It is my great pleasure to open a window onto the haunting, nostalgic world of Edwin Ushiro, whose work exhibits a fascinating duality. Born on the Hawaiian island of Maui, Edwin has the laid-back loquacity of his birthplace, but also identifies deeply with his more circumspect Japanese heritage. His vision describes the sun-struck days of youth, when the world was fresh and magical – but also explores the eerie folklore indigenous to dark country roads and the boundless depths of the childhood imagination.
"After It's Given All You Wanted"
Edwin’s next solo show, “Softly Encompassing the Womb,” will open on September 12th at LeBasse Projects in Culver City. In anticipation of the show, Edwin invited me over to chat about his work, rather than replying to my questions via email. As a result, the interview is rather lengthy and a bit strange… and occasionally takes detours into unmapped territory.
When I arrived, Edwin was in the midst of the stage of his process where he applies transfers to a thick sheet of clear vinyl with a layer of matte varnish in between. The painting he was working on is one of himself and his little brother as children, heads together as they watch a tiny green chameleon that is perched on a leaf. As we begin, Edwin is bent over the vinyl, with the image face-up, rolling air bubbles out from between the vinyl and the transfer paper.
"The Foundation of Pre-empted Lingering"
Edwin Ushiro: Sorry it’s taking me a while to get this together. I think I mounted it wrong, so I got more air bubbles than I normally would get.
Amanda: That’s OK. It’s interesting watching you do it.
Edwin: It’s fun watching me push air bubbles out? We should make this a documentary. I can do this for hours. (laughter)
The thing that’s challenging at this stage is that when you have the ink under here – and between the ink and the vinyl is this matte varnish – it actually loosens up the ink and kind of lifts it off the transfer paper, so if I squeeze too hard, I can destroy this whole piece… and actually did, here. But that’s part of the fun, that I’m never in control of this whole medium. After maybe two years of doing it this way, I still haven’t mastered it, because there are too many points in creating this that I can totally mess up. And I have. That’s when it’s not fun. But when you can overcome it and not mess up too much, that’s when it’s really cool and you can pat yourself on the back a little bit. Which lasts only for like, two seconds. Until you realize, “Hey, I’m not even done yet.”
"Waking Up Before Starlight"
Amanda: So how many versions of this one have you done so far?
Edwin: Actually this is the lucky one. This one I just did once, and if I don’t mess up here, I feel pretty confident that I’m in the clear right now. Because I knew exactly how I saw it in my head – so it’s that whole process of trying to communicate it as best you can, from what’s inside your head to what you see in front of you. On this one I did it all right.
Amanda: Do you have a title for this one yet?
Amanda: Is that the last thing that happens?
Edwin: Yeah… I mean, with some pieces, the title is kind of the catalyst, but with this piece, it was more the emotion that drove it. Because I’m trying to do a beginning, middle, end… So this is obviously more towards the beginning.
"Birth of Unreckoning"
Amanda: Is your family coming out for the show?
Edwin: Yeah, they’ve come out for every solo show I’ve had thus far. I said “thus far” – because I never say that in real life – just because it’s recorded and it’ll sound cool. It’s like Shakespeare, over here.
Amanda: Yeah. It’s weird to ask questions out loud that are all very “written.” I don’t know how I’m going to do it.
Edwin: (loudly) Yes. That. Is. Weird. (laughter) And difficult.
Amanda: Well, do you want to start, or do you want to finish what you’re doing first?
Edwin: No, we can start. Is it OK if I keep working on this?
Edwin: Oh really? Oh, because it’s not video, huh?
Amanda: Nobody can tell what you’re doing. (laughter)
Edwin: That could be taken in so many different ways. But I’m not going to go there.
"When We Met"
Amanda: OK, I’m going to read you a question:
Your work resonates with the echoes of your childhood in the "slow town" of Wailuku on the Hawaiian island of Maui. In many ways, it seems to have been a time of golden innocence, but behind the sunny days of youth lurked a sense that there was more to your world than appeared on the surface. Tell me about that time and place and the people who made such an impact on you.
Edwin: Wow, that’s so weird that you asked me that question while I’m doing this. Actually, I set it set it up that way. (laughter)
Wailuku – when we were kids, we thought that was “city.” Until you come to a place like Los Angeles or New York, you don’t realize how “country” something you had considered “city” was. Wailuku is the same as it was when I grew up, nothing’s really changed. Maybe the demographic is different, but it’s a “slow town,” like you said. There’s nothing going on there.
