With the Grain- A Day Shared with Artist Eiko Fan
Yesterday I got to do something unexpectedly wonderful with my time here in Philly. I was introduced to artist Eiko Fan who is friends with Rob and Cathy when I was at the film festival last week. Rob was introducing the shorts written and directed by Muslim youth in Philadelphia, he is the director of the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival. Eiko Fan sat toward the front of the theater and Cathy pointed her out to me. She thought we should meet, that we would have a lot in common. After the viewing my friends introduced us. Eiko was very warm and easy to talk to. She had that self-contained quality in her quiet baring. I liked her immediately. The kind of person that knows many things and doesn't need to prove it. I feel like there is mastery in that. Not only in her art, but in her way with people. Perhaps it was even in her way of holding herself.
I told her I was an artist with a Studio Art degree from Florida State University. I said I had done my first solo exhibit and Artist Residency earlier this year at a small museum in Tallahassee, Florida. She asked what I worked with. I said I was first a drawer, I got into painting later and did sculpture in college. I mentioned trees, that I have become more drawn to the presence of things. I did a stone installation and love to focus on ancient oaks, the feeling of being.
Eiko does wood sculpture. She carves wooden beams and stumps with a chain saw, using the tip to make cuts like paint strokes. She graciously invited me to come over to her house to do some carving. I remember one project when I had to cut wood to make a frame for a mirror. The mirror was a broken odd shape, so I was going to use the light poplar wood to create a dripping effect, spray painting it silver so the dipping edges looked like they were melting. A reference to the fact that glass is just a slow moving liquid.
As I sanded the wood for hours by hand, I found I liked the rhythm of it, the effort making it smooth with my hands. I liked that the light grain shown, I felt like its supple surface was cheerful, like its smell and color and touch took me to its forest where the light would have been cheerful and bright, reaching the ground, allowing it to grow. I would find my mind drifting there, the rhythm an unexpected meditation. The material bringing me in contact to a place I had not seen, so imbued with it, my thoughts would drift there. No words necessary to convey its message. I felt the light of the sun the young tree had built itself with. Could imagine a cool quick wind stirring its leaves I had never seen.
That tactile power was the more important part of that project. I never committed to the planned result of the mirror, I glued it together hurriedly for a rushed deadline, and after the class finished it separated, and the glass broke when I moved. I think I didn't want the distraction from the wood deep down. It had surprised me with the draw of working just the wood.
It was this that Eiko gave back to me. I had not known this so clearly until she showed me the strength of her carvings, and invited me to make a small one of my own. I looked forward to the trip to visit her and the deeper connection it would bring.
I think the journey on the subway helps to process things. There is a certain retreating that happens, a withdrawing in, not wanting to tangle with too much moving through unfamiliar territory, even if at times that territory is the person sitting next to you. I think crossing land staring out the window at the changing scenery, gave me a chance to cover unconscious ground. I loved the colors and murals caked by dirt and layers of living passing by. I noticed how long houses are up north, like deep burrows instead of airy squares down south. I watched the concrete jungle with its signs of spirit, in one neighborhood there was a mural of a smiling little girl with dark skin and pigtails looking out her bedroom window, with a brother peeking down at the train in the next window. Interaction and acknowledgment, connections made just for someone like me to see.
We started underground and as we went down the Frankford Line it rose up. Concrete passing by gave way to sky and the colors of fall began to overtake the window. Trees and wood and oxygen. Eiko's territory. I love that there are details everywhere in Philly that speak something unique. Beautiful Chinese letters in red peek on the sky stairway, the next stop, the seating area has vaulted glass windows, glass boxes and triangles framed in white grouped together to make a grand pointed viewing space of the blue sky and the river of passing cars below. Finished off by the rawness of weather worn paint and old hand turned window latches.
When I got off at the end of the line I crossed one of the overpass walking bridges, it had some charming scroll of metal work lettering and lighting like the type face of an old Coca-Cola sign. I was texted to look for her by an old shoe store. As I went over the cars I saw a waving figure out of the corner of my eye. I waved and met her by her car.
