Erasing boundaries through art
Last updated 10/10/2023 at 10:48am
Walking into the classroom at Pine Meadow Ranch Center for Arts & Agriculture, I was immediately drawn to a table covered with cast hands, each unique in appearance, size, and pose.
I had heard about the work being done by Sandra Honda, one of the artists doing a month-long residency at the Ranch, that she was looking for more volunteers for her art installation, and I was curious.
The jumping-off point for our time together was my telling Honda a little about myself, followed by what I thought of when she said "climate change." We wandered far afield and as we talked Honda recorded our conversation. We then made a mold of my hand which she cast in alginate. She intends to have an installation of the hands where viewers can pick them up and hear a few lines spoken by the hand's person.
In high school, Honda created identity poetry as she explored her Japanese roots. That identity work informs her artwork today. Her grandparents and parents were sent to internment camps during World War II. During Honda's growing up, not much was said about that time and when Honda was about 10 she asked if the camps they talked about were like summer camp. The answer came back, "Not exactly. We all went to camp."
When Honda learned the true nature of the internment camps, she was angry with her parents for not standing up and resisting. She did a lot of reading and credits her high school U.S. history teacher for helping her understand the situation. She joined the Japanese American Citizen League as a teenager and her uncle, her mother's oldest brother, was the president of the League for two years.
In 1999, she started creating representational drawings with colored pencils. In 2013, she transitioned to painting lightly abstract work in oils. Now she considers herself a conceptual artist, all of it self-taught.
"In my work, I process my experiences growing up sansei, or thirdgeneration Japanese American. My work examines what it means to be Asian and American, while reclaiming my identity as a descendant of a people incarcerated in U.S. concentration camps during World War II. This body of identity work takes on new urgency in this time when we must not look away from systemic racism. My intent is to build shared understandings of the past as present and future. My hope is that these understandings in some small way help us make better choices going forward," Honda explained.
She went on to say, "My way of working involves physicality with my materials. I engage in a process of excavating and rebuilding layers of ink drawings on paper, digging and tearing into the paper always in a back-and-forth conversation between the random and intentional. In this very physical and dynamic process, I excavate and rebuild self."
Honda purposely uses inexpensive, non-archival materials, which she says, "allows me to play," taking away the fear of ruining expensive materials. She calls it "the will of the moment." In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi is a worldview centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of appreciating beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" in nature.
Honda is creating an installation of imperfect tea bowls molded from torn paper and glue, with scars and holes all part of their beauty. She is currently calling it "Love Heals," encouraging love, not hate, and moving forward.
Although now a full-time artist, Honda's educational background was in biology with an undergraduate degree, master's, and doctorate earned. Her interest in molecular biology led to her calling herself a "DNA jock."
Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Honda had a long career as a scientist, grant writer for science-related funding, and speechwriter for the head of research for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Washington D.C. area. In 2018, Honda "ran away from science," moving to Eugene to live her dream of becoming a full-time artist.
Honda pointed out that the hand project is really the community's project due to participation by Sisters Country residents. Because of this, her intention is to bring all the participants together to gather around the hands, giving everyone the opportunity to feel true ownership. She views the participants' hands and voices as possible cultural ambassadors, raising rural voices with a real connection to the land. Eventually, she wants to return the hands to their people.
This is Honda's second autumn in residency at Pine Meadow, having spent a month here last fall. Former Sisters District Ranger Bill Anthony was one of her first interviews. She intended to have organic conversations, but after meeting with Anthony, the concept of incorporating climate change and casting hands blossomed, based on her years of scientific work for NOAA. She had only brought one casting kit with her, so she had to quickly secure more. She had 19 hands by the end of her first residency. The casting of the hands also relates to Honda's identity work around her ancestral heritage.
A fellow artist and resident, composer Mei-ling Lee, is helping Honda with the technical aspects of giving voice to the hands when they are picked up. A public lecture last summer by some of the organizations who receive funding from the Roundhouse Foundation encouraged Honda to consider making the project transferable to other areas of the state to collect voices different from those of Central Oregon, as conversations on climate change are facilitated.
All of Honda's previous scientific work and current art is connected. Climate, in different ways, has run through it all and connects to the theme of this year's residency – Food and Agriculture. She is concerned that the topic of climate change can be divisive, with the scientists on one side and the deniers on the other – us vs. them. Her goal is to erase boundaries. The hands represent no races or colors. She is not going to deny the deniers from participating. "They are all part of a community. The thread of the project is the elevating of less-heard voices," Honda explained.
"I especially want to thank Kathy and Frank (Deggendorfer) and Erin (Borla) for this wonderful opportunity at the Ranch. They have helped me fall in love with this place," Honda concluded.