When we were kids, the local hangout spot was in front of a mom-and-pop 7-Eleven kind of place. We didn’t have a Disneyland to hang out at. Life was just filtered down to its purest form, where anything recreational was something like bike riding or hanging out with friends. In Hawaii we have a tradition – they call it “talk story.” It is what it means – you just hang out with your friends and reminisce about stuff.
That’s probably something that the original Hawaiians passed down to our generation, because Hawaiians never had a written language, so everything was passed down orally. So even something like the hula – that was a way for them to pass on the mythology and legend to the next generation through song and dance. So I guess talk story is kind of the same thing. But am I going off-topic?
"Familiar Kiss of the Underwater Sandstorm"
Amanda: No, this is good. I mean, in a way, what you do in your art is kind of like talk story, right?
Edwin: Oh yeah, definitely! I guess maybe you can’t get away from it. But I think in a way, creating this kind of work makes you appreciate how simple life was and how great childhood is. It’s a lot of stuff that, as you’re older – and I’m 32 now – you lose, you know? It’s lost, or maybe more forgotten than lost.
Actually, right now I have all these cuts on my arms… I talked to you about it already, but for the record, I saw a lemon hanging on a tree, and it was too high for me to even jump up and grab, so I actually ran up the tree, and swiped it. I thought, in my head, “I’ll run up this tree, grab this lemon, and I’ll jump off – like in a Jackie Chan film.” But unbeknownst to me, there were branches that were in the way, and they cut me, so that’s why I have all these scratches on my arms.
It’s kind of like when you’re a kid, and you look at a situation like that, you don't hesitate because you're not aware of consequences. There’s no apprehension – you just do it, because you don’t know any better. Look, I’m 32 and I didn’t know any better. It’s sad.
"Gradiently Everything Would Sparkle From the Sea to the Stars"
Amanda: A lot of your paintings are full of people you’ve known your whole life.
Edwin: Every character that’s in the paintings is somebody that I knew or and grew up with. Even in this piece, there’s a chameleon here. I know that chameleon. They're the ones that ran wild all over any brush that you would find in Wailuku. They’re kind of tame, actually, for something that’s so wild.
All right, I can’t do any more to this.
(Edwin steps away from the piece he’s been working on.)
Edwin: I feel like I just gave birth and just walked away from it. It’s funny, sometimes I’ll create a piece and then I’ll be working on something else, and then I’ll rush back to the piece to take a look at it again, kind of like a proud parent. I mean, hopefully every piece you create, you kind of feel that way about. Or else why even make it, if you don’t like it, in the end?
"No Matter Where She Stood the Light Would Brighten Around Her"
Edwin: You know what would be interesting, is to collect a whole composition of audio files on artists and just kind of listen to them ramble.
Amanda: You know, I’ve done a couple dozen interviews with people now, but I’ve never actually interviewed anybody in person. I’m glad it’s you, because I would be really embarrassed if it was somebody I didn’t know.
Edwin: Well, I think I’d be more embarrassed for the other half. I mean, a lot of artists are just so shy. Most of them, I think. It’s kinda weird, but even the famous ones are shy. Maybe we should have gotten beers, huh? Oh, I have shochu. Yeah?
Amanda: Why not? Well be all relaxed after a little shochu.
Edwin: Does shochu go bad?
Amanda: I don’t think so. Well, we’ll know soon enough.
Edwin: Cheers, or in Hawaii we say, Kampai.
Amanda: Kampai. So… I’m going to ask you another question. (laughter) This is going to be a looong interview, at this rate.
Amanda: When you were very young, your mother taught you how to draw, showing you how abstract lines could converge to make an image. Tell me a little about your first experiences with making pictures.
Edwin: I guess I can only go back to when I remember. My mom taught a knitting class when she first came to Hawaii. When she was in Japan, she actually ran her own knitting school, but when she came to Hawaii, she didn’t know much English, so she set up a little class and some older Japanese women would come, and she would speak to them in Japanese.
So I think before her class started one day, she taught me how to draw a car – that simple two wheels and a box. When she came back, I had a dozen of them, and I kept going, drawing different versions of it, tweaking each one as I went. I think she kind of stepped back a little bit, like “Whoa. Maybe there’s something here,” you know? So I think that’s the earliest… and that’s not even my recollection, that’s what she told me.