It was good to have that moment when you first introduce yourselves to each other again in your new environment. She asked more about me and when we drove up to her house it stood out from the manicured lawns and white picket fences around her with its wildness. I felt at home, like Daddy's land. It's places like this where there is no fear to get dirty and new things are fashioned and born. Her driveway was thick with leaves and inches of sawdust. Things were stored and stacked about wherever they found purchase to nestle themselves like so many wild things. I feel like it reflects where the focus is and where it isn't. There was a wall of stumps of wood by the fence and wood working power tools and clamps and tables. She invited me inside and the cheery white house was like a lair spilling items and art, both hers and her students.
Eiko works with disabled students, many blind, some with cerebral palsy, some missing hands. Whatever place they are at, she helps them find a way to create. Paint with toes, sculpt with glue and paper. I was impressed by some of the paper works by blind students who were colorists. One woman had not seen color for I believe it was seventy years, and still used the correct colors for her sculptures. There was one of human figures reaching toward the top of their structure. The people were different colors. The top of the structure was like an open caging with yellow stars on top and blue encasement. They were reaching for the stars. The white figure couldn't quite reach, so one of the brown figures was holding their hand, and the other hand reached up and touched a star. I feel moved remembering it.
Another was impressive, it was like the Renaissance paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo of portraits made out of fruit. The creator was blind but used colored printing paper in all the right places. She didn't even get help to know which color each paper was, she had a computer program tell her and made it at home. She remembered how they looked. I loved her plays on words. The mouth was made of red tulips, there was a little white rabbit on the head for "hair" the eyes were two potatoes with "eyes". It was great.
Eiko had even more stored inside than normal as her mother's paintings were recently brought from Japan. They were beautiful landscapes with rich color and strong curving bands that defined her style.
I loved the carvings Eiko showed me of her son, her family, little people grouping to make larger forms, all raw and shifting with the spirit of the wood. Her cutting so defined. I think my favorites were the one she made when she was pregnant and the wooden female figure's womb opened on a hinge to show the two children inside, a brother and sister. I was impressed by the wood's strength and connections and the hollow spaces. She said it is important how to leave the connecting points strong. It is important that it is One. She doesn't like gluing things. I could feel what she meant. It keeps the integrity of the object.
My other favorite was a short seat that looked like a Galapagos turtle with six legs and some strong stubby wings for a little seat back, it had such a tough attitude coming through the quiet wooden medium. She said it was funny because the deep gap at the front and the rise of the turtle's head messes with men who sit in it. Noguchi liked the joke and sat in it when he visited her and now she said smiling she doesn't want other people to sit on it. I really love thinking about that, he was the last person to sit in it. That gave me joy, what a funny thing for a woman artist to think of. I wouldn't expect a man to point out our advantage like that. Of course, it was just unexpected period. She has a good sense of humor. Clever, and funny whenever I think of it.
After the tour of work she offered me half of a Vietnamese sandwich made with beef and cucumber, some spice and a delicious sauce. We fueled up before getting to work. I felt so glad, how kind she is, and so much was shared so easily, even beyond good food and time.
She gave me a lab coat covered in paint marks and I felt like I'd come home. On the smallest wood working table were two pieces of ornamental pear. she had split the little log and carved flat the back. She told me I wouldn't find this in Florida. This is my most place specific and wonderful souvenir. And it came for free from a local tree, was prepared by Eiko Fan and carved by me.
I knew I was going to make my totem for my fantasy story. When I explained what figure I was making I think it was confusing to her, but she helped me with the band saw that nestles in her shed where all the magical pieces from her early works are tucked away. They peek out from the cascade of tools, and wood, and mounds of sawdust. She had shown me pictures of her residency in Scotland. I was blown away by the performance pieces, wooden headdresses and wings held me fast as she turned the pages. I could see such earthen power appealing to Scotland with its mounds of earth and stone.
