By Jane Smith Bernhardt
On August 7th, the Hiroshima International House in Japan will offer an exhibit of my colorful collage portraits of Atomic Bomb survivors as they mark the 65th anniversary of the first atomic blast over a civilian population. For me, the honor is poignant. It might be argued that I owe my life to the bomb. By August of 1945, my father, a Naval Lieutenant Commander, had already survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and a Kamikaze suicide bomber’s nosedive into the smokestack of his destroyer. With the prospect of a US invasion of mainland Japan, what other perils awaited him in the Pacific theatre of war?
When I spoke with my father about my intention to travel to Japan in 2003 to interview and paint portraits of survivors, he was unusually quiet. My artistic callings were ordinarily met with more enthusiasm. Twenty years earlier, my father supported my travel to the Soviet Union to render charcoal portraits of “enemy” faces. Years later – after Glasnost – he confided that he felt we’d had some small part in ending the Cold War. The Second World War was not the same. There he had anxiously scanned the ocean’s horizons for so long, and had seen so much that a man of honor does not tell….
I deeply respect my father’s heroism and his discipline. But today the world is very different. The new superpower that forced the Japanese surrender now possesses an arsenal of over 5,000 nuclear weapons, and children all over the world must grapple with the tragic notion of “mutually assured destruction.” The need for human evolution beyond the barbaric frontier of physical warfare is obvious and vital.
I try to do my small part with the language I’ve been given: Art. As the daughter and grand-daughter of portrait artists I have always been intrigued by the challenge of rendering three-dimensional reality on a flat surface. Beyond that is the magic of the human spirit: How can one hope to convey that with brush or pencil? After debating mega-tonnage of overkill with advocates of nuclear weaponry during the Cold War, I was struck by an inspiring notion: Bring home the human spirit of the “enemy.”. Let people gaze at the face and absorb the soul of this “other” who looks like my sister, my son, my mother. My exhibit “Faces of the Faceless” became the model for three subsequent collections, because it worked. Instead of an intellectual debate, these renderings did what art can do: they moved the hearts of viewers. An internal conversion could take place wherein “the other” became intimate and personal.
In a sense, Hiroshima was the ultimate calling for my combination of portraiture and peacemaking. Here were the victims who had journeyed to the land of the unthinkable and lived to tell their story.
Nothing quite prepared me for the experience of listening to the words and capturing the facial features of these survivors of nuclear holocaust: the Hibakusha. As I soldiered from one portrait to the next, it suddenly occurred to me that I was feeling nothing. It was as if a stone or block of ice had taken the place where heart and soul should be. I had come here to be a party to transformation, with my faith that the human spirit can transcend barbarism and war, but the alchemy wasn’t working. Just then a young Japanese student from Kyoto, began to inquire about my portrait. She was admiring the likeness and asking polite questions, and I was answering mechanically – and then something happened.
I don’t remember how it began, but I saw infinite sadness in her gaze. Her eyes became moist and I could feel a tremor in my mouth. She stepped closer and I began to weep, unsure of whose tears I cried. Soon we were holding each other as waves of sorrow overtook us. I don’t know how long we stood like that, holding each other in our grief, but my heart became alive again. These shared tears had melted the solid mass within me. Kumika is her name, and in my exhibit she is depicted as the Goddess of Compassion, Quan Yin, who holds the tears of the world.
The alchemy had been revealed to me. If one heart can be awakened by love we all can awaken from the sleep of forgetting. It is so simple, really. We need one another in order to survive and prosper. Right now, at this very moment, we can each decide to let the eternal force of Love awaken us to shared consciousness. The simple fact is that we are all One.
Jane Smith Bernhardt is an artist, performer and writer. She is a graduate of the interfaith Guild for Spiritual Guidance. Her book, WE ARE HERE: Love never Dies, chronicles an extraordinary period of three family deaths and many miracles of joy and forgiveness. Photos and information about the Hibakusha Peace Project can be found on her website: www.janebernhardt.com