"Much After the Clouds Retreated Into the Millyard"
Amanda: When did you first realize that you had something unique to say with your vision of the world?
Edwin: I don’t think I’m trying to say something unique to the world. I think I’m saying the same thing everyone else is saying – it’s just that everybody has their own different childhood, so you’re going to have different versions of it. We can only talk about three things, right? Life, death, and whatever’s in between. Or is there anything else? I don’t know, ask Plato, right?
"Once a Reminiscent Memory of the Sea"
Amanda: You seem to identify equally with your Japanese heritage and your Hawaiian birthplace. I've read that Japanese immigrants first came to Hawaii in 1885 to work in the sugarcane fields, and so many of them stayed there that the population of your hometown is about 40% Japanese to this day. Tell me a little about your family's background and how it influences your work.
Edwin: I guess I’m in-between. My father’s from Hawaii and my mom’s from Japan, so I get both sides. I get the Hawaii lifestyle and the Japanese lifestyle. As kids we would frequently fly to visit our Grandma in Japan and their family, so I’m kind of the person that’s in between, who has access to both sides.
"In Excess of Being One Step In Front of Another"
Amanda: When you were born, you had a close brush with death, and I've often wondered if your awareness of that may have been part of what shaped your fascination with the nature of what dwells between the land of the living and the dead.
Edwin: I think yes, subconsciously. I don’t really think about it. I have no recollection of that, I was just so young. I remember my dad saying it hit my Grandpa really hard, because I was his first grandchild and right out of the box, I was going to die. He said, “For the first time, I saw my father cry.” And he was a tough guy, so it was tough to see him cry. Are you tearing up?
Amanda: I think I’m starting to sweat. It’s the shochu.
Edwin: Should I get a fan?
Amanda: No, I’m fine. It happens to the best of us.
Edwin: It’s the hot topics! (laughter)
"A Well Traveled Ancestor"
Amanda: Hawaiian folklore describes how the ancient gods and the spirits of chiefs and their soldiers walk from the mountains down to the sea after sunset and before sunrise, and says that for any outsider to see them along their path is death. I understand that the nightmarchers are said to walk the ʻĪao Valley, near where you grew up in Wailuku. The valley was the traditional burial place of chiefs, and in 1790 was the site of the bloody Battle of Kepaniwai, where King Kamehameha slaughtered Maui's army in his campaign to unite the Hawaiian Islands. Growing up in that environment, echoes of the past must have seemed a natural part of daily life.
Edwin: I guess it goes back to that talk story thing. It’s so ingrained into the Hawaii – I don’t want to say Hawaiian, because we’re not Hawaiian, you know, we’re from Hawaii – but into the culture there. I guess maybe it’s even gossip, a bit, but you’re always talking about the past, or something that happened previously. That’s a really big part of the culture, and I guess in a way it helps shape the next generation as well, and maybe that’s why it continues.
Amanda: I think that because your culture has these boundaries, the stories stay in that place. Here, people lose those stories because they move around so much. But on an island you have these natural borders that keep the stories in, so the story has an area where it lives – it inhabits that place. I mean, when I was growing up, we had to learn the history of the area from books, because no one had any memories of their parents telling them about what had happened before.
Edwin: I don’t remember even knowing the stories because of an educational purpose. It was just kind of a, “Hey, by the way” kind of thing. (shrugs)
"Since Time Only Meant That We Were Growing Up and Falling Apart Together"
Amanda: As you were growing up, Glen Grant's obake books – which described the legendary spirits, demons and ghosts of the islands – made a huge impact on you. You've called him “a living document of all the mythologies of Hawaii.” When you were in high school, you made a point of winning every art competition where the prize was a trip to Oahu, so you could go on Dr. Grant's ghost tours. You've said that listening to him inspired you to go deeper into your subject, to dissect it and find its roots.
Edwin: Everyone talks about ghost stories, but he’s the one that really went and did research. He’s not even from Hawaii, and he was collecting all these stories, and I thought that was so intriguing. A pretty grand approach, trying to collect stories – actually going out there to find stories. You know? And I guess maybe because he wasn’t from Hawaii, he was even more interested in it.
I admired his dedication. You could see that he was so fascinated about the topic. For me, I guess anybody who’s fascinated about what they do or what they like, if they’re fascinated enough, it gets me excited about it. You know?
