Artist Diane KW is a retired neurologist who has gone from taking her first ceramics class at the Honolulu Museum of Art School in 2002, to now showing her work at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands and collaborating with veteran artists.

The museum is honored to present her recent project: At World’s End—The Story of a Shipwreck: Works by Diane KW, opening Jan. 31.

Originally from California, Diane KW (that is her artist name, as a practicing physician she was known as Diane Chen) has never been a slouch. The self-described product of “tiger parents,” she started college when she was just 15 and graduated when she was 19. She was finished with medical school when she was just 23.

Did she secretly want to be an artist? “I never took an art class in my life,” laughs Diane. “When I was eight and in third grade, I think I got an A on everything except for art—I got a C+. My parents said, ‘Oh no, you’re not going to do any more art.’ So I concentrated on Science, Math and English. My whole family is scientific—my mother was a physician and my father was an engineer. All my relatives are engineers, scientists or physicians.”

For 10 years, Diane lived in Switzerland, where she was the head of the Medical Epidemiology and Regulatory Affairs departments at pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann-La Roche. That’s where she met her husband, Jan Koch-Weser, who was Director of Clinical Research world-wide. When he retired from Hoffmann-La Roche, the couple moved to Massachusetts where they started a consultancy, advising pharmaceutical companies and governmental regulatory agencies on subjects such as clinical research and safety issues.

Over time, Diane and her husband began to spend more time on O‘ahu, where her husband also had a sister-in-law. “She suggested we go to Linekona to take an art class,” she recalls. “We ended up in ceramics because the jewelry-making class we wanted to take was full.”

Cynthia Tesoro was her first teacher at the Honolulu Museum of Art School. “She had a way of looking at the ugliest pot you had made and was able to show you why it was beautiful,” says Diane. “I was never quite sure I believed her, but several years after doing ceramics I realized that the asymmetrical bowls were more interesting than the ones that were perfectly round.”

“Cynthia took me to see an exhibition once.  I saw a carved sphere and I thought, ‘This is pretty cool.’ I was going to buy it, but Cynthia said ‘Oh no, you’re going to make it yourself.’”

After carving hundreds of ceramic spheres, Diane began collaborating with such notable ceramists as Tesoro, Joel Park, Daven Hee and Cory Lum. “They would throw things on the potter’s wheel, I would carve them, they would glaze and fire them,” explains Diane. “It was fun collaborating and each of us could do what we liked to do best.”

One of Diane KW's intricately carved ceramic spheres. Photo credit: Cory Lum

One of Diane KW’s intricately carved ceramic spheres. Photo credit: Cory Lum

Diane, who divides her time between Honolulu and Gloucester, Mass., is now a graduate student at the University of Hawai‘i, and is embarking on an independent study project that will take her to the Cape Ann Museum just north of Boston where she will create a permanent wall installation for that museum.

And at the same time that At World’s End—The Story of a Shipwreck: Works by Diane KW, opens, Diane begins a new project with the Honolulu Museum of Art—Together Under One Roof, which involves ceramic transfers of religious texts onto replacement tiles for the museum’s roof (two tiles are pictured at top). We asked Diane questions about these two projects, as well as two new collaborative projects she has up her sleeve.

Many people are familiar with your carved ceramic work. How did you become interested in working with found ceramic pieces and applying ceramic transfers for At World’s End?
As part of my graduate studies at UH, I became interested in using ceramic transfers after seeing Professor Suzanne Wolfe’s work using this technique. But instead of transferred imagery, I was more interested in text transfers. I wanted to use text as a decorative element, as a calligraphic element and as a conceptual element in my work.

Two years before starting at UH, I had started saving spam e-mails—those wonderful notifications about inheriting millions through a Nigerian bank—the shams and scams. I loved the “stories” and wanted to preserve them as a record of our social history, realizing that with passing time they would disappear as our spam filters improved. So it seemed that the best strategy to preserve them for posterity was to make ceramic transfers of the spam e-mails and apply them to ceramics. It occurred to me that juxtaposing these shams and scams onto heirloom china—the type that is passed down from generation to generation or that is collected by museums and collectors—was the best way to insure the spam’s survival.

