Using Art, ECSU Professor Focuses on Individuals in the Midst of Disaster

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“Art has the power to heal, anger, and speak to people. I’m hopefully more on the healing side than the provocative side. That’s the kind of art that I’m interested in,” said Dr. Gail Gelburd, professor of art at ECSU. Dr. Gelburd focuses on socially conscious contemporary art and Asian art. The two themes came together after the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami devastated parts of Japan.

Dr. Gelburd was inspired to bring attention to individuals whose lives were torn apart by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Over 15,000 people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands were left homeless due to the disaster. Dr. Gelburd’s work attempts to humanize victims of disaster, as such widespread destruction can almost homogenize the pain and grief of the individual. “We see this stuff on the news, but unless you can bring a personal story to it, people don’t really get it,” said Dr. Gelburd.

The focus of the project was to document personal shrines created in honor of tsunami victims. “I was interested in the stories people told through the shrines they created. We have traditions all over the world that when something happens, you create a shrine as a memory of people who were lost,” she said. Previously, Dr. Gelburd has spent time photographing religious shrines in Asia.

Dr. Gelburd traveled to Japan and interviewed people in the prefectures that were most affected by the tsunami. One particular woman’s story moved Dr. Gelburd and inspired the creation of an art installation based around the woman’s life. “Her story struck me in particular. She had been in California for grad school and had just gotten back to Japan and gotten a job in Sendai,” said Dr. Gelburd. Sendai is a city in northeastern Japan that was hard hit by the tsunami. “She lived in a town called Gama. It’s near Sendai, but right on the water. She’d hardly gotten back. She just left her trunk in Gama, barely said hello to her grandparents who lived with her and went off to work on the ninth floor of a building. When the earthquake struck she was shaking for nine minutes. The shaking was so severe she couldn’t get off the floor. When she finally could she saw the devastation and then the water coming in,” said Dr. Gelburd.

The woman lost all four of her grandparents that day. Dr. Gelburd paid homage to them in a shrine of her own. “I took three suitcases. The cases each had photographs of the tsunami. On one side of the suitcase was a mirror and on the other side were the photographs of the elderly. The only way you could see them was in the mirror. The suitcases were colored with encaustics so it was like they were swimming in the water,” she said. It was important for Dr. Gelburd to bring attention to the elderly with her art. Over 65% of the victims were over the age of sixty.

The piece was recently on display in Goa, India, as part of a larger exhibit about the power of water. Dr. Gelburd has also done socially conscious work in India, including work with children living in poverty. She has been lauded for her piece. “I felt it was very successful. I got a lot of good feedback and it was featured in a few newspapers in India. It affected people. I was happy that people were really touched by this one person’s story,” said Dr. Gelburd.

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