Staff writer NARA — Keitaro Shimotsu, 21, leans forward over a desk from his wheelchair and moves his calligraphy brush on the paper. Suffering from cerebral palsy, he needs to gather great strength to complete one kanji character. But working on calligraphy is an expression of his inner spirit, creating a unique work that could deeply move people. Eleven people who have physical and learning disabilities practice calligraphy every Thursday in Tanpopo-no-Ye, a social welfare facility in Nara, under the guidance of calligrapher Yomei Minami. “While people without disabilities produce work that is restricted by reason, disabled people reveal their true nature through their work,” Minami said. “And I think that captures the heart of the audience.” While Group Monji-ya (meaning “wordsmiths”) has held exhibitions throughout Japan, it is currently showing works at the Richard Attenborough Center for Disability and the Arts at Leicester University, England. Then from March 2 through April 7, their first major exhibition abroad will relocate to the Center for Development Arts in Glasgow, Scotland. “Before I went to Britain, I was really nervous, thinking how it will be received by (British) people,” said Minami, who returned from the country last month. “But the calligraphy works have been displayed well at the exhibition hall (in Leicester), and the people seem to like them very much.” Although most works describe a single kanji, the meaning of which are difficult for Europeans to understand, the works have been well received because “they may have been able to capture the spirit of the producers,” according to Yoshio Murakami, head of Tanpopo-no-Ye. It may also be attributable to the high standard of their work. All the pieces were approved by a selection committee, consisting of professional artists in various fields. “If (the group members) want to be professional, we should treat their works as such,” Minami said. “I do not want people to see these works out of pity. I want the members to (tap into) their originality, which no one can imitate.” While Japanese calligraphers usually present their work within the framework of conventional styles, Group Monji-ya members have gone beyond such restrictions. The exhibitions in Britain came about after exchanges last June when a group of British experts working to promote community arts visited Japan to attend the Japan-U.K. Forum on Arts Created by People with Disabilities, which was held in seven cities here. Impressed by the high level of calligraphy by Group Monji-ya members, the British experts suggested holding exhibitions in Britain. Although the group’s works receive high praise in Japan and some of them have even been sold, it was not easy for the members to reach such a stage. Minami began her calligraphy class at Tanpopo-no-Ye in 1992. Being a mother of a disabled son, she knows disabled people are usually not given the opportunity to write characters even though they may want to. She wanted to realize their dreams. Because there was no precedent, Minami, along with volunteers from her other calligraphy classes, had to use trial and error to find the best method for the disabled students to do calligraphy. Large, strong sheets of paper were selected and custom-made brushes were provided in accordance with each member’s disability. Since many of the members are physically disabled, their muscles become tense when they hold brushes. With their persistent trials and support from the volunteers, however, the group members succeeded in finding their own way of moving the brushes and writing characters on the paper. Masashi Sakata, for instance, had been practicing calligraphy with a brush attached to his head, thinking that he would never be able to handle a brush any other way. When Minami met him, she was convinced he could use his paralyzed hands. And now he does. “Thinking that something cannot be done can be the main obstacle rather than the actual physical disability. If you have the will to do something, you can do it,” she said, adding that she was deeply impressed by a group of British people who cannot see but successfully worked on Japanese calligraphy when she held a workshop in Leicester in January. “They can see things from their hearts,” she said. Minami said her role is to create an environment that enables her students to feel relaxed both physically and mentally, so they can express their inner beings. “Practicing calligraphy has also given them pride and dignity. They find enjoyment in communicating with people through their work.”
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