I chose Meissen porcelain as the best vehicle for my spam emails—as the first manufacturer of porcelain in Europe and one that continues to hand-paint designs on its china using the expertise of many artisans. What better vehicle for a machine-made transfer of a third-world scam than a high-end luxury handcrafted status symbol from the first world?

Some people might think of ceramics as fragile—can you elaborate on why they are an ideal way to preserve texts?
When archeologists excavate ancient tombs in Egypt, what do they find? Pottery. Wood and most metals disintegrate. Pottery – ceramics last forever—they may break but the shards are there as a record of history.

What led to your particular interest in working with ceramic shards?
Always looking for new ways to explore ceramic art, I was intrigued with the unique shapes of broken shards, always hinting at a past history without revealing the full story. For me, their asymmetry was much more visually interesting than a perfect round plate or bowl.

At a dinner party I met Bill Sargent, former Curator of Asian Export Art at the Peabody Essex Museum. I told him of my idea to combine ancient pottery shards with spam emails. Bill said he had a shard collection that he would give me for experimentation.  The first shard he gave me was a Ming Dynasty stemmed cup shard. The end result was wonderful—we both loved it and Bill took it back to China, to donate it to the Nanchang Ceramic Museum for their permanent collection. He then contacted Christiaan Jorg, the former Curator at the Groninger Museum and Professor Emeritus of Art History at Leiden University in the Netherlands.  Christiaan sent me his shards to transform into art. When he saw the results he contacted the Groninger Museum, which then gave me shards from the shipwreck of the Geldermalsen to do with as I wished, with the intent of having an exhibition of my work and the subsequent acquisition of a portion of the transformed shards for their permanent collection.

The Ming dynasty shard with spam email text transfer. Photo credit: Judith Monteferrante

The Ming dynasty shard with spam email text transfer. Photo credit: Judith Monteferrante

How did you go about developing the work for At World’s End?
While the Groninger Museum is a contemporary art museum, it also has a large excellent historical collection of antique ceramics from the 18th and 19th centuries. The Geldermalsen shipwreck shards the museum had were clearly a part of the history of China, the Netherlands, and Europe. It seemed to me that the shards should move forward in time to become contemporary art, but without loss of their historical context. So I decided to tell their story in a contemporary way, and started to look at what information was available on the Geldermalsen story.

Christiaan Jorg provided me with copies of photos and documents about the Geldermalsen. Accounts of the shipwreck in the archives of the Dutch government written in beautiful Dutch script from 1752 made me decide that I wanted to use text again as a decorative element along with imagery. As I read more about the shipwreck and the political furor that arose after the salvage and sale of the artifacts, it seemed only fitting to tell the history of the shipwreck partly from the perspective of the shard. I then decided that I would touch also on the history of Chinese export from the 1700s to Chinese export today.

What impact has this process and experience had on your work and approach in general?
While my past ceramic work has been largely decorative or quietly conceptual, I find that I really like telling stories and sending messages from today into the future on ceramics. So now with my carved work, I frequently add ceramic transfers— yes, spam emails—on my carved collaborations. It doubles the time for completing a piece, but the results are interesting.  I feel that the results are truly unique – no artist is crazy enough to do the work to carve a piece and then apply ceramic transfers on each of the carved areas.

Additionally, updating or “contemporizing” antique pieces by bringing them into the present with ceramic transfers now has become an obsession with me.  I like collaborating with artists of the past who produced these pieces, in a sense, picking up where they left off.

You now have another museum project using salvaged ceramic fragments. Where are you taking this direction in your work?
The Director and the Curator of the Cape Ann Museum in Massachusetts came to my studio in Gloucester last spring to see my work. They were intrigued by the Geldermalsen shards that I was working on and asked me to think of a project I might do for them that involved shards. (They also have a carved piece of mine in their permanent collection). The museum was closing for a year of renovations, and they wanted to re-open with a new exhibition of my shard art.

