Emi Wooden visited the Honolulu Museum of Art for the first time in 2014, when a friend brought her here and led her straight to the iconic Guanyin sculpture in the Buddhism gallery. Wooden was impressed, but then she noticed a smaller piece mounted to the wall to the right of the wooden sculpture—a 1,400-year-old limestone bas-relief from China titled Apsara Playing a Sheng.
In a stroke of kismet, the museum hired Wooden just a few months later as an accounting clerk. She started regularly visiting to the oft-overlooked Apsara. “I really liked this piece for a personal reason,” says Wooden, who is from a small rural town near Hiroshima. “As a final project in elementary school, we all had to make a four-foot-tall wood print of a Buddha or bodhisattva of our choice.” At the time, Wooden was drawn to a sculpture of the Hindu and Buddhist nymph Apsara playing a sheng—a vertical multi-piped wind instrument. She had a large photographic print made, then traced it, and carved her print from a piece of wood as big as her.
“I remember the strokes because I carved all the clothing, the sheng, and the hairs for my wood print. My hand remembers,” she says. “That was some 30 years ago, but I encountered her again here at the museum.” Wooden moved to Hawai‘i in 2012, after living in Wyoming and Vienna, Austria.
“Being here and working for the museum feels perfectly meant to be,” says Wooden. “When you see me here you’ll probably catch me with a grin because I’m thinking, ‘Oh, how did I get here, looking at this piece from my childhood?’”