“The world’s spiritual traditions are in agreement that what we see of the world rests on an unseen, subtle and meaningful order.” from Designa, Technical Secrets of the Traditional Arts.
A photo by my sister, Jewell. I love how the landscape becomes the background for a lovely still life on the desert floor.
Sculptor Kenzi Shiokava, who transformed discarded wood into magnetic totems, dies at 82. Carolina A. Miranda
Kenzi Shiokava, who died June 18 at the age of 82 from chronic conditions exacerbated by injuries related to a recent car accident, became a sculptor more by chance than intention.
injuries related to a recent car accident, became a sculptor more by chance than intention. It was the early 1970s, and he was completing his fourth year of undergraduate studies at the Chouinard Art Institute.
When he'd enrolled at the school, Shiokava had set his sights on becoming a painter. But a graduation requirement obligated him to complete a course in sculpture. The very idea filled him with doubt. "Two weeks went by and I didn't have a single idea of what to do," Shiokava told The Times in a 2016 profile.
He ended up finding the answer in his own backyard. One day, as he tidied up the garden of his Highland Park home, he came across several pieces of wood he had accumulated, including an old railroad tie from the Angel's Flight funicular in downtown Los Angeles.
"I started cleaning some of the wood and I realize: 'That's it! It's wood!'" recalled Shiokava. "It has a history. It's right there. I was so excited — nothing else mattered."
He transformed the tie, along with the other pieces of wood he had gathered, into a series of vertical, totemic figures that he displayed in Chouinard's gallery in 1972. The exhibition drew the attention of L.A. gallerist Joan Ankrum who gave the artist a solo show.
After that, Shiokava never looked back. In fact, it was work in the style of those early wooden totems, carefully sculpted from dead tree trunks and reclaimed telephone poles — pieces that felt more like spirits than objects — which drew the attention of a pair of curators affiliated with the Hammer Museum more than four decades later. Those curators, Aram Moshayedi and Hamza Walker, ended up including a large selection of Shiokava's work in the 2016 "Made in L.A." biennial.
At 78 years of age, Shiokava became a breakout star of the show — profiled in international media and name checked in W magazine. It was an unlikely turn for the artist who, throughout his life had operated at the margins of the Los Angeles art world. And who had made his living not as an artist, but as a gardener. Among his clients was actor Marlon Brando, who counted one of Shiokava's pieces in his personal art collection.
Shiokava, whose death was first announced on social media by the Japanese American National Museum and was confirmed to The Times by his niece Xantipa Reed, was a radiant, personable figure, far more preoccupied with the process of creation than in glad-handing in the gallery circuit. One of his favorite activities? Attending the live jazz performances at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and dancing with wild abandon.
"He was the kind of person who, up until his death, all he wanted to do was to be in his studio," says Moshayedi, currently the Robert Soros curator at the Hammer. "The time he spent in the studio, it was a completely different temporality. Works would hang out there in various states of incompletion for decades ... and new objects would enter the studio and they may or may not become parts of works that were sitting in various states of dormancy."
Even after the Hammer exhibition began to draw the attention of the media and museums and galleries, Shiokava remained committed to his vision. "He had willfully decided after that attention to remain working in the way that he had established for himself," says Moshayedi. "He was not going to get caught up in the speed and intensity of the contemporary art world."
Before the Hammer exhibition, Shiokava had steadily shown his sculptures and assemblages in museums and in galleries around Southern California, including shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, the Oceanside Museum of Art and Jack Tilton Gallery in Culver City. And while the occasional collector would materialize in his studio, broader commercial success proved elusive.
But the biennial catapulted him into institutional consciousness.
As part of the Hammer exhibition, he received the $25,000 Mohn Public Recognition Award. In 2018, he was included in a Pacific Standard Time exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum: "Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City and Sao Paulo."
The following year, Ben Maltz Gallery at the Otis College of Art and Design staged a solo survey of his work.
A review of that show by critic Geoffrey Mak in Artforum described his work pieces as having "an almost spiritual function." Indeed the show's title was "Spiritual Material." The assemblages, which included collections of dead leaves, wrote Mak, "allude to the passing of life; the artist might be the filter, gathering and reinfusing these objects with latent purpose." As Times reviewer Leah Ollman wrote of the works in the show, "the continuity between matter and spirit can be viscerally felt when standing before these fellow vertical bodies rising from the earthly plane."
The artist always expressed deep gratitude for the attention he received late in his career. As he told KPCC in a 2016 interview: "Now I know my work is going to survive me."
Kenzi Shiokava was born on Aug. 29, 1938, in Santa Cruz do Rio Pardo, Brazil, to a pair of Japanese shopkeepers. From the time he was a boy, he said he saw something "sacred" in art but never imagined it might become a career.