The lavatories of all the museums I have ever visited are terribly drab places, not befitting institutions devoted to art. So I proposed that I would do a permanent installation of shards with ceramic transfers into the walls of the new cloakroom vestibule and the new lavatory, bringing art to these public areas of the museum—in other words, installing art in drab public spaces that did not have guards or security cameras. This project will involve four walls and 200 to 300 ceramic shards with transfers.

Looking at the museum archives, I came across the ship’s logbook of Captain Edward Babson and a diary of his wife, Mrs. Amanda Babson, from the 1830’s.  Although Babson was never shipwrecked, the fear of catastrophe at sea was always in the back of his mind, as well as his wife’s.  So I decided to juxtapose a diary entry by Amanda Babson with a ship’s log entry by Edward Babson—again on shipwreck shards. Additionally, excerpts from the weekly Gloucester Marine Journal entitled “Disasters at Sea” are being added. The shards being used are all blue-and-white or white shards, representing ocean and white caps, recovered from a variety of shipwrecks. This project will be completed in late spring 2014 in time for the reopening of the museum this summer.

Tell us about Together Under One Roof, your new project that involves another kind of intervention in an architectural context.
History documents much suffering and death based on religious intolerance, whether it was between religions or against them. In Hawai’i, there are many religions, from the five major religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism—to smaller sects and offshoots. Members of these religions coexist in peace, and they also come together in our museums and educational institutions daily to enjoy the opportunities that are offered.

With this in mind, I proposed Together Under One Roof to Honolulu Museum of Art director Stephan Jost. Using spare roof tiles from the Honolulu Museum of Art, I am applying ceramic transfers of the 5 major religious texts onto the tiles—one line of the main text of each religion, followed by one blank line to signify all other religions, or no religion, or perhaps to symbolize the religions of the future. These transformed tiles will be used to replace tiles on the roofs of the museum buildings as part of the normal maintenance as an artistic statement of peaceful coexistence. It will be a simple statement, that all who come to visit the museum are welcome “under one roof.” The text on the tiles is in a simple black that will not be very noticeable from the ground.  But the tiles will be there, covering and protecting those who walk below. The texts are in English—I chose this language as the lingua franca, or bridge language of global communication.

My intent is to continue to apply text transfers from the point where the museum tiles leave off sequentially onto roof tiles from museums and educational institutions around the world. I foresee partnering with ceramic artists working near a museum to help me with collecting the tiles from the respective local institution, doing the transfer application and firing, then returning the completed tiles to the institution. I will supply the ceramic transfers to ensure continuity. Hopefully this will become not just my artistic statement, but also a statement of peaceful coexistence from the ceramic artist community.

Because the documents are very long and I am pretty old, Professor Brad Taylor of the University of Hawai‘i–Mānoa joins me in this project to continue it after I am no longer able to do so. Additionally, Professor Emeritus Suzanne Wolfe, also from UH, is a part of this project and will help disseminate the project concept and enlist other ceramic artists to be part of Under One Roof. Professor Helen Baroni, from the university’s Religion Department, has been consulting on this project.

Detail of a Honolulu Museum of Art roof tile, upon which Diane KW has transferred religious texts representing Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.

Detail of a Honolulu Museum of Art roof tile, upon which Diane KW has transferred religious texts representing Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.

You are now about to start yet another new project, this one addressing the Cultural Revolution. Can you tell us about that?
Chen Chan Chen is an idea jointly initiated by Gaye Chan, Constance Chen Liu and myself. It began with the discovery that the three of us have the same surname in Chinese. Besides our shared name we all grew up in the period of the Cultural Revolution in China, and all our families emigrated when Mao came to power. We decided to take on a project that would examine this historical moment’s impact on our family histories and on our individual lives. Each of us will start with an identical set of ceramic statues typical of the Cultural Revolution. Since Constance and I are ceramic artists and Gaye works with found objects we thought this approach fitting. The target date for completion is 2015.

If that isn’t enough to do, we understand you also have a fashion project?
I am collaborating with noted fashion designer Ann Namba on an evening gown—“wearable art.”  The primary materials will be mosquito netting from the army surplus store and a sky blue tablecloth from a past fundraiser of The Contemporary Museum.  We are planning to enter this into a wearable art exhibition.

Learn more about Diane KW at her website.