Artist Tomo Inukai works with a 9-year-old girl on a piece of art made from tsunami debris. (Watanoha Smile)

After an earthquake and tsunami struck Ishinomaki, Japan, in 2011, a local primary school playground looked like a giant pile of trash.

Tomo Inukai helped the kids turn the trash into art.

“The works are filled with students’ memories of trying to get on their feet again after the disaster,” said Inukai, a 34-year-old sculptor.

Characters made out of debris from destroyed buildings were given names such as “Lady Heavy Makeup” and “Uncle Demon” to help bring smiles to the faces of children in Ishinomaki.

After the quake and tsunami destroyed the city, Inukai launched the Watanoha Smile project, using the debris to make works of art with the students who had taken shelter at the Watanoha Primary School.

He recently published a book about the project, titled “Watanoha-Smile: Recovery Art Objects Made by the Children of Ishinomaki.” The book’s approximately 200 characters and the stories about them leave a lasting impression.

“These works are very precious,” Inukai said. “I wanted to record them.”

Inukai, a resident of neighboring Yamagata Prefecture, has held workshops for children across the nation on how to make works of art using discarded objects.

At the invitation of a volunteer organization, he visited the primary school in Ishinomaki three weeks after the disaster.

Seeing disaster survivors who couldn’t eat or sleep and piles of the debris that filled the school playground, he initially felt discouraged because he thought he could not give a workshop there.

Meanwhile, the children had created a hideout with the debris. They also played baseball by collecting balls and sticks that could be used as bats. Feeling encouraged by the children, Inukai began the project.

The children wanted to play as they once had with their toys, now washed away in the tsunami. When Inukai showed them how to bond items with glue, they were happy to use it to build things all day. Compared with children in workshops he had given in other places, the young people from Ishinomaki made more works of higher quality, he said.

“They lost various things [in the disaster], so I thought their imagination and creativity had increased,” Inukai said. “I felt I learned from them what it means to live.”

With his help, the children managed to turn the debris, full of negative memories, into positive, brilliant characters — works that strikingly impress anyone who sees them.

He has heard from many readers that they were moved by the book, and an exhibition of these works has been held at about 30 locations in Japan. Inukai said he would like to see the artwork exhibited in the United States.

Inukai still visits the Watanoha district once or twice a month because he wants “to see how the children have grown.” He said he wants to be with the “Watanoha kids” for 10 to 20 years to come.

Wire and staff reports