There is often an aspect of the unexpected in art… and the artist as well.
That, and embarking on careers that use art to help others, link two of the artists featured in the Degrees of Distinction: Alumni Invitational Exhibition at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Art Gallery through Dec. 11, 2009.
Twenty-four artists and art historians included in the exhibit represent the contributions of alumni who have received UH bachelor’s degrees since 1923.
Jason Minami recalls sitting in Professor Debra Drexler’s Art 101 class at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, staring at a slide of Guernica for what seemed like a quarter of an hour.
Until then, his closest exposure to art had been painting cars, building bikes and observing graffiti. Picasso’s painting was unlike anything he’d experienced before. “It was similar to street art, but it moved me. I knew there was something to that,” he says.
Minami became an art major. After earning his BFA in 2001, he pursued a master’s at Alfred University, and then stayed on as an adjunct professor.
Blown and cast glass and bronze had become a passion. The work was exciting. The university setting was fun. But when college wasn’t in session, the village of Alfred, located two hours southeast of Buffalo, became a barren place for an island-born boy.
So when a friend invited him to join GlassRoots, a Newark, N.J., art school, Minami jumped at the chance. He also maintains a small studio in Hoboken.
Gordon Sasaki can’t remember a time that he didn’t draw and paint. “It came easy, so I never took it seriously,” he says. (Although he now recognizes it was a form of communication for an introverted child.)
A spinal injury sustained in a 1982 automobile accident gave Sasaki six months of lying on his back, contemplating the role of art in life. He begin to study art in earnest at UH Mānoa, earning a BFA with honors in 1987 and MFA in 1992.
“My work is very much about my life,” he says. Now an art educator with New York’s Museum of Modern Art, he has served as artist-in-residence in various venues, filled numerous commissions and mounted a number of shows.
Concept- rather than material-based (think anything from red apples painted daily like a mantra to clothing sewn of rice paper to pieces made from hair cleaned from the casters of his wheelchair), much of his work reflects the body and how it is represented.
He has used a syringe to draw in soy sauce on watercolor paper. “Soy is part of my identity,” he explains. “If you cut me, I bleed soy; that’s why I used a syringe.”
Both Minami and Sasaki share another passion—using art to assist people who face challenges.
Sasaki’s art often reflect the reality of living with a disability—his own, and the diversity of disabilities, obvious and subtle, exhibited in his NY Portraits series of photographs in the UH exhibit. Many of the courses he teaches include students with special needs.
At GlassWorks, Minami works with youth with learning disabilities and those challenged by their environment. The school doesn’t charge tuition, depending on commissions and fundraising for financial support. Teens from disadvantaged backgrounds learn self confidence and teamwork as they produce art and develop business savvy as they design products and prepare business plans or a school awards competition.
“What I learned from the University of Hawaiʻi is family, team effort, learning from one another and also instructors and passing that to the next generation that comes through,” Minami says.