Glen Grant mentioned that whenever he’d fly over the islands, he always whispered to himself a little prayer to accept him back into the island, in good will, good faith. He always said, “If you have any ghosts or anything strange or out of the ordinary that you want me to investigate, don’t call me. I’ll be the first one out the door.”
"The Diligent Night"
Amanda: You once related having seen something decidedly unsettling sitting on a bus bench. Did that experience change your perspective on the mysteries of existence?
Edwin: It kind of goes back to when I was a kid, and I would look out the window of my bedroom, and wonder, “What really goes on when I’m sleeping? I wonder if I could someday experience that.” That story goes back to when I attended the University of Hawaii for a year, and we had missed the last bus of the night to get back to our dorm. So we went on foot, because that was the only way. It was probably a few hours after midnight.
I remember passing by the mall, and they were sweeping out all the homeless people and closing it down. You know it’s late when the janitors are almost done with their job. We were walking up the street, and there was a bus stop, and we saw a woman sitting there. I remember thinking to myself, “Wait, she looks local. She should know that there’s no bus anymore.” So there was something weird about it.
"Cut Like When Asakusa Recovered Mujina"
As we got closer, I got spooked out, so I moved in between my buddies. When we passed by her, I looked at her face, and this side of her face was OK, but when we passed by, the other half of her face was burnt. It was all black on this side. So for about an hour down the road, nobody said a word, and all of a sudden, I broke the ice. I had to confirm what we saw. I looked at my buddies and said, “Did you see that?” And everybody said, “Yeah.” I didn’t have to say anything else.
That was one of the creepiest things that happened. And that kind of solidifies what I always wondered, about what happened at night. I guess what that gave me also was the realization that anything is possible. Anything can be out there. You can see anything. I still remember it, and I’m sure you could ask any of my friends that were there and they would remember it just as clearly as I did right now. And maybe that could have been a ghost. Nobody knows. I didn’t touch her, I didn’t talk to her.
"When The History of Light Dreamt About the Beginning of Color"
Amanda: After one year at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, you came to Los Angeles to attend Art Center College of Design, and never moved back to Hawaii. Instead you became involved in the entertainment industry in many different capacities, including storyboard artist, concept artist and production designer for video games, movies and shows like CSI: Miami, Angel and Caprica. Did someone or something in particular influence your decision to leave your friends and family and strike out for Hollywood?
Edwin: My intention wasn’t to strike out for Hollywood. I graduated high school in 1995. If you went to University of Hawaii in ’95-’96, there really wasn’t a strong art program at the time. If you wanted to go to school for art, there were a lot better schools out there that you could attend.
I actually had this conversation with Janet Sato, my art teacher in high school. We were talking about how weird it was that a recruiter for Art Center came out to visit me twice when I was in high school. She’d been teaching forever, and never in all her teaching years had she seen that happen. So she’s the one that said, “You should apply. I’ve never seen this happen before.” So I did and I got accepted, and so I went.
I got a lot of offers from a lot of other art schools for a full scholarship, and all that, and I pretty much threw them away. I mean, they would write personal letters to me and stuff like that, and I would be like, “I don’t know who these people are,” and I just threw it away. (laughs) I was just a kid in high school, I didn’t know any better. Now I look back on it, and I think, “That’s kind of cool.”
"Riding Summer Without Skipping a Beat"
Amanda: Was it difficult at first to maintain your resolve to remain here, or did the transition come naturally? Your work exhibits a sense of nostalgia and loss that suggests that you must miss home a great deal.
Edwin: It’s a double-edged sword, because at this point, it’s kind of too late. Maui has changed so drastically that I can walk around for maybe an entire day and not bump into anyone I know… and that wouldn’t happen back in the day. You would spend like five minutes somewhere and somebody would drive past you and they’ll pull over and be like, “Hey, where have you been?” Not nowadays, it’s so different.
I’m so far removed, anyway. We call tourists the “haoles.” Now if I go back, I’m the haole. So many events and so much time has passed by, that I don’t have that same connection to the people and the places anymore. Especially when things change so drastically, with industrialization. So yeah, it would be nice to go back home, but that place that I paint about or I talk about doesn’t even exist anymore. And that’s why I paint those things, because I get to see it. There’s no other way to visit that place anymore.
