2011 Japan earthquake inspires Davidson College art exhibit
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Friday, Jan. 03, 2014

2011 Japan earthquake inspires Davidson College art exhibit

  • Want to go?

    The “State of Emergency” exhibit runs Jan. 16-Feb. 28 in the galleries and atrium of the Belk Visual Arts Center of Davidson College, at Griffith and Main streets in Davidson. Opening reception is 6-8 p.m. Jan 23. Regular gallery hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon- 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

When Miki Kato-Starr and her husband, Tyler Starr, moved to Davidson in the summer of 2012, they weren’t just moving for an employment opportunity.

They also were escaping the aftermath of the earthquake and resulting nuclear disaster that devastated areas of northern Japan the year before.

That experience is the inspiration behind an art exhibit by Kato-Starr that will debut in January at Davidson College.

“First we felt a small shake, which was not unusual,” said Kato-Starr, who was living in downtown Tokyo at the time of the quake in early 2011, “but that time, the shaking kept getting more and more powerful, and we quickly realized that this quake was not the usual kind that we had experienced before.”

In fact, the earthquake would turn out to be one of the largest recorded, registering an 8.9 magnitude on the Richter scale. The quake also caused a 23-foot tsunami and more than 50 aftershocks, many of which registered more than 6.0.

Kato-Starr, 38, said she quickly grabbed her son, Kai, just 18 months at the time, and ran outside with her husband.

“We ran out to the main street and looked up and saw all the buildings and power lines shaking from side to side. At that point, I felt like there was no safe place.”

The Starrs never lost electricity, so they were able to watch the event unfold on television, where they quickly learned that part of Japan had been devastated by a tsunami.

Just one day later, the first explosion took place at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, about 150 miles away. Then there were two more explosions.

“The Japanese government said that it was just hydrogen exploding and that there is no need to worry about radiation going into the air, (but) none of us believed it,” she said.

As store shelves began to empty of basic living supplies over the next two days, the Starrs decided to go to Miki’s parents’ house, in western Tokyo. After following the news on television and online, and receiving numerous emails of concern from family and friends overseas, they decided to leave Japan for a month.

“We came back in April, hoping that things (were) better and tried to start our lives again, but things got extremely complicated,” said Kato-Starr.

She knew that, to avoid exposure to radiation, she would need to buy foreign ingredients or food from southern Japan, but identifying exactly where products had come from proved almost impossible.

Their food expenses almost tripled, and they stopped going out to eat since they didn’t know where the ingredients had come from. In addition, the government was promoting food from the stricken area to help the farmers there.

“Three months later, we learned that, despite what the government had been telling us, the explosions at the power plant had actually contained very high radiation, and it was an actual meltdown,” she said. “I felt in order to save our son, we needed to leave the country.”

Tyler, who had researched contemporary woodblock-printing techniques on a Japanese Ministry of Education fellowship and later received a doctorate in studio arts from the Tokyo University of the Arts, was offered a one-year position as a Grant Wood Fellow at the University of Iowa.

When the fellowship ended in 2012, he found out about an opening at Davidson College and immediately checked where the closest nuclear plant was.

“My first reaction was not to take the job,” said Kato-Starr, also an artist, “but, of course, you need a job to live.”

Starr took the job as a professor of art. Kato-Starr said they since have fallen in love with the tight-knit Davidson community, their neighbors and the beauty of the college campus.

Her past and present will merge in January 2014, when she shows her artwork in “State of Emergency,” an exhibition built around the theme of disaster, at the Belk Visual Arts Center of Davidson College.

The installation work will contain paper boats made of the packaging paper from their move from Japan to the U.S.

“We used a moving company, and they carefully wrapped our fragile things in thin paper. The paper was nothing special, but when I was unwrapping (the items), I had an emotional feeling, and at the same time was concerned if the paper contained radiation,” she said.

The boats represent those who lost their lives in the tsunami, as well as those who still feel lost in the situation.

Kato-Starr said Japan is still suffering from the Fukushima disaster, and, according to the Japanese government, the area 12 miles around the power plant cannot be used for anything during her lifetime.

“When I think that we are (now) living within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant, I get chills, and my heart thumps when I hear the occasional emergency siren test,” she said.

Jennifer Baxter is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jennifer? Email her at jbaxter29@gmail.com.

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