Cool New Sculpture Made of Sticks Debuts at Honolulu Museum of Art
Editor Note’s: Through our partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art, HONOLULU Magazine publishes a monthly blog written by Lesa Griffith, the museum’s communications director and a talented Hawaii writer on arts, culture and food.
A shot of the almost-finished work.
HONOLULU Magazine has long been a chronicler of Honolulu’s built environment and urban planning (or lack thereof). If you’re a fan of those stories, a new sculpture at the Honolulu Museum of Art may capture your attention.
Opening during ARTafterDARK on Friday, Aug. 29, is Land Division: An Installation by Sean Connelly. Like Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, Oahu-born Connelly is an architect who makes art. At the invitation of curator of contemporary art James Jensen, Connelly worked on the installation while on summer break from earning his master’s degree in urban development at Harvard University (he already has a doctorate in architecture, from the University of Hawaii).
Land Division continues a concept Connelly started with his debut gallery work A Small Area of Land (Kakaako Earth Room) at the now-closed ii Gallery last year. That installation, curated by Trisha Lagaso Goldberg, was one of the hot art events of 2013. For that piece, which explored land-use issues in Kakaako, he worked with dirt he collected from watershed areas around the island. This time he harvested strawberry guava saplings from different parts of Kaneohe, dried them out, sanded them, then, working in a space at Lana Lane Studios in Kakaako, assembled them within a frame to build a seven-foot-tall mass of what he calls “sticks.” (This was all done with a cadre of volunteers and advisers.) Both installations are the result of 10 years of research he has been doing on traditional Hawaiian resource management and urban design, which he posts on his website Hawaii-futures.com.
Connelly answered some questions about Land Division.
The sculpture in mid-production at Lana Lane Studios.
So, what is it like working with a museum for the first time?
It’s been a very exciting and rewarding challenge. It has allowed me to build relationships with people I’ve long respected. For example, I got to meet Leland Miyano, who helped coordinate the material harvest at Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden. We talked about the complexities of the project. He gave me clues as to what to think of and what to anticipate in working with the material.
I managed the production of the project at Lana Lane Studios—delegating responsibilities to volunteers was a huge learning curve for me. Working on a project like this, there are considerations that I’ve never had to think of before. I couldn’t have done it without the input of a lot of people—seasoned artists and professionals such as Trisha Lagaso Goldberg who have helped me navigate the complexities of managing a project. John Koga and Lawrence Seward came to check out the weight and advise on the transport of the structure. Other artists in the community and friends have stepped in and offered valuable advice and help.
You worked on Land Division for how long?
More than a month of actual work. We harvested a bunch of material and let it dry, chopped them down to size and brought them to the studio, then built a frame, and we’ve been been cutting sticks to fit the size of the frame—there are thousands of sticks that are up to four feet long—and stuffing them in the frame, then the frame will be removed. People who see me working at Lana Lane ask me if I’m a woodworker. [laughs] I just learned how to use an impact diver—a screwdriver with a little hammer in it.
My past projects have been design- and theoretical-based, and I don’t really get a chance to build them out. For Land Division, since I’ve never worked with this medium before, I really underestimated the time it would take to prep and build. Each stick has been wiped down, cut, and sanded and put together. When I started, I put a lot of time into building the foundation, sanding each stick by hand, and a week later I was like, my base is only six inches tall of sanded wood! There’s since been six people sanding—and there is a whole new element in the surface of the sculpture, the accumulation of different skill sets, attention spans, frustrations, and joys. It’s about the process of compiling these materials.
Sean Connelly cutting down strawberry guava saplings for his installation with a power saw.
You’re using the same build-with-a-frame process that you did for A Small Area of Land. Is this now a thing for you—will you be doing more installations based on this technique?
I’m not really thinking that far ahead. Since Jay [James Jensen] first invited me, I’ve gone through many iterations of the design. Originally I was going to make a fake geometric mountain standing straight up covered in glitter, then I looked at hanging it from the ceiling, and I ended up coming up with a form related to the first sculpture. It’s not necessarily a sequel but the message is along the same lines—what is our relationship to land, and the watersheds in Hawai‘i. Whether or not I decide to stack something else in a form remains to be seen. I would like to work with water as a next project.
For A Small Area of Land I was inspired by red dirt because that was the environment I grew up in, in Aliamanu/Heeia. More than the stacking within the frame, I’m interested in the geometry. A Small Area of Land was a rectangle, this one is derived from a cone. I divided it proportionally into thirds, and did all these design things to come up with this shape.
Both installations have environmental references. A Small Area of Land was facing the position of the moon when the sun rose on Aug. 6, 1850. For Land Division, the sculpture faces the position of the moon when the sun set on March 7, 1848, the last day that the Mahele Book was signed. There is also a divide in the sculpture that points in the direction of the Hawaii State Capitol. On the wall I have the dates of the Mahele in 1848, and when the Land Use Commission, zoned all the land in 1961.
What drives your interest in watersheds and land use?
For my college application essay, I wrote about wanting to be an architect to keep Hawaii beautiful. In college, when I started learning about how things work, I saw it was about more than keeping things beautiful. It’s about integrating with the natural cycles of our watersheds, which is the foundation of our environment. I became interested in watersheds and land use because prior to western contact in Hawaii, people lived where they grew their food, and the entire system of the Hawaiian civilization aligned with the watershed. I really think traditional Hawaiian resource management is the future for Hawaii and many parts of the world. People in other cities are realizing water is very important. Historically, cities have been designed to be dry, and now they’re looking at ways to reincorporate water. Hawaii is one of the few places that has a written record of what you might call a pristine ancient civilization whose entire economic and political system was based on water. Right now I’m doing more research on this, some of which I’ve published on Hawaii-futures.com.
In 2012, Patrick Dougherty harvested strawberry guava saplings from Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden, and was assisted by Leland Miyano, to create his installation Footloose on the museum’s front lawn. Was Land Division influenced by that work at all?
I wasn’t aware of Patrick Dougherty’s work until after Jay invited me to create something for the museum. I’m always embarrassed when people asked me about artists. I know architects. I’ve always admired people with art knowledge. I approached Land Division from an architectural standpoint. This form is symmetrical geometry, I chose to work with symmetry because when I was designing the piece, a lot of the research referred me to the Modernist era, when technology was taking off. You look at formative Modernists like Mies van der Rohe and they worked with symmetries. Land use in the 1960s tended to have symmetrical layouts. The State Capitol was part of the Modernist era. I was picking up on that.
How will Land Division be moved to the museum?
It comprises two forms, each split into two segments. We’ll lift it onto a truck with a pallet jack and we’ll roll it onto the truck, then freeze it and bring it into the museum. The frame will come off in the museum.
Lesa Griffith is director of communications at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Born in Honolulu, one of her early seminal art experiences was at the Honolulu Museum of Art, when on a field trip her high school art history teacher pointed out that the ermine cape in Whistler’s Portrait of Lady Meux was not just a cape—it was visual signage leading viewers’ eyes through the painting.