When Lisa Spilliaert's mother told her, on one of their frequent Skype visits, that she still had her love letters from Lisa's father, Tom Spilliaert, and offered to let Lisa read them, Lisa was intrigued.
Lisa's father had been a foreign exchange student from Belgium to the Wabasso area for the school year 1980 to 1981. His stay was divided ahead of time to be shared between the Ray and Alice Thull residence in Lucan and the Breyfogle residence in Wabasso.
While in Washington, D.C., Tom Spilliaert spent time with a Japanese foreign exchange student, even holding hands during a visit to a theatre. They exchanged addresses and started a long-distant romance.
During the course of reading the copies of the original love letters, Lisa Spilliaert became spellbound to the point of wanting to retrace her father's steps.
After completing her Masters of Art degree in Photography and becoming a free-lance artist, Lisa decided to travel to the United States to see and experience everything her father had while here with the Youth For Understanding foreign exchange student organization. That's when she looked up Ray and Alice Thull, who – fortunately – where still living in the same house they had when Tom Spilliaert had stayed with them so many years ago.
For the past couple of months, Lisa has been their guest, visiting places her father had, experiencing the American Culture, which of course has moved forward in time. She brought with her copies of her parents' love letters, has researched newspaper articles from that era, and has immersed herself into the experience.
"My parents talk about how they met, that's crucial to why I'm here," the young artist said. "This Belgian boy, Tom, Met this Japanese girl, Mariko, and they started writing to each other.
"What intrigues me most is how this 18-year-old boy tries to make a total imagery image of Mariko and Japan. He struggles to make this image throughout his writing," Lisa continued. "What fascinates me is how he tries to make an image of what he can't see."
Spilliaert also appreciates how the handwritten letters give physical evidence that they exist, they weren't emails that are often simply deleted.
"Now, I am here where he was 30 years ago," she said. The fact that she is physically here where her father was adds to the reality of what she has read about in his letters. Then she read aloud excerpts from his letters. "This is a very photographic spectacle for me."
Lisa is also journaling her experiences that mirror what her father wrote about.
"What I'm doing is writing over his text and I'm writing my own love letters to sometimes people I know, sometimes to an imaginary person," she explained. "At this moment, I'm very much immersed in the experience of being here in Minnesota at the exact place he had been.
Page 2 of 2 - "I must have read the letters thousands of times," she added. "It all sounds romantic, but for me, it's all about the spectacle of its real existence according to the love letters. It's all about the spectacle with being present at the place."
In the love letters, Tom Spilliaert projects his desire for some place he had never seen before, Japan. Mariko becomes more and more abstract to him, so he went to the library to research Japan and write about the war there, out of his imagination.
When asked what she plans to do with this experience, Lisa said she could publish it in a book, give presentations on it, or publish it in installments (periodicals).
"To me, it may be my whole life's work to investigate and experience the love that I found in these letters," she added.
Upon her return to Belgium in another month, she will continue to analyze the love letters and journal her own responses and experiences that reflect those in the love letters.
After completing his college degree in Belgium, Tom Spilliaert had traveled to Japan to marry Mariko. They raised two daughters there, Lisa and her younger sister, Clara. Clara is also attending college in Belgium. They get home to Japan frequently to spend time with their parents who still live there, as well as visit with them on Skype.