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English Works: Can Art Help Us Heal?

Inspired by survivors of the 2011 Japanese tsunami, alumna Yuko Taniguchi investigates connections between art and resiliency
July 1, 2016

Image of alumna Yuko Taniguchi

Image of alumna Yuko Taniguchi
Bush Fellowship winner Yuko Taniguchi leads creative writing sessions for patients at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Ask Yuko Taniguchi (MFA 2002) about her interest in the connections between art and resiliency, which just won her a two-year Bush Fellowship, and she’ll tell you a story. She was 15 when she left Japan for the United States. “I felt lonely and raw, and this emotion was physically painful,” she says; "it was as though my back was attached to my homeland, and when I left home, my skin was peeled away.” She thought the homesickness would soon ease. But it took 15 years, and the loneliness began to subside only when she started facilitating writing groups through the Creative Renewal Program at the Mayo Clinic’s Cancer Education Center in Rochester in 2004.

“Working with patients and their families, I saw that what I called my ‘loneliness’ or ‘homesickness’ resembled grief,” recalls the author of the poetry collection Foreign Wife Elegy (2004) and the novel The Ocean in the Closet (2007), both published by Coffee House Press. “Joan Didion stated that ‘Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.’ It was the first time I realized I needed to actively think about my loneliness.”

Taniguchi was invited in 2008 to help develop the writing side of Mayo’s Arts at the Bedside Program, which offers creative writing and other arts sessions to patients at their bedsides. “I often witness that narrative serves to locate our pain,” she observes. “Just knowing where it hurts is a comfort on its own. Why it hurts and how it can be fixed are important, but secondary.” 

Through the program, Taniguchi often writes legacy letters for patients near the end of their lives: “I learned that, even in the absence of a cure, healing is possible by making their final thoughts and love visible to their family.”

Bridging Japan and Rochester

On March 11, 2011, a tsunami devastated the northeastern coast of Japan. Taniguchi’s extended family was safe in Tokyo. But she felt a deep empathy for the survivors who had lost family members and friends, homes, and occupations: “Watching their hometown sink into the ocean must feel as though they have been placed in a foreign country overnight.”

Seeking to help, Taniguchi traveled to the Tohoku region and responded as she had learned to do at Mayo: listening, writing, helping people locate, tell, and understand their stories. Over several visits she witnessed people taking up art projects themselves as a way to move through grief and traumatic change.

“Difficult topics are like the
sun, and art functions like the
sunglasses that provide a filter.”
                             —Yuko Taniguchi

“The survivors grew weary of waiting at evacuation centers,” she remembers. “Some women began making something out of whatever they could find: thread, needles and old kimonos, which were brought to the shelter’s community center, torn and in pieces. A group of women gathered and learned the art of traditional Japanese embroidery, sashiko. Each person sewed on a small square of fabric. Then they gathered the individual pieces and turned them into a larger piece. This was the beginning of the organization called the Senninbari Project, in Miyagi prefecture.”

Senninbari means “Thousand Person Stitches,” and that name proved prophetic. Taniguchi soon found other survivors in the town of Otsuchi learning sashiko to make objects that could be sold for income. The activity brought communities together, while helping individuals to heal: “One of the sashiko artists said to me that her mind was filled with the sound and memories of tsunami waves and grief for losing her children. But when she worked on sashiko stitching, she could fall asleep. Thus she called sashiko stitching ‘sleeping medicine.’”

Back in Minnesota, Taniguchi felt that the lessons of Tohoku would be relevant to her communities in Rochester. She organized a collaboration of Mayo Clinic’s Dolores Jean Lavins Center for Humanities in Medicine, the University of Minnesota Rochester (UMR), where she teaches writing, and Rochester Art Center (RAC). In March 2015, Surviving Tsunami Waves: The Exhibition of Resilience Through Arts and Narrative united sashiko pieces with the survivor stories that Taniguchi had recorded; 22 art and writing workshops were offered to the general public, including instruction from sashiko artists of the Otsuchi Sashiko and Senninbari projects.

How art-making fosters resilience

Taniguchi is preparing a poetry manuscript for publication that incorporates stories from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Earth Face explores, she reveals, “the initial shock of loss, the reflection of past disasters in current events, and the meanings that are forged out of deep contemplation and imagination.”

Surveying all this activity, the Bush Foundation granted her one of its substantial 2016 fellowships to explore effective models for an art-based resiliency program. Through the Surviving Tsunami Waves exhibition, Taniguchi realized three interconnected truths about arts in the community: the joyful nature of making art encourages people to show up; when people show up to make art, they engage and connect with each other more easily; and making and talking about art allows emotionally fraught subjects to be addressed without facing them directly. “Difficult topics are like the sun,” Taniguchi explains, “and art functions like the sunglasses that provide a filter.”

Taniguchi will use the Bush Fellowship to learn from other artists who practice civic-focused art-making and to receive strategic guidance from experts in implementing civic programs. She is an award-winning ballroom dancer as well as writer, so dance too will be a part of her fellowship activities. “Just as daily exercise increases physical resilience, community resilience is built through the accumulation of small, but consistent and frequent interactions among community members,” she argues. “Art can fulfill the civic purpose of connecting people.”

It’s fitting, as she noted at the opening of the exhibition, that this interest has grown out of her work at the Mayo Clinic. The hospital itself was a response to the devastation of the 1883 Rochester tornado. “Dr. William Worrall Mayo and Mother Alfred Moes undertook this important project with the understanding that healing requires more than excellent medical treatment,” she told the audience at the Mayo Clinic. And she quoted Dr. Mayo: “We know all too well the necessity for efficient management, but there is a spiritual as well as material aspect in the care of sick people.”