Portrait of Eiko Fan

“It took a long time to be able to dream in English.”

Eiko Fan is a sculptor and art teacher whose specialty is teaching art to people with disabilities.

Eiko Fan 2

Eiko Fan performing with her Live Wood Sculptures.

I am a sculptor and I specialize in teaching art to people with disabilities. I was born in Tokyo, Japan, with Taiwanese and Japanese parents.

In the early 1970s America going to America was fashionable. Being a teenager, I thought America was “advanced” or “cool” and foreigners in Japan were considered “cool”—except for Asian foreigners. My family was from China and in Japan they looked down on Chinese people. When I came here I was another kind of foreigner—until a few years ago when I became an American citizen so that I could vote for Obama.

I came here to study sculpture at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. After I studied for four years and went back to Japan, I no longer fit in there. At that time girls got married young and all my friends were married or talking about getting married, and I had spent my time studying art, so I no longer fit in.

At the airport I had many people to see me off—all my classmates and family. I came to the US by myself. When I got on the plane I was exhausted and fell asleep.

I went to Washington, DC, to study English for a few months before I started art school. The day I arrived, I stayed at a hotel and unpacked all my clothes. When I was picked up to go to the school, I left all my clothes behind and had to go back to get them.  In Washington I stayed at a girls dormitory. I didn’t feel too safe in Washington. At first I was able to use English to say basic things, but it took a long time to be able to dream in English.

I did not think my move was permanent, but when I went back to Japan after four years of school, I felt like I wanted to get back to the US.

In the US it was impossible for me to earn money so my parents paid my living expenses. I had to have an exhibit every year, to be able to renew my visa, and I could only stay one year at a time. I had to leave the country each time to renew my visa so I took trips to Mexico and Canada. That was really hard to have an exhibit every year, so I went back to school for a student visa and got my MFA at Penn. After that, I met Danny and we got married.

I always cook Asian food, the kind of food my mother made, always rice. Since age 18, I was among strangers. I tend to make friends into my family. I make a big effort to be liked. I had to create my own family so I “adopt” people. I have been here longer than I was in Japan, forty-five years.

Was it worth it? I use art to empower people. I have had one particular student for 27 years. I think without art she would not live as long. It is not just about making art but connecting with others and to help people feel important. I also tell people, the public, that each person is unique, not just a person with a disability. My motto is “Art is Food.”

I am a wood carver. One reason I stayed in this area is for the cherry wood I like to carve. In high school one small piece of wood was very expensive. Here all I need is a station wagon and I can find all the wood I need. I still carve like someone Japanese, carving each piece out of a single piece of wood in Japanese tradition. I think my artwork is freer here than it would have been in Japan. And I think how a young woman was expected to behave, I was freer here.

Eiko Fan performing with her Live Wood Sculptures.

Eiko Fan performing with her Live Wood Sculptures.

Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition June 25–28, 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.

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