Currently on view in HoMA’s second floor gallery at First Hawaiian Center, Formations, an exhibition of mixed media works by Honolulu-based artists Renee Iijima and Taylor Johnson, uses symbolic imagery and portraiture to explore the effects of time, growth, death, and decay on the formation of identity.

It’s hard to not stop and contemplate life when viewing Iijima’s soulful work.

Iijima’s installation acts as a thoughtful notation on the nature of human existence. Her intimate pieces employ personal iconography including eggs, snakes, and portraits, and reflect on themes of birth, transformation, memory, and mortality. The translucent qualities of glass and composite mica (a naturally occurring mineral mixed with shellac), allow Iijima to work in layers that simultaneously obscure and reveal. Symbolic references to transition and change appear in faces that peer through spider webs, flower buds, moth wings, or egg shells; while reminders of the impermanence of life and inevitability of death can be seen in memento mori images of skulls and snakes.

The HoMA blog caught up with Iijima to learn more about her background, her work featured at FHC and what’s coming up next for her.

What is your background as an artist and how did you get to where you are?

My interest in art began when I was a small child watching television in my grandparent’s living room. I taught myself how to draw from Mickey Mouse cartoons and from illustrations in children’s books. My mother took me to art classes at the Honolulu Academy of Arts (now the Honolulu Museum of Art). Then I studied drawing and printmaking at the Claremont Colleges in Southern California, and I received my BA in studio art from Pitzer College in 1980. I returned to Honolulu and took classes in the graphic design program at Honolulu Community College. Through HCC’s excellent intern programs, I worked at a local advertising agency and eventually obtained a position at the Art Directors, where I did commercial illustration and design. While working, I returned to Honolulu Community College and studied commercial photography. During that time, I became quite serious about fine art photography. In 1991, I had my first success showing a portfolio of photographs in Image XVII, an annual exhibition held by the Image Foundation, and showing a single piece in Artists of Hawaii.

In 1995, my husband and I went to live in San Francisco for 10 months. I studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and began to create 3D shadowbox pieces that incorporated photographic imagery, bones, wood and beeswax. These pieces were later featured in The Contemporary Museum Biennial of Hawai’i Artists in 1997.

Iijima's "Self Portrait with Burn Holes."

Iijima’s “Self Portrait with Burn Holes.”

Since that time, I’ve been quite fortunate to have work included in numerous exhibitions in Hawai’i and on the mainland. One of the greatest honors was receiving the Catharine E.B. Cox Award and having a one-person exhibition at HoMA in 2000. Another incredible experience was having a piece accepted into The 8th International Shoebox Sculpture Exhibition in 2003.

Currently, I am active with the Honolulu Printmakers, which is a vibrant, creative and innovative local art organization, and I continue to participate in various workshops taught by visiting artists in a variety of media. My pieces in the current First Hawaiian Center Exhibition were inspired by workshops in which I learned to make handmade paper and artist’s books.

Why do you like working with mixed media?

My art process usually starts with the excitement I feel when I work with certain materials, such as the handmade paper and the mica that is featured in the FHC show, or with processes such as printmaking. The material and the process then inspire certain ideas, and the resulting pieces evolve in a more organic way than if I had simply started with a concept. Mixed media allows me to experiment and be more fluid.

Also, I believe that our contemporary artistic climate encourages a hybrid and mixed media approach to making art. I enjoy the freedom and creativity of younger artists when they so easily combine photography, graphic design, printmaking, 3D formats, writing and even music, in their work. Recently, I have really come to enjoy handmade artist’s books and zines.

How did you start working with snakes and personal iconography?

I think that, as human beings, we all carry a personal and universal library of images and symbols within ourselves. It exists alongside our personal history and the visual record of our lives. When we begin to use this inner material in an honest way, it can create depth and meaning in how we express ourselves, whether it is artwork, writing, music or other forms.

I didn’t find real meaning in my work until I started to look at my family and its history as subject matter in the early 1990’s. Suddenly, the photography I was doing, stopped being so superficial. Images of my grandmother, in particular, held real power, and she continues to reappear in my work even now (the piece, Return, in the FHC show).

On the other hand, the symbolic imagery of the snake is something that is more universal. Snakes appear in iconography throughout history and in various cultures, and I have always been attracted to them as a representation of something mysterious and internal. I started using snake imagery in 1999, and it appears in a self-portrait that I made for the Catharine E.B. Cox Award Exhibition. For me personally, snakes represent an aspect of mind (ego and control/temptation and the Garden of Eden) and transformation (shedding skin/the symbol of the Caduceus—the connection between heaven and earth). Snakes are beautiful and dangerous at the same time.

Iijima's "Snake & Egg," now on display at FHC

Iijima’s “Snake & Egg,” now on display at FHC

Your works explore various concepts, such as identity and death, how do you want audiences to think about those concepts from viewing your work?

The work in the FHC exhibition is a sharing of where I am in my life at this time. Over the past six years, I have had to be with and assist aging family members and friends who are suffering from serious health challenges, experiencing dementia and dying. At the same time, I have also been looking more deeply at my own life and experiencing new levels of awareness and understanding. Each viewer will bring his or her own life experience with them when they look at the work, and I can only hope that they will find it meaningful in some way. Life is challenging, but it can also be quite extraordinary in what it teaches us.

Anything coming down the pipeline?

At this point, I am just looking forward to having fun, making new work and experimenting with new approaches to creating art. I also want to support local art organizations and continue to enjoy the company of the many fine artists that we have in Hawai‘i.

View Iijima’s work at the First Hawaiian Center until Jan. 18.