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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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The bare necessities

Melissa Ichiuji has not enjoyed a good cup of coffee since last year.

She stopped watching television in January, and then gave up reading magazines, newspapers, books and the Internet over the following months. She eliminated soda from her diet first, but quickly followed by axing fast food, alcohol, chocolate and meat – before cutting food out of her life altogether.

“I had been exploring the idea of how identity is formed by habits and patterns,” Ichiuji, a junior at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, said in an interview last week. “Around Christmas, after the (South Asian) tsunami, I felt very uncomfortable about my excesses. This was a way of checking where I fit into feeling uncomfortable with comfort.”

She cut off her contacts with family and friends, turned off her cell phone, ignored the comforts of running water, appliances and shelter, quit having sex and ultimately ceased speaking altogether.

Who thought that a life so simple could be so hard? Ichiuji gave up all the above – and more – for “Stripped,” a semester-long project that concluded in a finale earlier this month in which she spent day and night outside the Corcoran with nothing but Gatorade, a blanket and the clothes on her back.

With the help of her professors at the Corcoran, Ichiuji, who is married and in her late 30s, developed a plan to gradually eliminate all of her so-called vices. She also gave up music, cosmetics, shoes, mirrors, medications, driving and clocks.

“I approached it as a project I was going to do from the very beginning,” said Ichiuji, who added that fellow students and staff were very supportive. “No student has ever attempted to do something like this before.”

“In the beginning, the hardest things to give up revolved around ritual, like coffee,” Ichiuji said, “but in the end, the hardest thing was almost the best thing – when I lived in a tent and was isolated, it was hard, but one of the most rewarding parts. It gave me a connection to nature.”

Ichiuji has also had to deal with the publicity associated with the project, which was covered by The Washington Post and numerous blogs. Ask her about her critics, and Ichiuji quickly dismisses them.

“I’m not interested in dealing with those people, because they have no point of reference and it’s not worth it,” said Ichiuji, who also dances, acts, sculpts, paints and takes photographs. “I become angry when people just don’t understand (my work). I’m grateful that some people can understand it, and not meet it with indifference.”

After living in her yard since May 5, Ichiuji moved to a platform outside the Corcoran for the final 36 hours of her journey on May 10 and 11. Dressed in a white sports bra and pants, she sat on the wooden platform for an entire day with only water and Gatorade to drink, and a row of clear glass jars in which to urinate. Curious onlookers lingered long enough to gawk at her and to read her journal, which was available for public viewing.

“I really felt my lack of privacy when people were reading the journal,” Ichiuji said. “It was a very intense feeling – they made eye contact, they were confused and touched, but very supportive.”

Not all of the visitors to the site were as friendly, though.

“There was this one guy who was interested in waiting for me to urinate,” Ichiuji said. “But mostly, people on the site were fine.”

When she reached the platform, Ichiuji felt the effects of her fasting.

“The afternoon sun was very intense. I had really underestimated it,” she said. “I had no shelter at all, and that combined with not eating had made me very dehydrated.”

To get her mind off of the hunger, Ichiuji said that she “tried to focus on each moment and breath. I focused on people that were there, and looked at the grain of the wood on platform – simple things. I watched an American flag in the breeze.”

Eventually, Ichiuji was faced with a decision. “I fell asleep for a few hours, and a homeless man slept near me. When I woke up, I was shaking and felt like I might become sick,” she said. “Some people were still coming by, including a man who was a doctor. He suggested I should abandon the project for the sake of my health. I left the Corcoran at 4 a.m.”

Though Ichiuji did not make it all the way through the final hours of the project, she feels grateful for the experience and support. The entire project has been chronicled on her Web site,

“I learned a lot, and there are some vices I won’t (return to), like television,” she said. “It’s very confusing now – I still feel in limbo. I haven’t gone back to most of (my vices). Really, only my computer and car, other than necessities.”

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