In Shadowboxes and the Round by Akira Ohiso

I walk across Market Street on 14th Ave NW.   Ellie and I are walking to Ballard Reuse, a store that resells used home furnishings.   It’s a creative exercise to browse in the jettisoned commerce of others; tubs, doors, street signs, school lockers, lights, cabinet handles, picture frames, radios, hardware, school desks, mirrors, chairs, nautical detritus, clocks, furniture with upcycle potential.  Hipster decor, cheap purchase or creative reuse for an upscale Craftsman.

I find alternative frame solutions for my work; a plastic streetlight, a drawer on its side, a wall piece with shelf and oval frame, gaudy picture frame.   I think about Michaelangelo’s Doni Tondo, a work that depicts a Madonna in the “tondi” or “round.”   

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I also think about Joseph Cornell, an artist who created found-object assemblages in shadow boxes.  He was a self-taught artist and was influenced by the surrealist movement.  Seemingly random juxtapositions, sculptural collages and poetic play were integral to his work.  He once said “collage = reality.”  He lived much of his adult life in a house on Utopia Boulevard in Flushing, Queens.  I was born in Flushing and lived the first three years of my life in an apartment on Bowne Street.  I remember mostly through family photo albums and stories.  My father photographed prolifically during my childhood.  I swear I have a memory of walking in the building laundry room with red slippers adorned with anchors.  My parents vouch for the red anchor slippers, but don’t think I could have remembered such a memory -a gossamer instance like a fragment of a collage. 

 “Cornell in Window” 1972 by Harry Roseman  

“Cornell in Window” 1972 by Harry Roseman  

Years later, I would return to Flushing to finish school at Queens College where I received a BA in Studio Art.  I lived with an ex-girlfriend in an apartment building next to the Whitestone Expressway and Whitestone Lanes. The New York Times distribution center was across the expressway. She was a tough Queens girl with a thick New Yawk accent.  She lost both hippy parents at an early age and was raised by her maternal Jewish grandmother.  Her grandmother had died and she lived in the apartment by herself.  There was unresolved trauma around the loss of her parents.  She found her mother dead from a drug overdose.  She was raped at age 13 by an older kid in the neighborhood.  Neither of us had the emotional self-awareness to maintain the relationship.

These were issues I was not exposed to in a north shore Long Island suburb.  I grew up in Port Washington, NY, a cow-neck shaped peninsula facing the Long Island Sound.  In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby,  Port Washington was East Egg, the “old money” enclave of Gilded Age estates.  West Egg or Great Neck was for the “nouveau riche.”  Not that drugs and rape weren’t happening, but wealth can make those things go away very easily. 

I grew up middle-class.  We were better off than some, but I acutely felt the haves and have-nots in Port Washington.  The growing “Spanish” community lived in apartments on Main Street or in multi-unit houses near the industrial areas of town.  I remember the local police moving Latino men along who were “loitering” on fences around the train station.  Most of the young men lived together and simply sat outside their apartment buildings on warm nights.  Many worked in restaurant kitchen and landscaping companies. 

My neighborhood was middle-class, but has gentrified with yuppies since.  Smaller pre-war homes with wood floors and original molding appeal to a new generation of yuppies looking for authenticity and integrity in their down-low consumption. 

The Park section is a grid of four streets: Bar Beach Road, Park Avenue, Highland Avenue and Fairview Avenue.  The grid starts at Port Washington Boulevard and climbs up a slope to Woodlawn Avenue, a street that overlooks the Sandpits.  During the summers in the seventies, hang gliders would set off from the cliff and float over the Sandpits until you saw the soft silent landing in the sibilant spray of sand.  Someone would pick them up in “the pits” and drive them back up to Woodlawn Avenue for another run.

Sand was a booming industry at the turn of the 20th century and the sand pits provided raw material for many of the buildings in New York City including the Empire State Building, the Chrystler Building, the Queensborough , the former Twin Towers and Rockefeller Center.  Immigrants from Europe worked the mines and many single men lived in barracks.  Families lived in homes with stilts.  A school was established for children.  I remember seeing rusty cars and motorcycles embedded in the sides of cliffs.  People played “chicken” and it was rumored that the mob disposed of enemies in the pits.

A large green building with conveyer belts would transport sand to barges in Hempstead Harbor.  It was a dilapidated green relic that anyone who grew up in Port Washington at the time would remember driving along West Shore Road to Bar Beach or Hempstead Harbor Beach. The rotting barges remained on the liminal unused banks of the harbor until the nineties.

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As the sand mining industry dwindled, the pits eventually were used as a landfill.  The last sandmining company closed in 1989.  In the early eighties, I attended Salem Elementary School.  The school and surrounding neighborhood was ground zero for aquifer contamination. Residents were getting sick from drinking water and one local teacher died of cancer.  Salem school and the landfill were eventually closed.  Today, it is a golf course and corporate real estate for companies.  The Sandminers Monument was erected in 2011 as weekend golfers perfect their putt.