Eiko showed me a Dremel tool that looked like a screwdriver tip but I noticed the edged of the spiral were flared and sharp as my leather piercing needle. The metal was stronger. She was very excited about it. She said it cuts like butter, and it took many years for her to find it. I got to use it to carve my figure. We worked next to each other for hours, they slipped by happily. I would have liked to watch her more as the chain saw spewed wood bits behind me, I watched sometimes as she used its tip with precision bending over the low piece of wood. I don't know that I could handle that each day, she is strong and steady and keen as she works.
She told me that even though it looks messy, the sawdust is important. The inches of dust make a steady base to hold the wood as she works. The tip of the saw is protected too from hitting concrete when it dips down. I felt like there was something right about it. It was like an ecosystem. It reminds me of the way Florida's hammocks make their soil. The trees make their own soil by their leaves and layers of generations over the hard coral rock. Here, it was the Artist's ecosystem. The bits of the earlier work providing a steady base for fresh work, freedom to wield powerful tools. the dust is charged by the action again and again, cut by the artist's hand.
I like that. I even liked it about my chalk mural in Carmel California. Colored dust layering in a perfect lip of powdered pigments at the bottom. The side effect of my hand and its pressure on the chalk.
When I first started working I felt a bit unsure of it. What the hell do I do to get this going? Eiko said not to think about it too much. What a relief, THAT is good for me. She said I would have to give up something for contrast, so I made the wings thinner. I wanted to leave bark, I like the under layer too, it was beautiful. I would have liked to show it off even more. I used the underneath wood as skin for the female form. I loved how many of her female figures were like Goddess statues, or the Goddess of Willendorf figurine. I wanted mine to feel like that, an evocation of woman's power and spirit. So I noticed a knot on the wood and used it to shape the breasts, she said good ones get extra credit. See this is the relief of artists. It is funny and awareness of the figure and respect of shape is different. It is harder to do. I wasn't sure it was going to go over well at first, then I got obsessed getting it right, once a mistake is made it is part of it. I learned this by messing up the left hand. I cut it down and and made the torso instead. Not even by first choice, but the wood you need to work with. Whatever is there, whatever is left. Will you miss this part you take away? Once you do it won't come back.
She said it was good and asked how many years it had been. I told her before 2010. She said I'd gotten right back into it. It felt great to just make something in a certain amount of hours just to do it. She said I helped her too, that my being here got her to work longer. If I hadn't been working myself she would have quit an hour earlier. That was important to hear. I think it really makes a difference working with someone around. In silence, feeding off each others' effort. It was a great kind of camaraderie. We both had been feeling the pull to get to this, the main event. I feel like it was just a shared recognition. It made me think of home, I'd like to do this on the Land with dad.
There was an arbor next to me dividing the other part of the yard, and as the sun sank it was a sweet yellow burst when we began to wrap up our projects. She gave me the box for the Dremel tool so I can buy my own, and a postcard of her beautiful exhibit in Scotland. She said when she sent my friends a photo of me working, "Katie in her natural habitat." I love how she smiles about things.
Before taking me back to the station, she let me wear one of her amazing wooden wing sets. I felt honored and thrilled. It is a major life theme for me, getting my wings. She said if I lived here, she'd ask me to perform if she does more performance pieces. That was a gift to hear. I'd like to make my own wings. Wearing hers, well. She gave me her wings.
We talked in the car about the film festival, and she told me for Thanksgiving she would have many people over. She said people who don't have their own place to go, friends, students, She said she adopts people. I felt a warmth at knowing such a person.
When she dropped me off she said I was the next Eiko Fan. Calling me her second really did something, I said with an emotion rising inside, "it is an honor" and wished her much love as the door closed and she drove away. One day can be so much, even when it seems so simple. Like mastery. The most elegant things are simple. And once again I find in the actions, the most powerful things are what can't be seen.