My process of creating still surprises me even after a few years of art making. This year I have taken another route – proposing work to galleries before creating it. This is an interesting and more collaborative way of working with curators. I propose ideas and get feedback from them on fit with the theme and other work going into the show, taking into consideration the site for the exhibition.
Most recently I created an installation for the Re-Claim Exhibition for the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center. I proposed 2 different directions and they selected the idea of expanding the Remembrance Shrine I created 3 years ago.
The newly created Pearls Left Behind installation is a collection of reactions to memories of Japanese American Internees featured on the Remembrance Shrine Over three years viewers wrote their responses on white strips of paper and tied them to the shrine at seven exhibitions throughout the Bay Area and in the Pacific Northwest.
I had not looked at the reactions until 2 months ago. As I removed them from the hanging raffia on the bottom of the shrine, I counted 133 responses. I was very moved by these thoughts about the “camps”, peace, apologies, war, and shame. A discussion about this painful time in US history does not often happen and here were 133 people who had something to say about it. I could see each written expression as a pearl of wisdom, as gifts to be shared.
I transcribed all the handwritten reactions, typing them into my computer. I felt almost as if they were prayers and confessions and wishes to convey to the internees. I selected 1/3 of the writings to feature in the new installation. By the time I completed the piece the actual number of “pearls” I ended up with was 41, apropos since the war started in 1941.
I knew I was going to incorporate cardboard pizza rounds into the installation but I had not exactly figured out how. I started playing around with cutting the circles. I knew I did not want to just write on them as they were. I began hand cutting the circles into rings, getting 3 rings out of each flat. Next I applied tracing paper to each ring. The translucency took on some of the same quality as the Shrine’s rice paper and Noguchi’s lanterns that were an inspiration.
I thought I was going to transfer the typed text by using adhesive lettering. When I spoke to the signage company they were not able to work with the thinness of the font. As a result I ended up tracing printouts of the text, using different thicknesses of sharpie pens.
Some people asked me why I did so much handwork instead of using laser cutting for the rings and getting the text printed on large architectural printers. In my prior occupation, I directed retail merchandising campaigns, creating banners, store displays, and signage. I did not want to use mechanical production methods with this installation. An organic treatment was applied to the material to give a handmade look to the original machine punched out cardboard pizza rounds. The hand cutting, painting, and handwriting of these selected 41 responses became my meditation for the last two months. I really wanted the making process to be part of the honoring of the viewers’ thoughts. I added gold paint to the rings, allowing some of the cardboard to still peek through. I used simple hemp string to join the circles together. The honesty of the materials was something I did not want to cover up.
The final part of the installation was the structure from which the pearls or thought bubbles would hang. I knew I wanted to incorporate the mulberry branches pruned from the tree in my childhood backyard in Lodi. We drove around with these on top of our van for a couple of weeks and everyone thought our car was a moving installation. Perfect since I named the old ‘80s van Babar after the storybook elephant. My partner came up with the idea of wrapping the branches with barbed wire and how we came upon a bunch of it rusted to the right color is another story.
There were 3 meanings to the title Pearls Left Behind. Pearls were selected because of the saying “pearls of wisdom”, because of the shapes of the circles, and also as a tip of the hat to my father’s family, who lost their oyster farm in Washington when they were interned.
It is my hope that some internees may see these words on the installation and find them healing. May they see that there is some understanding about what happened, and that what they experienced still matters. We must not forget because unfortunately some one else may be on the hot seat of persecution next time.