 

Death Bed by Akira Ohiso

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Saturday 

My mother was moved to hospice a few weeks ago.  We wanted her to be comfortable with all palliative interventions available.   For the past year, my mother has been declining in cognitive functioning, in and out of the hospital for sepsis and multiple urinary tract infections.  After several stints at home with caregivers, we decided to finally move her to an adult family home. 

Conversation with her were a mix of paranoia, delusions and hallucinations with brief moments of clarity.  She often lived in fear of people under her bed or outside her window.    She talked about a family that lived outside her window.  Jerry, the father, was fired from Amazon and was homeless.  Her mind still filtered in the contemporary issues she heard around her.  She continually asked my father for money to help Jerry. Sometimes she heard Jerry knocking at the door.  When Jerry died in a violent shooting, she started talking about Jerry 2.  

Susurrous voices continually occupy her attention.  She sees and hears things in a realm we cannot see.  A far-off gaze is towards the ceiling and beyond.  The TV is always on an inoccuous cooking show chosen by caregivers.  The thinking is that a cooking show is less likely to trigger agitation than CNN.  I agree, but would have chosen Bob Ross. 

She has not eaten in 6 days.  Nurses are giving her Lorazapam patches and topical gel to reduce her agitation.  Mom is uncomfortable and talks about pain she can not describe or locate.  We are told it is terminal agitation, a cluster of symptoms such as discomfort, confusion, aggressiveness and labored breathing.  Mom moans quietly and says things we cannot understand.  We often hear statements about the death of celebrities and the famous: “He died peacefully surrounded by family and friends.”  So far, I have yet to see any peace except for short fitful moments of sleep.

Her organs are slowly shutting down, like lights going out room by room in a house.  I tell her it is ok to let go.  Everyone is ok and she doesn’t have to worry.  She nods “yes.”  My dad breaks down after a year of holding in his emotions.  “I cannot live without her.”  My sister, Ellie and I comfort him.  

As a child, I always feared the passing of my parents, but today it can’t come soon enough.  Our healthcare system could easily offer a more compassionate and less painful way to depart, but instead we play out years of decline devoid of quality and happiness and create financial crises for so many people.  Mom often joked about driving to Portland for physician assisted suicide.  When she was being more poetic, she said, Socratically, “I’ll have a Hemlock on the rocks.”

Sunday

She slipped into a coma.  Her lower extremities are cold as her circulation and oxygen levels conserve for her heart and brain functioning.  Her breathing is intermittent with longer pauses between breathes.  The nurse tells us that her hearing and touch are the last senses to shut down so talking to her is of great comfort.  My sister puts cream on her dry lips.  A nurse washes her hair with a no rinse cap.  The family chatters around her telling stories from her life.  We cry and laugh and forget about the void her death will leave in its wake.  Mom was always there, in every way. 

Even on her death bed, my mind plays through the Kubler Ross stages of death.  She will wake up and start eating again.  Today , I bargain and deny.

8:20pm

3 respirations per minute. The next inhale never comes.  A threshold is crossed.

State of Denny’s by Akira Ohiso

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The lumber yard fire that happened Saturday night smolders on Veteran’s Day.  A low gossamer halo surround the site, a plume of light smoke rises in a line towards the halo and blends in.  Queen Anne and ghostly blue Mt. Rainier are in the offing.   Sea planes follow the ship canal to land in Lake Union.  

Yesterday, I walked one mile round-trip west along Market Street towards the Puget.  The corner construction site is now a 5-story box that will house The Polyclinic, Target and Equal Exchange Coffee.  When I moved to Seattle  2-years ago, it was a closed gas station, Burger King and small office building.  When businesses close slowly in a specific location developers are waiting out leases.

Windows are being installed in a rush to beat the rainy winter.  There is the strong smell of tar being pumped from a gurgling spasmodic truck in a pipe towards the truck.  The old truck looks as antiquated as the carcinogenic materials it stores.  Tar smells old. I cover my mouth with my shirt as I pass the site.   

Across 15th, is a large apartment building called Urbana with retail space on the ground floor. Locals lament the tearing down of the 24-hour Denny’s that holds so many memories.  When the landmarks of our youth are replaced we often feel replaced.  Denver Omelettes are not just in Denver.

I hear stories about Denny’s, but not Manning’s, a restaurant that held memories before Denny’s. Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher theorized in his book State of Exception that government use the “state of exception” concept as a totalitarian tool to advance political agendas in the name of the public good.  In such a state, normal law and order goes out the window in favor of policy that discriminates, oppresses and even kills in “exceptional” times.  He said, “Remembrance restores possibility to the past, making what happened incomplete and completing what never was. Remembrance is neither what happened nor what did not happen but, rather, their potentialization, their becoming possible once again.”

