By Jack Nissen
Clinton County Chatter
Step into the Briggs Public Library in Downtown St. Johns and onlookers will be immersed in a variety of artwork.
Paintings vary in minor differences except for one main distinction; many of the pieces of work are from half the world away. Surrounding the Biwa Lake just east of Kyoto in Japan is the Konan, Shiga Prefecture, the friendship city with St. Johns.
“St. Johns has held a vibrant relationship with the Shiga Prefecture for a long time,” said Jenny McCampbell, the president of the Clinton County Arts Council.
“What started as a teacher exchange in 1994 has turned into an exchange of cultures between the two cities,” McCampbell said.
Gateway North, an elementary school in the St. Johns area was the first school to send artwork over, said McCampbell. Twenty years later, it’s expanded to include five other schools.
“The kids initially tried being pen pals with the students over in Japan,” said McCampbell. “Students from Shiga had a much easier time reading the English than the kids did over here. Japanese is just a little harder.”
More than 250 pieces of artwork were placed on display for almost the entirety of March. The depictions of each culture differentiate depending on what country they are from.
“A lot of the art drawn by the Shiga students represents cultural significance for them,” said McCampbell. “A lot of fireworks, natural shrines, animals and houses. It was very different from what students drew here.”
St. Johns elementary students depict holidays and seasons when they are drawing. McCampbell sees this juxtaposition of culture as really important for not just students to see, but the community as a whole.
As this exchange has grown, so has the transformation of the program. Shirley Reis, a fourth grade music teacher has integrated more than just physical artwork into the event.
“Jenny McCampbell came up to me about 10 years ago trying to do something new,” said Ries. “She told me ‘I just want to add a little pizzazz into the performance.’”
The program spiced up through singing and dancing performances. Ries teaches her students songs that hold cultural significance to the residents of the Shiga prefect.
“Teruyuki Ueyama handed me the songs from the city and showed me what sounds should be sung in English,” said Ries. “It’s called the Biwako song and it’s about the lake the city surrounds.”
Ueyama is the Shiga official and a Lansing native who has attended the art show the past two years.
“We take a lot of pride in our culture and enjoy doing this every year,” said Ueyama in an e-mail. “We’ve been doing this with St. Johns since 1993 and I don’t see us stopping anytime soon.”
Ueyama likes to give the introduction at the opening ceremony. As the prefect official, he has a good understanding of the culture being shared in Clinton County.
For this year, Ueyama piqued the interest of his audience (students and adults) with stories of his home including a 350-year-old samurai house complete with trap doors, low ceilings, and many other old cultural trends.
“Every year, I ask all of the Shiga visiting officials if what we sing makes any sense,” said Ries. “It always does. It’s brought tears to their eyes, the singing of these folk songs.”
For Ries, these songs carry with them the same significance that many well-known American folk tunes have for us.
“I’m not sure if the kids really understand the real significance behind what they’re participating in,” said Reis. “But they really enjoy the experience and I really have a lot of fun with it.”