"When Everything Really Mattered"
Amanda: Although the early work you exhibited was painted more traditionally, you eventually settled on a mixed media technique that involves drawing in ink, scanning, digital painting and printing on transfers which are impressed in layers behind a clear sheet of vinyl. Afterward, you hand-paint behind that semitransparent assemblage and sometimes sand or otherwise distress the resulting layers. Tell me a little bit more about your process.
Edwin: You know what’s funny, when we went to Miami last year, at the Aqua Hotel where we were showing, a few doors down was a gallery called Swarm Gallery – they’re located in San Francisco. Their director, Svea Lin Vezzone, looked at my work, and instantly, she said, “Oh, transfers.” I was like, “You get it!” She said, “Of course, it’s obvious.” I’m like, “Wow, how come no one else can see it?”
I’m using ordinary materials, I think. Everything’s very accessible. The materials that I use right now are primarily acrylic paint that you can get at any art store, and varnish or matte medium – something to bind the vinyl and the t-shirt transfers… that’s it, basically. Pencil, pen, paper… yeah. Every once in a while I’ll drop some ink in there, but that’s just when I feel like it. And whatever’s nearby that I can grab.
"While You Are Still Here and Before You Fade Away"
Amanda: You've said that due to your bad vision, you sometimes misinterpret things that you see from a distance, using your imagination to fill in the gaps and make sense of your imperfect perception of what's in front of you. Do these inadvertent fabrications ever inspire ideas for paintings?
Edwin: Not yet, but where did you get that?
Amanda: I don’t know, something you said to someone online. I’ll send you all my bookmarks, and you can find out all about yourself. (laughter) Is it not true?
Edwin: No, that is very true. But that’s something I don’t really talk to anybody about. The combination of my bad vision and being really tired is a kind of awesome experience. I remember driving home late at night from Pasadena to La Cañada, where I lived before I moved here, and there was a line of palm trees, and with the way the light hit it, and my bad vision, it looked like a line of these weird guys in trench coats with these big bowler hats, sort of hunched over. And it kind of creeped me out at first, until I realized that it was my imagination filling in the gaps.
Maybe it does inspire me, but it doesn’t inspire me to make a painting of it – it solidifies how I can approach a character as if it was the reality seen through my eyes. So if anything, it gives me inspiration to realize that the way I see things and how I interpret things onto the paper, is how it would look if it were real. I think that helps me understand how to interpret the character, so when people see it, they can get the same emotion that they would have if they’d actually seen it in person. It kind of becomes a reference point.
"A Space Absorbing Memories Already Long Forgotten by Others"
Amanda: Much of your work appears to be somewhat obscured – as if it’s being seen through a dusty layer of sun-struck glass, or reflected in an antique mirror with its silvered backing peeling away in places. What does this choice represent for you?
Edwin: That’s a weird way to say it. It has that atmospheric lighting, right? I think it has to do with my poor vision, too, and that’s kind of the way I see things, so that’s how I interpret them.
"Old Pali Girl Revisited"
Amanda: You have a predilection for long, evocative titles with a poignant air. What inspires these poetic, impressionistic fragments of language?
Edwin: I think they’re not very poetic. I just call it like I see it.
Amanda: They’re not very straightforward titles.
Edwin: They’re not. I don’t want to make it straightforward, because why kill the story in one word? Why not string you along for a little bit? A lot of times I do see things really fragmented, so it comes off that way. I’ll say this, a lot of times I don’t know the title. With some pieces I know exactly what the title should be, but there are a lot of pieces that don’t have a title – even now, most paintings I have completed are untitled. But I’ll stare at them, and it will just come to me… and I kind of know what it means. For some reason, I get it. It’s almost as if somebody whispered in my ear. It was there one second and it wasn’t there after. Just in the moment. You hear it and you write it down. That light bulb kind of goes off. I do once in a while write down little titles that I’ll kind of see in my head. Some are very specific, because I know exactly which piece that title’s going to go for, even though it isn’t created yet.
"In the End She Would Love Him Beyond Confines Of Skin, For Flesh Would Surely Rot, Only To Leave Behind the Story of Unconditional Predilection"
Amanda: One of your earliest influences was the manga that your grandmother sent you from Japan when you were young. Did any of them in particular make a strong impression on you? What was it about the manga aesthetic that you found so compelling?