 

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The “once again” is illusory.  As Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.”  Restoration and landmark status require ongoing financial resources and the investment of a public that wants that remembrance.  It costs money to remember.  It also costs money to “never forget.”  Who we want to remember and who we want to forget is the question and moral imperative.  

Giorgio Agamben said, “To believe that will has power over potentiality, that the passage to actuality is the result of a decision that puts an end to the ambiguity of potentiality (which is always potentiality to do and not to do) — this is the perpetual illusion of morality.“

I often remember my childhood in a suburban town on Long Island.  It’s comforting to remember a simpler time, but, in hindsight, the landmarks of remembrance often remembered events, histories and cultures that did not include me.  I looked in and was educated about history that assimilated me.    

Mitch Landrieu who is the Mayor of New Orleans made the controversial decision to confront our country’s past and remove confederate statues from the public sphere.  In his book In the Shadow of Statueshe says, "There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence for it."  

Is it more important to spend energy and resources on “remembrance” or “contemporariness?”  As my frail mother lives her remaining days in an adult family home, it is easier for me to remember the past.  My will will not stop her inevitable death.  The ambiguity of now is a defense to forget then.

Lower Case d by Akira Ohiso

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Saturday on 14th Ave NW is filled with weekend activities; families going to Gilman Park, dog walkers with coffee in hand and young people hopping from brewery to brewery.  The smell of food truck fare wafts amid the chemical smell of plastic and engine oil.  The industrial area has remnants of its past. Defunct railroad tracks cross 14th to the Bardahl loading docks.  Patina warehouses and factories, corrugated sheds, rusty barbed wire boundaries protect empty lots from the homeless and taggers.  IBEAM, SELD, SEAGUL, CHOICE.  Slowly zoning changes and townhouses, 5-story office space and eateries with 20 taps open.  Still, the quiet corporate redlining cannot hide used hypodermic needles, corroded campers, tents and human suffering.  Meth and “Heron” destroys mostly white kids around Seattle.  Pock-marked desperation, picking up used needles to use, packs of dusty kids with backpacks roam buses terminals, congregate meal programs, tent cities and the streets, doorways and alleys of Seattle.  Cocoon-like lumps sleep in midday sun, some die found days or weeks later in an REI sarcophagus.  

When I reach Leary I turn right towards the Ballard Bridge.  Java John’s, car dealers, Volvo garage, Quest Church.  Church sign: “Act Justly, Love Kindness. Walk Humbly.”

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The Ballard Bridge is overshadowed by UW Medicine, a storage facility and Ballard Blocks.  It once harmonized with population and car demand.  The draw bridge creates traffic as more cars use 15th to commute downtown.  The future light rail will either cross the bridge or go through a tunnel yet to be built, but either way massive change is coming to the area in the next 20 years.  Along 15th, office space, apartments, townhouses, Amazon, Target are getting in early for an artery that will create convenience and mobility.  There is money to be had.

Under the bridge fencing has been installed to deter people from setting up tents.  I walk up an incline that merges back onto 15th Ave.  Couch cushions are thrown in the bushes for later.    Stash tactics give people on the street a modicum of predictability.  They can return to a familiar area for the night. 

The Ship Canal is timeless.  Fishing boats and bobbling masts can be seen from the bridge. Seagulls squawk and mew above opportunistic prey or food.  There are many names for a group of seagulls; a colony, squabble, flotilla, scavenging, gullery, wreck.  The circling gulls sound like “a squabble” to me, maybe “a wreck” above a jettisoned boat.  Michel Foucault said, “In civilizations without boats dreams dry up.”  Seattle still has dreams, they are just not the dreams of the locals anymore.

On NW 50th, I turn right past Les Schwab Tires.  A Craftsman with a ramp looks out of place next to a tire center.  The tire center once looked out of place next to the Craftsman.  I imagine an old woman who has lived in the house since World War II.  She refuses to leave to fend off dependence and real estate developers.  Around the corner, a giant shopping center changed its footprint to accommodate Edith Macefield’s defiance.  Her house still stands and,  while there were plans to tear it down, recent plans suggest that the house may be saved and repurposed.  The architectural indent that accommodates that small house is a symbol of hope whether the house remains or not.  

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Marathon by Ellie Ohiso

I am experimenting with a new visual language that clusters memory.  My recent trip to New Orleans has helped me move forward in my work.  Brice Marden has used the term “glyph” to describe a symbolic language.  I am thinking about my work in the same way.

In New Orleans, I visited the New Orleans Museum of Art and had the pleasure to see the work of local and regional artists.   One artist truly inspired me and I decided to email him and thank him.  As an emerging artist, his response has helped me:

Thank you Akira Ohiso for sharing your work. I hope at some time to see the real pieces. Anyway, keep in touch and in mind, being an artist is like running a marathon. Slow and steady. Like good wine, it takes time in developing an authentic voice.

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