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Stranded artists find fame, sisterhood in Japan

KOFU, YAMANASHI PREFECTURE >> The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many lives, but for a trio of South American artists stranded in this rural Japanese city, it has fostered lifelong friendships and even turned them into local celebrities.

Teresa Currea, Clara Campos and Oriana Marin have become famous faces around town, thanks to an art project that was their gesture of gratitude for the hospitality of neighbors in Kofu. The project: Painting a city community center.

“People were being super nice to us, and we wanted to give back,” said Campos, a Brazilian artist and actor.

“We started to get to know people, and they cared about our well-being, so they were like, ‘Are you hungry? I have extra fruit. Here you go,’ ” she said. “We felt like we were part of the community.”

The artists had come to the prefecture for an art residency and were slated to stay a few months. But as the pandemic raged around the globe, borders shut down in Colombia (home to Currea and Marin) and flights to Brazil (home to Campo) were canceled.

The women had joined the ranks of foreign visitors who found themselves in limbo — without a valid visa for employment or a means to survive.

It wasn’t until November that immigration authorities finally allowed struggling visitors to work.

But as luck would have it, the women found a guardian angel in Kaori Watanabe, who met them in March at an art exhibition.

“I knew that sooner or later they would find themselves in trouble. Given their temporary visitor status, they would eventually run out of money,” she said. “So I volunteered to help.”

Watanabe decided to capitalize on their talents and asked them each to draw a portrait of her.

Currea, inspired by yokai (mythical folklore creatures), turned Watanabe into an amabie, a monster that repels plagues. Amabie has become a pop culture icon during the pandemic.

Campos, an aficionado of anime and idol culture, created a romantic illustration in the style of fantasy manga.

Marin’s portrait included kanji that she thought best characterized Watanabe: “shinsetsu” (kindness).

When Watanabe shared the works on Facebook, her post went viral.

Requests for portraits poured in from across Japan, generating enough work for the women to keep a roof over their heads. All the while, donations of items such as winter clothing also arrived, inundating Watanabe’s office.

In October, the artists began their project at the community center, adorning walls with kingfishers (brightly colored birds), nadeshiko (pink fringed flowers) and other symbols of Kofu.

The city’s generosity left a lasting impression on the women, who “live in very big cities in Latin America where everyone is anonymous,” said Marin. “Here in Kofu, because it’s a tiny city and everyone kind of knows each other, we became part of this community. So we are giving something (back).”

Now, there are permanent bonds.

“I feel like they’re my sisters,” Marin said of Watanabe, Currea and Campos. “We’re a team.”

But their time together is ending.

Currea and Campos were booking flights home, while Marin, who instantly fell in love with Japan, decided to stay on with a student visa.

“I get emotional when I think about it,” said Currea with tears in her eyes. “No one can take this experience from us. It’s our treasure. It’s going to be with us forever.”

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