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Local artist remembers life, art in Japan

March 26, 2011


Just because Lucy Phillips won an award for painting a portrait of natural disaster does not mean she will do it again.
In December, Phillips was one of only three artists out of 77 in her division to win an annual award from the Yogen Suiboku-Ga Association in Japan for a painting called “Katrina in Mississippi.” She said the current earthquake and tsunami in Japan reminded her of the hurricane as soon as she saw it on the news, but she has yet to feel an urge to paint the earthquake the way she painted the hurricane.
“I find that once I’ve had an urge, a desire to paint something, I don’t have a desire to paint it again,” Phillips said. “I want something different.”
This does not mean Phillips is detached from the Japanese disaster, however. Far from it.
As a student of one of Japan’s premier artists who has frequently lived in Japan, Phillips possesses a rare American perspective on the Japanese disaster. She has seen similarities between 2005 and 2011, between Japan and America, that don’t fit on a canvas.

The accidental student

Lucy Phillips began studying Suiboku-Ga brush techniques in early 2005, and she said it happened almost by accident.
Her now-retired husband, Robert Phillips, was an English professor with Mississippi State University working with the English Reading Society in Tokyo. One of Phillips’s friends in Japan was studying Suiboku-Ga under a teacher named Haruka Morimoto, nicknamed “Oo-Sensei,” or “Big Teacher,” for his unique, atmospheric style.
When Morimoto passed away in 2004, Phillips said, her friend found a new teacher in one of Morimoto’s students and invited Phillips to come along.
“I said, ‘Yes,’ meaning, ‘I would like to come, and I would like to see what you do,’” Phillips said. “While I was there, the older lady also didn’t speak any English. But she had a brush and everything right there for me, and I wasn’t expecting that. So, you know, hey why not?”
But the language barrier proved too great an obstacle, Phillips said, so she was referred to Morimoto’s personal assistant and student, Tsugako Shimada.
Shimada is an accomplished painter and teacher in her own right, now serving on the board of directors of the Yogen Suiboku-Ga Association. Later, in 2008, Phillips would bring Shimada and her artwork to Mississippi State University’s Giles Hall.
Phillips said she only had two or three months to learn from Shimada in early 2005 before she had to return to the U.S., but that one-on-one tutoring was critical to her own success.
“This stuff is not taught in the schools,” Phillips said. “You don’t go to college and major in this. You need to find a mentor.”

The calm and the storm

When Phillips applied Suiboku-Ga to Hurricane Katrina in 2006, she said, it was different than anything else she had done with the art form. To understand why, it is necessary to go back to Suiboku-Ga’s beginnings.
Buddhist monks brought it from China to Japan in the fourth and sixth centuries, along with the set of characters that became the Japanese language. As such, Phillips said, traces of the monks’ religion permeate Suiboku-Ga.
“This painting, although it is not related to Buddhism, has a lot of sense of Zen,” Phillips said. “The worshipping of nature, the peacefulness, all of that is a part of it.”
As such, most of Phillips’ work portrays nature in all its serenity. Her first award-winning Suiboku-Ga piece portrays the coast of North Carolina. Another, “Mississippi Marsh,” earned her the 35th Anniversary Prize from the Yogen School of Suiboku-Ga and was displayed at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum.
She said she normally paints to gain peace of mind, and she painted Katrina for peace of mind as well, but in a different sense.
“I needed it out of my system,” Phillips said. “It’s the way some people need to cry about something and get rid of it. I felt urgent about it, but I don’t feel urgent about painting disaster. I feel more urgent about painting things that make me feel good. Destruction doesn’t inspire me to feel better. I went out on a stretch by doing Katrina.”