Edwin: Maybe more the action manga, like Ultraman. That kind of illustrated manga was interesting, because it’s based off of a live-action TV show, so when you follow the panels, it flows a lot better than other mangas, because you can see how they actually take place in the live-action version. It translates so well, and the action’s way more intense, because they have that luxury. As far as influence, I guess maybe it showed me that when you illustrate, you don’t just draw a static figure. You can also create a character with some kind of movement going on, as well.
"Old Pali Girl Departing"
Amanda: On my blog, I always ask artists about the painters of history. It isn’t something that you’ve talked about much and maybe you don’t have any interest in that, but I thought I’d ask you if there were any painters from the past that you find inspirational or influential.
Edwin: One thing I am fascinated about is photography, and I don’t even shoot photos. For example, the work of someone like Weegee or Benson – they capture a moment so well. Especially Weegee – he was there when you’re not supposed to be there. I remember a great translation of what cinema should be is, “Cinema takes you to a place where you’re not intended to go.” When you look at someone like Weegee, and you see those detective photos, you’re like, “Wow, you’re not supposed to be there.” And he’s letting you in. That’s fascinating.
Photography inspires me a lot more than illustration, because to me, it involves the viewer into the story more. Also, it’s real life, and they tweaked it, and I guess in a way that’s what I’m doing, so I can relate to it a lot more than to a painter.
Kind of off topic, but I was watching that Art:21 documentary on Sally Mann. It was interesting, because you’re sitting with her in her darkroom – and this was back in 2001 or 2002, when she was doing that series of dog bones. She was processing a really abstract shot of a dog bone and she just kept staring at it – she’d develop it and put it on the wall and stare at it and say, “It’s not giving me what I saw.” So she puts it aside and develops another one and says, “OK, I think I’m getting there, I need to go darker.”
It’s not just, “You shoot it, you print it, it’s there.” There’s a struggle in between, that process, and it kind of relates to what I’m doing. I’ll make an image, but that’s not necessarily the final one. There’s a lot of times I’ll develop it and I’ll look at it, and I’ll think, “It’s not what I intended.” If you tweak it enough, you can almost change the story. Just like photography – I guess that’s why I relate to it – I always have to tweak it. There’s always these little hurdles, during the whole process of mounting and painting over it. There’s still that struggle. It’s not like you print it and – boom, you frame it, and it’s done. So that was a cool thing to see, that whole struggle in between. And not even the struggle, but also that determination to get exactly what you wanted to see, you know? It’s still there. I can get it. You just have to dig harder.
"Recorded Without Any Insecurity"
Amanda: If you could hang just one great photograph on the wall of your studio, what would it be?
Edwin: I don’t know of one in particular, just because I get bored fast, so I don’t know if I could just stare at the same thing over and over. Especially with photography, I think once you get it, I don’t know if you can read more into it.
Amanda: You could say the same thing of a painting, really.
Edwin: Well, maybe, yeah. But you can always go back to a painting and look at the strokes. You can look at it one way, where you can read information, and other way you can read it as an artist and follow the strokes and go, “OK, she started here. Wait, look, she hesitated.” You know? And there’s another story behind that, whereas with photography, I am not educated enough about the process to understand that second read.
I’d rather have a blank wall, actually. I talked to Eiko Ishioka – she did the costume design for that movie The Cell, and she also does a lot of stage design – and I asked her, “What’s your studio like?” She said, “Four white walls.” I thought about that, and I was like, “Wow, that’s inspiring, because then all options are open, right?” That was a great answer for me, because I’d rather stare at a blank wall and imagine, “What would be the next thing that I want to see here?” You know? Because I’m always looking for that next image I will create, even if I did hang something on it, it’s not going to be there for very long. So I guess maybe, instead of photography, the best piece to have on the wall would be a blank, empty wall.
"Remnant of Light Exiting a Pupil"
Amanda: Is there anything else that you find really inspirational that I haven’t asked you about?
Edwin: There are a lot of stories I haven’t even heard yet. That’s the most inspirational thing. One thing is – I haven’t even painted this yet – we were just sitting around drinking beers, and my friend Steve elbowed my buddy Chief. His name is Michael, but we call him Chief. We gave everybody nicknames. He goes, “Chief has a story to tell you.” Steve shares my fascination with ghost stories.
