Rebecca Seidel ’15 reviews “Through Children’s Eyes: Hiroshima,” an exhibition presented at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies Gallery through December 7, 2012.
There is something magical about children’s art, something that beckons us closer. Maybe it’s the uninhibited way that kids tend to put their lives on paper, with earnest lines and splashes of color. Maybe looking at the art of children evokes nostalgia for us, memories of a purer time in our lives. The pictures on display at “Through Children’s Eyes: Hiroshima” have all these charms, but they also hold their own as visually stunning pieces of art. Above all, though, it’s the backstory of the exhibition that makes it so compelling.
In 1947, Japan was still reeling from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To aid in the relief effort, the children of the All Souls Church in Washington, D.C. sent a huge amount of art supplies overseas to the Honkawa Elementary School in Hiroshima. Using those supplies, the children there produced a vibrant collection of artwork. They drew and painted scenes from their neighborhoods, and captured moments from traditional Japanese festivities. The children of Honkawa Elementary School sent a box of nearly 50 of their drawings back to the All Souls Church as an expression of gratitude for the art supplies.
After the initial excitement of the exchange died down, the pictures were stored in a church vault and forgotten for about 50 years. But in 1996, the box was rediscovered. A new wave of interest surrounded the artwork, some of which began the journey back to Honkawa Elementary School in 2007.
A 2011 documentary, Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard, tracked down some of the artists, now in their late 70s. These people recount memories of war-torn Japan and discuss the paths their lives have taken. The film chronicles their reactions as they are reunited with their former classmates and with their artwork.
At Wesleyan’s Mansfield Freeman Center, you’ll find a display of some of the original pieces of art, thoughtfully arranged by curator Patrick Dowdey. There are works by children ages 7 to 12, done in crayons, markers, watercolors, paper cutouts, and more. There are a few samples of Japanese calligraphy as well, phrases about nature, Japanese culture, and life in general. The art is grouped according to subject matter.
Looking at the artwork alone, you would never guess that all this positive creative energy arose out of a place still recovering from war, a city totally ravaged by the atomic bomb. Barely any of the pictures show evidence of destruction, nor do they illustrate feelings of despair. In fact, most of the artwork is contagiously cheerful, depicting snapshots of life at school and in bustling neighborhoods.
There are only a few pictures that hint at any sort of struggle. In an intriguing twist, a piece of calligraphy accompanying those pictures reads, “America, Our Friend.”
The art bursts with color, evoking senses of depth and movement. It’s spontaneous and free. But even beyond illustrating the natural energy of children’s creativity, the artwork on display here showcases unmistakable talent—skills way beyond these children’s years. Within this relatively small sampling, we find incredibly intricate displays of architecture and storefronts, serene landscapes of rivers and clouds, figures and faces that glow with life.
The individual pieces in this exhibit tell stories of their own—stories of Japanese culture, of natural wonders, of life as a child. But as a whole, “Through Children’s Eyes: Hiroshima” tells an unforgettable story of compassion across borders and hope in the wake of a disaster. It’s definitely worth a visit.