Japanese American artist, Amy Uyeki, illustrates the new children’s book, The Extraordinary Voyage of Kamome: A Tsunami Boat Comes Home. The nonfiction book tells the tale of how a small boat from a high school in Japan was found on the shores of Crescent City, California. During the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, the boat was ripped from its harbor and became part of the debris that was violently washed away. The story is one of resilience, hope, and new friendships.
The boat landed thousands of miles away and was covered with thousands of barnacles and strands of seaweed two years later. Several people in California researched the writing on the boat and found that the vessel was from Takata High School in Rikuzentakata. Students from Del Norte High School in Crescent City volunteered to clean the boat of sea life and trash. After fixing up the vessel, they contacted students from Takata High School and this began a wonderful friendship.
Students from California took the boat back to Japan and then the Japanese students visited Del Norte High School. The U.S. students learned that Kamome means seagull in Japanese. Through this process of hope, the boat came to represent the courage and strength of the Japanese people after the horrible tsunami.
Uyeki’s illustrations are exceptional paintings showing the small, strong boat, the force of the tsunami, and people in Japan and the United States. As an artist, Uyeki does not draw cookie-cutter Asian people with stereotypical features. She draws real-life individuals who are extremely diverse. Her work enhances the story. For example one of the paintings shows the boat upside down with strands and strands of seaweed hugging the hull. You can almost smell the stench of the sea as the high school students work to clean the little boat.
Uyeki is an accomplished artist who not only paints, but also is known for woodblock prints. Her artwork is stunning. The book is an opportunity for students to get to know her creative style and how her ethnic heritage has contributed to her art. Below are excerpts from an interview with Ms. Uyeki.
International Examiner: Why was the book important to you? Why did you decide to illustrate the story?
Amy Uyeki: I was aware of the story of the boat, because it was in the local news about the boat washing up on shore in a town nearby and its subsequent return to Japan. There is a certain amount of imagination that one draws upon to envision the life of the boat before it was whisked away from its former life. After reading the story written by the co-authors, Lori Dengler and Amya Miller (who were instrumental in the return of the boat and arranging the cultural exchange of the high school students), I was immensely touched by the kindness and the reaching out across cultures that often happens in times of tragedy. I had felt hopeless and helpless after the Japanese tsunami, wanting to do something more than just sending money, but couldn’t think of a way to contribute. By creating the artwork for this book, I felt I could help create a bridge of understanding. The profit from this book will supplement the exchange between the two high schools in Crescent City, California and Rikuzentakata, Japan.
IE: What do you want your readers to take away from the book?
Uyeki: I think the book is about hope and resilience and staying open to good things that can happen even when tragedy strikes. How two communities came together from opposite sides of the world and created friendships and understandings.
IE: How can teachers use the book in their classes? What do you see are the major messages?
Uyeki: I think one of the messages is that one person can make a difference, even if that person is not an adult. The theme of reaching out and helping strangers and finding commonality between different cultures is another message. And the tsunami focus is a good starting point for talk about natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes. Even a geographical awareness can be an outcome.
IE: Has your cultural background influenced your artistic style? How and why?
Uyeki: My Japanese American heritage has had a profound impact on my own work, both in the subject matter I deal with, but also in the sense of design and perspective. I’ve studied Japanese and Chinese art history, and I’ve always been drawn to modern Japanese graphics.
IE: Your artwork includes woodblock prints? Why do you choose this style of art?
Uyeki: This medium is ancient, but when I started to work in this medium, it wasn’t considered so. Does that say something about my age? I think I was inspired by both the Ukiyo-e prints and also by German Expressionist printmakers.
IE: What do you like about creating woodblock prints?
Uyeki: I like the roughness, the bold lines that are created with the cut of the knife. I also like working with wood. I use shina wood, which is a Japanese basswood and very easy to work with. I consider myself a beginner still even though I’ve been doing woodcuts for many years.
IE: How did your parents encourage you to develop your artistic talents?
Uyeki: My family was always very encouraging of my pursuit of art, even though they might have questioned it as a career choice. I remember my mother taking me to interview an illustrator for the Kansas City Star when I chose artist as a career for an 8th grade careers focus.
There were always beautiful things in the home that I was drawn to, Japanese art and crafts, in particular. I think they crept into my aesthetic.
IE: What is one of your big dreams as an artist?
Uyeki: I would love to create a half hour animation with original music that would appear like a painting that’s come to life.
‘The Extraordinary Voyage of Kamome: The Artwork of Amy Uyeki,’ written by Lori Dengler and Amya Miller, illustrated by Amy Uyeki (Humboldt, California: Humboldt State University Press, humboldt.edu/kamome) is available for $9.99.