Chief says, “Oh yeah, the story.” He tells me that when he left for college, his mom and her new husband bought a house in a new division in Wailuku. Prior to this, it was just sugar cane fields. She went to the swap meet and bought a vintage necklace, probably just shells. After she got that, something strange started happening at the house. She said every night at two o’clock, she would hear the footsteps of a little kid running around in the living room. There were no kids in the house, so that kind of spooked her out. She was like, “What’s that? It’s not coming from outside. It’s coming from inside the house.” It happened several times.
Usually at this point, you either call your minister, or you call a Hawaiian shaman, which we call a kupuna. So she went for the kupuna, and he came over and he looked around the house, and he said, “Yeah, there’s something strange about this. Can you tell me what you did prior to this occurrence? She said, “Well, I bought this necklace.” He looked at it and he said, “Oh, no, no, no, this is not just a necklace. This is from somebody Hawaiian.”
"Just Like Water"
Then when he was blessing the house, he jolted back because he felt something. He pulled up his shirt, and on his back, there were these long gashes. I don’t know if this was set up, but Chief’s mom told him that these were fresh gashes, almost like a cat clawing you. That freaked her out. So she gave the necklace to the kupuna, and he said he would take care of it. Whatever he did, it took care of the job. The story kind of continues. She went over to her neighbor’s, and her neighbor said, “You know what? I don’t know if you have this problem, but at night, I hear a little kid running around in my room.”
I remember Steve looked over at me and said, “So, are you going to paint that?” I haven’t felt inspired enough to do that, but I love the story, and of all the stories that I’ve painted which are like tenth generation, that story is second generation, and I know his mom. Chief and I were friends since like sixth grade, maybe even before that, so we go back a long ways. These are stories in Hawaii that are shared commonly, but tourists don’t get to hear it because you’re not part of the circle, you’re not in the network. When you’re in the network, you get to hear these stories all the time. It’s not uncommon. People in Japan share these stories, too.
"Sifting Through the Delaying For Repetition"
Amanda: Your upcoming show at LeBasse Projects is entitled "Softly Encompassing the Womb." Tell me a little about the theme of the show, and what we can expect to see there.
Edwin: The way I interpret the title is that it's the moment when you realize what your purpose is. What are you destined to do? In this series, each character answers this question, for better or worse. As far as the title communicating that to the public, I don't know if it does, but to me in my world, it somehow makes sense. So I go with that, that's kind of my gut.
Amanda: That’s good. Thanks for indulging me.
Edwin: Thanks for taking the time to do this!
"Realizing the Perfect Day Was Just a Dream"
Amanda: This kind of interview is OK for email, but it’s so inappropriate for talking to somebody!
Edwin: For me to say what I said, I don’t know if I could have transcribed it. I’m sure I would have edited myself somewhere along the line.
Amanda: Everybody’s different. I’m much more articulate on paper. But you’re sort of a storyteller, so it seemed to me that you would be more comfortable talking.
Edwin: Well, here especially, you don’t feel shy or awkward. You’ve been here so many times, it’s like your second home outside of Silver Lake, you know? It’s a good combination of a lot of things. Being comfortable first of all, and number two, we know each other well enough that you know what to say, and you know you can probably ask me anything. I guess it’s a comfort zone.
"From This Point On When She Would Look At the Tea Leaves, Her Memory Would Lead Her Back To This Very Moment"
Amanda: Do you have any work in there that I can see, or are you keeping it secret?
Edwin: Just digital versions that are midway right now. That haven’t found the magic hour yet. A bunch of them got sent to the framers a couple of weeks ago.
Amanda: Cool. Are there not going to be any that are stretched like at the last group show?
Edwin: No. It’s so difficult. The entire process is so fragile that adding another element – in that case, stretching it onto wood – just creates another point where I can fuck up. Somehow I am unconsciously choosing a process that is very fragile, and can fall apart at any moment, and I can fail, like we were talking about earlier. So why would I do something like that? Maybe I’m reading into it too much, but I think it correlates to time. Time is so fragile. It’s like handling a first edition Gutenberg Bible. Every time you turn a page, you take a chance. I think in a way, that’s why I enjoy keeping it that fragile. It’s like time, I can mess it up, you know? I don’t know if that even makes sense. The fragility of time, I guess, is what I want to say. See, I wouldn’t have typed that out. This is just running with scissors right now. Just going for it.
Edwin Ushiro’s “Softly Encompassing the Womb” will be unveiled on Saturday, September 12th at LeBasse Projects in Culver City. Edwin will be there with all his friends and family – make sure to stop by and say aloha.