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An interview with Nobuko Miyamoto

Performing Arts, Obon, Yoga and Martial Arts

Part 2 - Strip mines and strip malls

Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke
Pennington Gap, Virginia

The side of mountain in Kentucky strip-mined bare.
The side of a mountain in Kentucky strip-mined bare. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.

The following interview with Nobuko Miyamoto (part 2) is part of a series of interviews with some of the members of a group of 25 artists from around the U.S. and Canada who went to Kentucky and Virginia to participate in the initial stages of a multi-year, multi-site community art project sponsored by the American Festival Project. The American Festival Project is based in Whitesburg, Kentucky with Appalshop, a regional community arts center. Also see: Fred Campbell, Rodrigo Duarte Clark, Harrell Fletcher, Shannon Hummel, Stephanie Juno, Suzanne Lacy, John Malpede, Robbie McCauley.

Yoga and martial arts

Nobuko Miyamoto: One other project that Great Leap is involved in directly relates to what's going on here in Appalachia, in particular the privatization of the prisons and the explosion of this as a money-making viable business.

Krishna (another participant in the week's project) and I have been involved for about six years with Upward Bound, a youth program for inner city youth, nationwide, that the USC division asked us to create. They asked us if we would do an arts program for them, a one month summer arts program. It's sort of an academic boot camp that tries to get kids prepared for college. I felt that if we had eight or ten sessions with the kids the thing that they could get the most out of was learning, not to do dance or music, but yoga. We made yoga the center of the program. Yoga and martial arts.

We did do some workshops in dance and taiko drumming, and we did a performance for them and with them, but that program, Arts and Yoga for Youth, piggy-backed into a bigger program that Krishna is passionately involved in and that's to try to reach young people who are in detention camps.

In California, just like here, the prison system is growing. Ten years ago there were three youth detention camps in southern California, now there are seventeen. There is a need for reaching young people on that level. If they are in to get them out, give them some skills on how to handle themselves. Once they are out, to give them some thing to relate to. This is a very big task.

As a collaboration between Great Leap and the International Black Yoga Teachers Association Krishna and I put together this program. She's been going to the youth detention camps for over a year working with young people doing yoga. We will begin at some point to bring the arts in there as well, to try to bring out stories, get them to deal with their personal stories as a means of getting into themselves.

In Motion Magazine: How's it being going so far? How do you see the interplay with some of the people you have been meeting, talking to and staying with?

Nobuko Miyamoto: Each day is overwhelming. Each day we have been exposed to wonderful people. The first day, I got to hear the music and that is always to me a way to get in touch with the soul of people. I'm not really very knowledgeable about country music, or hillbilly music but I deeply enjoyed the music and the stories that went along with it. The history that was revealed through the music, the styles of music revealed to me the way that music can travel. From the Celtic to the Appalachian. How instruments like the bagpipes came from the Middle East. All these things make me realize how quickly culture can be borrowed and used and exchanged and how difficult it is for us to remember how easily that can happen.

And then to hear the stories day after day. Of the Stanley's and the Mullin's. Going to the graveyard of a person whose family's grave yard has been cut off by a huge new prison. How the strip-mining has effected the land. And today, hearing the stories of Black people, from the time of slavery to the discrimination, the difference of treatment between the Blacks and the whites.

Neither dependent or isolated

In Motion Magazine: How do you figure out the intersection of arts and problem solving? Is this week's method a good way of doing that?

Nobuko Miyamoto: I'm not sure exactly. I think it's a great situation for people to be able to exchange with other people. I think some ideas are starting to formulate about how some inter-relations can happen. I'm not really sure at this present moment about the specifics. There's another aspect that I'm seeing here that our group hasn't focused on that much and that is what are youth the doing here. They don't have any recreational facilities. They seem to be hanging out at the Wall Marts. There's no film houses. There just doesn't seem to be very much for them to do. The youth is the future and somehow the youth have to be involved in whatever issue people are going to be working on.

Coming in as outsiders to a place like this, we don't want to come in as an expert because we are not experts about these people. We can not tell them what to do. It's not like that. I think the exchange of ideas and the sharing of our stories is a very good thing because it makes people know that what you are going through here, we are going through there. And vice versa.

All these things are inter-related: the prison system, the chip mills, the corporations versus the little guy. I think a means of communication has to be cultivated that puts the power of communication in the hands of the people so that people are neither dependent or isolated from one another.

The idea that we could come here is a great privilege. It would be good if more people were able to come here and share and exchange. It is life changing. It would be interesting to take some young people from here into Los Angeles and vice versa. Those kinds of things would very interesting to do. It's politicization, it's heart opening. None of us are so far away.

Ren Smith and Nobuko Miyamoto.
Ren Smith (left), and Nobuko Miyamoto (kneeling) join others for a group photo outside of the Appalachian African American Culture Center in Pennington Gap, Virginia. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
The end of the week . . .

Strip mines and strip malls

In Motion Magazine: You spoke during the concluding discussion about strip malls in Los Angeles. Would you re-tell that idea?

Nobuko Miyamoto: We were talking about strip-mining remains around town. Forrest, our Appalshop guide, was showing us this one ex-strip mine that the company, I think it was Pittston, said it had reclaimed, fixed it up, by saying that they were giving it to the town and they would allow the community to make a shopping mall on it. We were saying, what can you do to this place to reclaim this space because there should be some good that can come out if it.

I was thinking of performance art. How we can do education around this kind of thing. I was thinking about relating this local place to my home place. Thinking about all the strip malls in Los Angeles and showing what an improvement it would be to have a thousand strip malls in Appalachia. Everywhere there was a strip mine we could make a strip mall. What an improvement that would be to people's lives. I was thinking if there was some kind of performance art we could do to pictorialize this.

Of course, there were other more practical things like planting fax or hemp since the trees have been leveled to make paper. You know hemp could have been used from the beginning to make paper. They just made a decision to cut trees instead because Dupont owned this forest and they wanted to get rich off of it. It would be interesting to investigate the possibility of groups growing hemp and teaching people how to grow hemp. To re-claim this land, saying, "You can't use this land any more. You've taken everything out of it and off of it. Why not just give it back to the community and let them grow something on it." It would be an improvement because it's renewable, an easily renewable crop.

But I think the strip mine and strip mall idea is a good one to do.

How do we amplify that voice?

In Motion Magazine: How do you feel now that the process has reached this stage?

Nobuko Miyamoto: I hope that the communities felt it was worth while. We really felt it was. I'm interested to see how the conversation continues, after we leave, to make what we did here useful and what we will do in the future useful. The people here have done so much themselves. It's really about how do we amplify that voice and use the arts to amplify that voice. To spread that voice to our working situations. To make it more of a national concern, even a global concern. We have empathy for what's going on in the rain forests of Brazil, but we need to focus on what we can do to stop the destruction here as well. We need to think on that large scale so we can help the communities help themselves.

Seeing what these people and Appalshop are doing, I think I learned much more from this experience than I have given back. I hope that I can apply some of these things. I salute Appalshop and the people and the artists that are in this community. I really appreciate these last few days.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 31, 2000