Making the connection

Katrina hit America very close to the day in 2005 that Phillips was scheduled to return to Japan with her husband, she said. When the hurricane delayed their flight, Phillips saw her own home in Starkville damaged by Katrina - and then she had to leave it behind to go to Japan.
“For me, Katrina was just horrible,” Phillips said. “It damaged our roof. We had a waterfall coming in here the day we had to go back to Japan.”
However, Phillips said the reason she didn’t want to leave wasn’t simply the storm damage at her own home. She said her son was able to take care of that while she was away. She was more concerned about who was going to take care of those hit hardest farther south.
“I wanted to stay here and try to be of help, because we could keep so many people in this house, but we were under contract,” Phillips said. “So we had to go back.”
Once in Japan, two occurrences pushed Phillips to pour her sadness onto the canvas.
First, she began receiving photos of Katrina from her daughter.
“Really some of the photographs were gorgeous,” Phillips said. “And that was my reference. I used one of the photographs to paint. I thought, ‘Well this is perfect, because this works with that whole monochrome black and white.’”
Second, she saw that the Japanese followed Katrina just as much as Americans have followed the current disaster in Japan.
“We got back to Japan, and that’s all that was on television,” Phillips said. “Everybody in Japan was glued to that news, so I knew when I painted Katrina, that’s almost a household word in Japan, because at that time they were so sad for the Americans. They really like the Americans.”


Phillips said she knows a little bit about earthquakes from personal experience during the months she spent in Japan.
“There was one that I remember was severe enough that our next-door neighbors came over to our apartment to make sure that we had our door open,” Phillips said, “because there’s only one access out, and if that door frame gets bent, and you can’t get that door open, you are trapped, and we were on the ninth floor.”
This earthquake, Phillips said, measured six or seven on the Richter scale. She said her Japanese neighbors were helpful, passing on their own long experience with earthquakes.
However, she said, that experience did not alleviate the fears of the Japanese.
Phillips recalled another, later earthquake that occurred when a friend of hers visited to join her on a project. She said the quake made her friend panic.
This time, it was Phillips’ turn to assist and reassure, pulling from both experience and lack of experience.
“I said, ‘It’s cool; don’t worry about it. I’ve been through one that feels like this. It’s okay. Don’t panic.’ She was just about in tears,” Phillips said. “She was scared to death. We’ve had enough of these that you sort of recognize the strength of it, and you know in 30 seconds that it’s going to be over.”
In comparison, she said she had heard that the Sendai earthquake lasted two minutes. It measured 8.9 on the Richter scale; its aftershocks have measured as much as the earthquake that nearly trapped her on the ninth floor of her apartment complex.
Phillips said she had never experienced anything like what her Japanese friends are enduring right now.
“When the earthquake happened, and that huge tsunami, and we began to see all that water, the first thing that came back to my mind was Katrina,” Phillips said. “But this is really worse.
Fourteen hours without power and a waterfall coming into your living room is nothing compared to what those people are experiencing.”


Phillips said all the friends she has made in Japan have survived the earthquake.
She and her husband lived on the western side of Tokyo, and she said most of the people she knew also lived there. Phillips said she has been able to communicate with them despite constant power outages in the wake of problems at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants.
“We have checked with everybody, and everybody is safe that we have heard from, and their extended families are safe,” Phillips said. “We did have friends who were stranded at Sendai, but not harmed. What they’re dealing with now is pretty severe power outages, because they don’t have enough power. So when we hear from our friends, they have to get on the computer during the 3 or 4 hours that they have power.”
Even at a distance from Sendai, Phillips said, Tokyo suffers from the disaster. For instance, stores open on limited schedules, restricting the amount of goods each customer can buy, she said.
“They will not let you have a grocery cart,” Phillips said. “They will not let you buy that much, because there’s not enough to go around. They will let you have a little bag. They have on the shelves, ‘One item per customer.’ Some shelves have no items at all. They’re having trouble getting rice; they’re having trouble getting the ramen. Even toilet paper is scarce.”
She said radiation fears have made milk and food less available. Gas is also scarce, train lines are out of service, and those displaced by the disaster struggle to find shelter in less impacted cities, Phillips said.
“There are thousands of people that are closer to the disaster who are being housed in schools and community centers and anything,” Phillips said. “They’ve lost everything.”
Phillips said her Japanese friends are also concerned radiation is seeping into the earth, brought down from the skies by seasonal snowfall and rain.
“They are all stressed,” Phillips said. “They are all worried, even in Tokyo.”
Before the disaster, Phillips said, she had made plans to return to Japan in September.
“With this disaster, I don’t know,” she said. “I’m not going to know for a little while.”
And, when and if she does return, she said she isn’t sure if she will paint disaster this time.
“I didn’t paint it because I wanted to paint a disaster,” she said. “I painted it because of how I had felt being forced to go back, when I felt like I wanted to be here to help people, and I couldn’t.”

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