings, paper creations and lamps crafted from trees.

This is all a bold artistic experiment — and the citizens of Kamiyama (whose kanji mean “god’s mountain”) are embracing it as a salvation of sorts.

Located about 25 km from the eponymous prefectural capital, this bucolic town sits amid lush forests and is split by a crystal-clear brook. It has, however, been blighted by depopulation. So much so, in fact, that the number of residents has plummeted to nearly 8,000 from a peak of more than 21,000 a few decades ago.

Now, though, this picturesque town is reinventing itself as a bustling “international arts village,” with citizens hopeful that the Kamiyama Artist in Residence (KAIR) program will not only inject new vitality, but also contribute to averting its demographic demise.

“We’ve only just started, but things are promising,” said Shinya Ominami, the mild-mannered president of the International Association of Kamiyama. After a slow start [four applicants for three slots in 1999], the program’s popularity jumped dramatically this year as the selection committee fielded applications from 195 artists from 30 countries vying for four spots. During that time, the town has also welcomed 14 new residents.

“I think this popularity is thanks to the Internet and previous participants spreading the word,” said Ominami, who doubles as KAIR’s PR man.

Currently more than a third of Japan’s 3,188 municipalities are stricken by depopulation. If KAIR pays off, this do-it-yourself revitalization project could become a possible model for success.

Under the innovative KAIR program, artists from around the world are selected for a six-week residency. However, as the Web site warns, this is not a posh artistic award, but a program that puts the emphasis on its human element.

This year’s participants have echoed these sentiments.

“Working in this environment is absolute heaven,” said South African “land artist” Strijdom van der Merwe. “The support system of the people here is so fantastic.”

Concrete evidence of this support lies a short but lung-burning hike into the town’s sylvan hills. There, in a round clearing among the trees, 10 massive stones encircle one central rock. Sited along a path between a temple and a shrine, the work is natural, while almost hinting at something mystical. However, with the meager available budget, this work was only made possible by the unbridled enthusiasm of local residents.

“When we transported the stones, the organizing committee members were here operating a bulldozer and a crane on a Saturday when most people would want to be at home sleeping or watching television,” said Van der Merwe. Even the local Shinto priest got in on the action, blessing the site, which will be here for citizens and visitors to contemplate for years.

At the other end of the spectrum, but only stone’s throw away, is a work whose essence is its impermanence. Beneath the forest’s soaring canopy lies a mummylike figure made from fallen twigs and tree branches. Like a majestic pharaoh, it lies peacefully on the forest floor.

“This whole thing is about stretching minds, about learning new ways things can be done,” Van der Merwe said. His “stick mummy” could vanish in the next downpour of rain, he said. That is why, in workshops with the local citizens, he teaches them to enjoy art as an experience and not necessarily the final product.

In Kamiyama, however, education is a two-way street. The artists say they are taking from the community as well as giving.

“My way of thinking about eating, sitting and meeting people has all changed by coming here,” the 42-year-old artist said.

American painter Liz Roth, an artist/teacher from Wisconsin, was only half-joking when she said that the residency is “a fix for her art habit.” More seriously, she said it is “a creative respite.”

“This is perfect. It gives me some time to get out of life and do some work,” Roth explained as she bounced between two works in progress — a monstrous 5 × 2 meter painting of a Hello Kitty toy mobile phone that dwarfs 36 postcard-size paintings of town scenery. Roth’s wit infects her projects. Both are studies in contrast with equally healthy doses of social commentary on society’s attitudes toward nature and materialism.

“This Hello Kitty cell phone is nonfunctional,” she said, waving the toy in the air. “It is a facsimile of reality — a toy phone that is a symbol of communication and how obsessed we are with consumer culture.”

Once ensconced in the town’s environs, the artists have found that the enthusiastic and cooperative citizenry fan the flames of new ideas. For Roth, this translated into creating a town-wide mini-pilgrimage.

Struck by templegoers’ obsession with documenting their visits, she set up seven huts around the town that offer stamps of its beautiful, ephemeral scenery in them — such as dusk, clouds and autumn foliage — so people can try to capture them on paper.

“People are getting the symbol confused with the experience,” Roth said, adding with a grin that she is a slave to a related affliction: photography.

Jason Yi, a Korean-American artist in residence, created a multimedia installation that projects individual interviews of the town’s youth and senior citizens giving various recitations of the same fairy tales back and forth. “It’s an intergenerational conversation of sorts, set against the background of a local waterfall,” Yi said.

Foreigners, however, are not the only artists in Kamiyama. In March, painter Naoko Hayashida, an alumni of the KAIR program, decided to relocate here from Ome in Tokyo. She has since converted her spacious, thatched house into an exhibition hall.

“There are less stimuli here, but there’s much more time to think,” she said. “I think it was easier for the town to accept me because there was the program and a precedent,” she added.

One of those precedents is Katsuaki Takashima — the original artist transplant. Originally from Kanazawa Prefecture, he relocated to Kamiyama nearly two decades ago. His home-cum-studio punctuates the end of a long, windy climb up from the village into the mountains. “Recently there have been a lot of new artists coming to Kamiyama. It is inspiring,” Takashima said.

From the looks of it, the influx will continue. Artists will flow through the town like its stream, changing it and being changed.

At the entrance to the hamlet’s school, where the artists sometimes work, stands a doll in a glass display case. In the 1920s, the United States sent over more than 12,000 of these so-called Alice Dolls as a symbol of friendship. Most did not survive World War II and Kamiyama’s is one of only a few hundred now left — a survivor that could easily be seen as a symbol of the value this town places on friendship and art.

Similarly, the works of the KAIR artists are likely to be on display — both in the mountains and in the town — a century from now, standing as a tribute to friendship and artistic appreciation.

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