The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the lives of many — but for a trio of South American artists stuck in a rural Japanese city, it has fostered lifelong friendships and even turned them into local celebrities.

Last month, Teresa Currea, Clara Campos and Oriana Marin graced the cover of a monthly magazine published by the city of Kofu, in Yamanashi Prefecture. They also frequently give interviews to local media. Heads sometimes turn their way in excited recognition as they walk into local eateries.

Their unexpected celebrity status has been spawned by an art project they undertook this past fall as a gesture of gratitude for the hospitality of neighbors in Kofu, who they say tided them over during the most difficult period of their time in Japan.

How they chose to repay their kindness couldn’t have been more artistic: they painted the walls of a local community center run by the city, breathing new life into what used to be drab-looking interiors.

“People were being super nice to us, and we had this sense of ‘we want to give back,’” Campos, a Brazilian artist and actor, says.

“We started to get to know people, and they cared about our well-being, so they were like, ‘Are you hungry? I have extra fruit. Here you go,’” she said.

“We felt like we were part of the community.”

Kaori Watanabe, president of Kofu-based temporary staffing agency Answer Knocks, says three different versions of her own portraits, drawn by the three artists, immediately went viral online, helping spread word of their predicament and triggering an outpouring of goodwill and generosity from across the nation. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI
Kaori Watanabe, president of Kofu-based temporary staffing agency Answer Knocks, says three different versions of her own portraits, drawn by the three artists, immediately went viral online, helping spread word of their predicament and triggering an outpouring of goodwill and generosity from across the nation. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI

The trio originally met each other through an art residency program in the prefecture that they joined at the beginning of this year. Initially they thought it would continue for only a few months.

But as the pandemic raged around the globe, borders completely shut down in Colombia — home for Currea and Marin. Although Brazil kept its borders largely open, cascading flight cancellations similarly dashed hopes of a return for Campos.

And so they joined the growing ranks of foreign visitors to Japan who were stuck in limbo, the uncertainty of their lives being compounded by the fact that they had no valid visa that would allow them to work and eke out a living.

It wasn’t until the end of November that immigration authorities in Japan announced the rollout of special measures designed to permit struggling visitors like them to work for up to 28 hours per week, in what was slammed by some critics as a belated move.

But as luck would have it, they met Kaori Watanabe, president of Kofu-based temporary staffing agency Answer Knocks, through an art exhibition they held in March.

“When I met them at the exhibition, I knew that sooner or later they would find themselves in trouble — given their temporary visitor status that meant they would eventually run out of money — so I volunteered to help out with their situation,” Watanabe said.

But it wasn’t the mural initiative that first came into her mind. Quick to notice their artistic talent, Watanabe suggested that each of them draw portraits of her in their own styles, in hopes of sharing their artworks on social media and — consequently — spreading word of their predicament.

Currea, whose works are often inspired by the yōkai supernatural creatures from Japanese folklore, turned Watanabe into an amabie, a mythical monster that attained godlike status on social media last year as netizens worshipped it for its supposed power to repel plagues.

Campos, an aficionado of Japanese anime and idol culture, made a heavily romanticized illustration of Watanabe that evoked the kawaii style of fantasy manga for girls.

Visual artist Marin, meanwhile, used her realistic drawing skills to create a portrait of Watanabe accompanied by a calligraphic rendering of two kanji letters the artist thought best summarized her savior’s personality: “shinsetsu” (“kindness”).

When Watanabe shared these different versions of her portrait on Facebook, her post immediately went viral.

Requests soon came pouring in from people across the nation asking to have their portraits drawn by the trio in exchange for money — the only source of income that has to date helped them pay rent at the guest house where they currently live. Box after box of donations such as winter clothes also arrived, almost inundating Watanabe’s office.

It’s perhaps little wonder, then, that the three felt compelled to give something back to the community.

With Currea leading the project and Watanabe acting as a bridge with city officials, they set about painting walls of the city’s community center in October, embellishing them with symbols of Kofu, such as common kingfishers and the nadeshiko flowers known in English as fringed pink. They also incorporated themes such as Mother Nature and friendship.

Teresa Currea (left), Oriana Marin (center) and Clara Campos (right) pose in front of a painting that represents the concept of Mother Nature and friendship. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI
Teresa Currea (left), Oriana Marin (center) and Clara Campos (right) pose in front of a painting that represents the concept of Mother Nature and friendship. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI

The sight of foreign artists openly decorating the walls of a public building attracted an ebb and flow of curious onlookers during the process, further helping them become a part of the community.

“The idea that the artists went out of their way to repay the kindness of local residents and lift their spirits really touched our citizens. I think the project had them bond really well,” said Masaru Hayashi, a city official that coordinated with the artists.

It is this sense of camaraderie that has left the most lasting impression on the artists, who, as Marin put it, “live in very big cities in Latin America where everyone is anonymous.”

“But here in Kofu, because it’s a tiny city and everyone kind of knows each other, we became part of this community,” Marin said. “So we are giving something and they’re giving us, too, and I think that is beautiful and that’s very important.”

As such, what originally started as a tale of their hardship in Japan has turned into one of positivity, friendship and even sisterhood.

“I feel like they’re my sisters,” Marin said of the other two artists and Watanabe. “Because we’re the way we are, it worked. We’re a team.”

But like every beautiful story, theirs, too, has an ending.

Currea and Campos say they are looking to find airline routes back home and leave the nation as early as January, while Marin, who said she had a “love at first sight” moment with Japan, has instead decided to stay by switching to a student visa. In any case, their time as a tight-knit trio in Kofu is nearing an end.

“I get emotional when I think about it,” Currea said, tears welling up in her eyes as she contemplated the prospect of their forthcoming separation.

“No one is going to take this experience from us. It’s already our treasure. It’s going to be with us forever.”

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