He ended up in the U.S. in 1964 after a friend in the Brazilian military offered him a free seat on a military flight to Los Angeles. On the strength of a few paintings and sketchbooks, he was accepted at Chouinard (which later became CalArts), where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1974. He went on to complete a master's degree in fine arts at Otis in 1974.
Over more than four decades, Shiokava produced sculptures and assemblages that were inspired by Brazilian and Japanese motifs, as well as influences he encountered in Los Angeles — namely, a generation of Black American assemblage artists such as Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge. In 1994, he was the subject of a solo show at the Watts Towers Arts Center.
The curators for the Hammer's biennial found Shiokava's work after seeing his name listed in a group show that had occurred more than a decade prior, then doing some serious sleuthing to track down his whereabouts and a phone number. He was right where he had been for years: living and working out of a studio in Compton.
In a 2016 interview with The Times, Walker, who is now director at the arts nonprofit LAXART, said Shiokava's under-the-radar profile could be attributed to his reticence toward self-promotion but also the nature of his work and the communities he was part of. "He circulated in a very different, very regional area — a region within a region," he said. Plus, "he doesn't fit any category, but he fits all of them."
To support his artistic career, Shiokava worked as a gardener for much of his life — a day job he far preferred over teaching. "Too stressful," he once told The Times. "Gardening is much more interesting to me."
It was in that line of work that he got a gig cleaning a fish pond at a fancy home in the Hollywood Hills. That home belonged to Brando, for whom he would labor for more than 20 years. The two developed a cordial relationship. "He would say, ‘Kenzi, you make me so happy,'" Shiokava later told KPCC.
Through Brando, he met another prominent Hollywood collector: Jack Nicholson, who also acquired a sculpture. After delivering the piece, Shiokava kept the wooden crate that the work had been transported in so that he might transform it into something new.
"I think he was ahead of society because he believed that you could use trash to make art," says Reed, his niece. "It was important for us to see beauty in the things people throw away. He believed in recycling as an art form. There is beauty in everything — you just have to look for it."
After retiring from gardening, Shiokava focused exclusively on his art — working out of his Compton studio for more than two decades. In addition to Reed, he is survived by three sisters — Lourdes Larkins, Miyoko Hilton, Lucia Teraishi — all based in Los Angeles, as well as a brother, Airton Shiokava, who lives in Brazil. Also among his surviving family members are his niece Hime Dequeiroz and a nephew, Glen Teraishi.
In 2016, when Shiokava was asked by KPCC reporter John Rabe if he was religious, the artist explained that he was Catholic.
"I have lots of faith," he said, pointing at the sky. "Because now I’m more there than here."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
Welcome address to freshman parents at Boston Conservatory, given by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at Ithaca College.
“One of my parents' deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn't be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother's remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school-she said, "you're WASTING your SAT scores." On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren't really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the "arts and entertainment" section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it's the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.
The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.
One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp. He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.
Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture - why would anyone bother with music? And yet - from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn't just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art.
Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, "I am alive, and my life has meaning."
On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn't this completely irrelevant?
Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.
And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day.
At least in my neighborhood, we didn't shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn't play cards to pass the time, we didn't watch TV, we didn't shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang "We Shall Overcome". Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic.
The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.
From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of "arts and entertainment" as the newspaper section would have us believe. It's not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can't with our minds.
Some of you may know Samuel Barber's heart wrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio for Strings. If you don't know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn't know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what's really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.
I bet that you have never been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but I bet you there was some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings - people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there's some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn't good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding, cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks.
Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can't talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn't happen that way.
The Greeks: Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.
I'll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago.
I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland's Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland's, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.
Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier-even in his 70's, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn't the first time I've heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.
When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.
What he told us was this: "During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team's planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn't understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?"
Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.
What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year's freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:
"If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you'd take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you're going to have to save their life.
Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.
You're not here to become an entertainer, and you don't have to sell yourself. The truth is you don't have anything to sell; being a musician isn't about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies. I'm not an entertainer; I'm a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You're here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.
Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don't expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that's what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives."
Mandalas, in my experience and as I understand their usual intent, prefer to live in a wordless space, dancing quietly to some wordless tune. Or even a tuneless tune. A good mandala -- an effective mandala, I believe -- creates its own space. So I do not intend these images to appeal to a particular sense, state of mind, mood, or concept, except in the way that all mandalas might: tangentially, a little off to one side. If they do, it's all to the good. But at the core of a mandala, which always circles around a strong center, is a contemplative focus for both creator and viewer. If time is spent with such a design a centering of "self" may occur, in which mood, state of mind, and even concepts themselves might fall away.
This centering, of course, this release from the burden of distraction of thoughts and feelings, is the richest of transitions any of us can make, because we find ourselves moving in strange and circuitous routes to the one place we have always wanted to be, the place, in fact, that we never really left, our own breath and life.
I am an artist. I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
- 2020 - 22
Gallery of Visual Art
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