Tetsushi Sato, a Local Volunteer
It’s Not Just Helping, it’s Cooperative Building
Tetsushi Sato’s father was born and raised on Awashima Island, while his mother was from the neighboring Shishijima Island. However, when he was 3 years old, his family moved to Hyogo Prefecture and he spent the majority of his life in the Kansai region. 10 years ago, he moved back to Awashima Island.
Sato has been helping out with both the Artist in Residence program and the Setouchi Triennale Art Festival “every once in a while” since 2010.
At the time of this interview (July 2019), Sato was assisting the two young artists as the head of the Whale Unit.
Awashima Artists’ Village usually holds an exhibition in August, but every 3 years the exhibition is pushed back to coincide with the Setouchi Triennale’s Autumn session.
The following interview was conducted in July of 2019.
Homework from Maki Ohkojima
―Tell me about the creation of the Whale Unit.
Sato: I had been helping make artworks for Awashima Artists’ Village since the program began in 2010. Originally I was doing it because it felt like the right thing to do, not because I was passionate about it.
Of course, the artists have never demanded that the locals help them either.
However, in the case of Maki and Mayur, the artists’ goal was to get us involved as much as possible.
When Maki left at the end of the program in 2018, she gave us homework. She said, “Make sure to do this embroidery bu next year,” haha. We felt that it was something we had to do, so our volunteer group continued on. That’s what became the Whale Unit.
This year, around May [before Maki Ohkojima returned], more than 10 suitcases and a large quantity of cardboard boxes of supplies arrived. It got me motivated to go all in, but I also thought I was going to throw my back out.
Now, we’re barely getting enough done to make sure it will be done in time. As soon as we finish something, Maki will give us another task, to the point I keep thinking, “wait, there’s still more!?” haha. In one way or another we keep getting caught up in the enthusiasm.
Giving Life to Each Individual’s Wisdom and Experience
―What is the effect of being a volunteer? What makes it worth doing?
Sato: Many of the island volunteers are retirees, so most people get their chores done in the morning, then volunteer after lunch until the evening.
The fun part is creating something original. Of course, everything we make is part of the artists’ vision and according to their instructions, but we’re able to put a lot of our own ideas into it.
For example, the creation of the whale bones for Maki’s work, “Sea, Soup of Life.” First we tried attaching cotton to bent iron bars and wrapping it in fabric. But then we realized that we couldn’t sew it by machine. We tried hand-sewing it, but it was too much trouble.
After that, we had a group brainstorming session, and changed to using styrofoam. I used to work in the steel industry, so I showed everyone some tricks to bending the metal poles.
Everyone is pooling their knowledge to create this one artwork. That’s why I think it’s more accurate to say that we’re creating it together, rather than just helping.
Actually, Maki’s work was shown in France, and I thought, “[it was] that piece that we all worked on…” of course, we were very proud of her.
Additionally, through the connections created with the islanders, we’re able to get raw materials from local businesses. A lot of the plaster and wood we used were gifts from businesses in Mitoyo. I want to express my gratitude to them.
Maki Ohkojima’s work, Eye of Whale, was exhibited in Paris, France from 12/5/18 through 1/20/19.
―What do you think is the significance of this project?
Sato: It’s a raison d’être for the islanders. It also fosters communication between us. Thanks to the Artists’ Village, we have a location to gather and drink tea and chat together.
Volunteers paint and embroider among other things. Some of us are good at those things, and some of us are not so good at those things.
But we don’t want to people who join to worry about whether they’re good at the volunteer activities. We figured out some clever ways around this, like in the case of the embroidery, where we’re putting all the completed parts into the same box so no one knows who made what.
Awashima volunteers include people who don’t live on the island, like the Sea Firefly Squad, and we’re looking for more members, so I want to ask anyone who’s even a little bit interested to join.
Enjoying the Artworks Afterward, Too
―Previously, artworks created for the Artists’ Village were typically taken down after each year’s exhibition ended. This was done to prevent them having to be maintained. But, from 2018 onward, part of the artworks will be left in place. Why was this changed?
Sato: One reason is of course that artworks that have been taken down can’t be used to draw visitors to the area. Because we have the art, media will come to cover it.
From my perspective, the response from visitors has been tremendous. When Mayur and Maki’s works from 2018 were left up a bit after the exhibition ended, many visitors commented that it was a waste to destroy such wonderful pieces.
Of course, this year, Maki’s work is still just a rough sketch, but one visitor from Kita Kyushu was very vocal about how amazing it was.
Art has the power to touch people’s hearts. I can see it in people’s reactions, and that makes me want to preserve the works.
―Thank you for allowing me to interview you.
Normally, when you view an artwork, you only see it in its finished form. However, during the Triennale and at Awashima Artists’ Village, the process and particulars of creating the pieces owe a lot to the work of volunteers.
See the results of their hard work for yourself on Awashima during the Autumn session of the Setouchi Triennale Art Festival!