June Sekiguchi – Breaking boundaries, finding connections
As if by instinct, the first piece that artist June Sekiguchi shows me is the right metaphor for the larger context of her artwork. “Reverberations: The Life of Yuri Kochiyama” was part of a larger exhibit called Women Beyond Borders, pairing artists with women of note. Hundreds of artists around the world were given copies of the same wooden box to decorate, alter, shape as they wished. Sekiguchi’s version forms the base of a sculpture, with a small golden rectangular spiral emerging from the box. The spiral has Kochiyama’s words written on it, denoting the far-reaching effects of Kochiyama’s life and work. The sculpture itself is emblematic of Sekiguchi’s work and career, a generative struggle between the borders and connections of humanity, spirit, and science. In other words, even as her work asks viewers to think “out of the box,” it only does so in order to find greater connection and community.
“My first memories were art,” says Sekiguchi. “That was my comfort, my expression. There was no question that I was going to do art.” She grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the fourth of five siblings. Her parents had come to Arkansas after World War II, and loved it enough to stay. Their artist daughter, however, wanted to escape Arkansas as soon as she could. She grew up wanting to explore the wider world, knowing that there was more beyond Fayetteville. She had few connections to the wider world beyond Fayetteville, but she had access to art books, National Geographic. She knew she wanted to see and experience different cultures depicted there. At 16, she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to live with one of her older sisters. Eventually she attended college at the University of California in Santa Barbara, where she earned her BA in Studio Art.
“I felt ashamed of being Japanese,“ Sekiguchi says now. “[After my parents built their house,] a bunch of neighbors banded together—they didn’t want a Japanese family in the neighborhood. So we grew up in this neighborhood, but the families didn’t want us there. … There were these tacit feelings that they didn’t like us.” Post-World War II sentiment may have been part of the cause, but Sekiguchi also believes some of it was due to the Vietnam War, perhaps causing neighbors to “lump all Asians together.” “Remember, this was in the Civil Rights era,” she tells me, “but when my mother came to Arkansas, she didn’t know which fountain to drink from.”
Each sibling, Sekiguchi says, experienced their environment differently, and she shows me a picture of another piece to illustrate. “Another Way to Wrap Five Eggs” (2009) is an intricately carved wooden box containing five eggs, each egg representing one of the five siblings. The walls of the box are carved like lacework, allowing the viewer to see a pattern of shadows cast on to each egg. Just as the same box casts a slightly different pattern of shadows onto each box, each one sibling had their own experience growing up. Each one dealt with the pressures differently, but the siblings remain bound together forever in the same family. The sculpture “Reverberations,” then, also marked a transition for Sekiguchi. “That was really one of the first times I felt connected to my Japanese heritage.”
Sekiguchi began as a painter, then began embedding objects into the painting. In turn her work became mixed media, “building up the surface” of her work. Eventually she was introduced to the scroll saw, which is one of her preferred main tools. She creates designs and patterns, then transfers the designs via graphite paper onto a wood product (MDF, or medium-density fiberboard). From there she uses the scroll saw to cut out designs and patterns. It’s a painstaking process, though she describes using the saw as something like a sewing machine.
Sekiguchi now describes her work as pattern-based, modular, and site-specific, although she prefers “site-responsive.” she likes to see her work as a conversation with the site itself, something like the way a frame creates context for a painting. The patterns come partly from her love of textiles, which influences her work. She likes to create modular pieces because she likes “the reconfigurability of things.” “How am I going to respond to this space? I don’t want to repeat what I am doing as an artist.” These characteristics are particularly important to her motivations as an artist: “I want to push configurations, make [each iteration] new and interesting to me. I want to push the medium.” As a self-described “project-based” artist, she has used her successful award applications (such as several Artist Trust grants) and residencies to amass a significant body of work and group exhibitions.
Many of her pieces are her way of exploring a question. One version of “Within/Without” is an open, airy installation: several slender real bamboo poles holding up a lacy network of wooden circles (cut to look like the cross-section of bamboo poles). Both elements are needed for structural integrity, she says, and this helped her to think through interdependence as well as how to convey opposite emotions. Though not all artists can speak about their intentions in creating, she seems very clear in her own: “[In creating my art, there] has to be a significance for me to go after; it has to make sense to me, apply to my life.” Another installation created connections between the pineal canopy, the top of a forest, and the pineal gland, part of human anatomy. Pieces about rivers and waterfalls helped her think about connections to the human circulatory system. Some of her pieces include music and light elements, such as the most recent iteration of “Within/Without” at the Artist Trust Exhibition in 2015.
Though her own career over the last 10 years has been prolific and varied, Sekiguchi also serves as curator for Era Living, a local chain of retirement living communities. Having lost her own parents fairly recently, she’s passionate about this work. Every four months, the centers change their art exhibitions, often with a theme. It’s a large undertaking, but Sekiguchi says that it makes the living spaces more vibrant for residents, gives exhibit opportunities to local artists, and also allows artists who are residents to talk about their own work. It’s also a form of service for her, which is another inspiring passion for her as an artist: “Service is a big part of me. Everything I’ve learned has been through volunteer work. Everything I know I got through volunteering.”