Exported: Eirik Johnson at Donkey Mill Art Center, Hawaii

Text and Photos by Eirik Johnson

Mauna Kea

This past February, I traveled to Holualoa, a small town in the coffee producing hills of the Big Island of Hawaii. I had been invited to participate as artist in residence at the Donkey Mill Art Center, a community arts space housed in an old farming cooperative. I arrived with broad stroke ideas for my residency, but my intention was to remain open and receptive to the place and those I met.

That notion of place was a recurring and connecting concept during my stay. Over meals and conversations with kupunas, elders from the community, I learned about the history of Holualoa; of families whose relatives had left impoverished Japan in the late 19 th Century under labor contract to work in the island’s sugar cane mills and later homestead small coffee farms in the volcanic hills of the region. I learned of the ghosts who wander subterranean lava tubes, bamboo forests and mountain ridges.

That connection with Holualoa’s past was given further context while working with a group of local teens with whom I collaborated on a series of photographic and video-based portraits. We looked at the history of portraiture in art, brainstormed visual memories, and worked together to compose and create works that connected back to my conversations with the kupunas.

Much of my residency was simply spent wandering and exploring, both in and around Holualoa, but also further afield. I watched the sunset from the Mauna Kea volcano, explored old movie theaters in Honokaa and Hawi, and discovered beach crab holes amidst tiny bits of plastic washed up from the Pacific Ocean Gyre.

During my residency, I stayed as a guest of Hiroki and Setsuko Morninoue. Both renowned artists, the Morinoues, together with their daughter Maki and her husband Geoff, were generous in aloha spirit, knowledge, and participation. Their eldest daughter Miho Morinoue helped facilitate my entire residency at the Donkey Mill and was pivotal in connecting me with the entire community.

Now, as I begin the work of looking back through photographs, editing video, and listening to audio files, I daydream of Holualoa and the smell of coffee blossoms.


Film Still of Hiroki at the Coffee Farm

Althea with Rotten Fruit

Brunch with Kupunas

Coffee Blossoms

Hidden in Plain Sight | Interview with Eirik Johnson

Video by Canh Nguyen | Images Courtesy of Eirik Johnson

Sierra Stinson: Can you describe the initial catalyst and what led to the series WE WERE HERE?

Eirik Johnson: I somewhat literally stumbled upon the project.  As I was navigating down a trail by flashlight on a Winter’s twilight nature walk with my son, the spotlight of my torch fell upon a carving reading “I LOVE LIANNE”.  Lit in the aquamarine glow of the flashlight, the statement seemed imbued with romantic mystery.  It reminded me of the final scene from one of my favorite films Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood For Love”, in which the main character whisper’s his memory of unrequited love into a column and covers it with mud.  He leaves that memory of love there and walks away.


How many have you gleaned since the beginning of this project?

I’ve “scouted” hundreds of them, and photographed most likely over 100.  From those, I’ve edited the final group down quite a bit.  If you were to come upon me looking for these carvings, you’d probably think I was crazy, as I methodically walk around the trunk of each tree in a park slowly investigating.


Where are they geographically from? 

They’re from all over the place, but mainly the West Coast.  Some are from the Northwest and many are from the L.A. area which is covered with carvings.  A lot of what makes these images interesting are not only what’s been carved into the tree, but the tree itself.  In L.A. you might find a beautiful Eucalyptus or a charred palm tree that’s been carved.  In the Northwest it might be an Alder, Madrona, or Fir.

You have a different process for each piece. Can you explain the variations and how you decide on them for presenting each phrase or word photographically.

I think about this work as a sort of collaborative performance.  It starts of course with the carving itself and the emotions (love, alienation, eulogy) that have been left upon the tree and how they each make me feel when I find them.  My process has been one of response to each carving and to the tree.  Perhaps the carving is nostalgic, perhaps it’s filled with angst.  The tree’s bark might remind me of a lunar surface or the skin of an elephant.  I try to be open to all of these influences and then decide on a direction for each photograph.  The exposures are made at dusk or in the evening and I use a whole host of lighting techniques to illuminate them, from sparklers, fire, gel filters, prismatic light, and moonlight.


Have you participated in the act of carving your own message into a tree? If yes or no / why?

I have not.  I’m a really curious person and love the idea of encountering something hidden, even when it’s in plain sight.  Coming upon a particularly intriguing carving is like discovering a fragmented line from a short story.  Carving into a tree is such a transgressive act, one both violent and touching.  I’m more interested in responding to these acts and creating something new from it.

There are quite a few lyrics that you have found, I am curious what your playlist would be for this series.

There’s a really strong connection to music in the work.  I imagine that many of these carvings are made at a time when you’re young and obsessed by that one band or that one lyric.  When I first found “The Smith’s”, I could almost see in that carving the same shaky ballpoint pen handwriting from the old mix-tapes we would make in middle and high school.  I love that aspect to the work and frankly, music is often on my mind when I’m deciding how to illuminate the carvings.  As for which songs would be on my playlist, it’s all over the place.  Everything from REM’s cover of the Everly Brothers “All I Have to Do Is Dream” to Talking Heads “Psycho Killer”.  My intention for this project is actually to work with musicians to create a mixtape that would accompany a book of these photographs.


Which one of these carvings struck the deepest chord for you and why?

I was left particularly startled when I came upon the titular carving “WE WERE HERE”.  I had first discovered it a year before, in the trees of a Los Angeles park.  It had been freshly carved and while I photographed it that initial visit, I wasn’t happy with how the image looked.  I returned a year later and found that the tree had begun to heal, the carving fading away but still visible on the smooth surface of the bark, as if a scar on the body receding with time.  Those faded words “we were here”, declaring one’s existence, reminded me of hiking in the Peruvian Andes and coming upon shards of Inca pottery, an immediate physical connection with the past no matter how recent or long ago.  This carving and others, like the carved hand, touch upon our desire to remain, to communicate, to connect.

It seems like it’s been very intuitive project and took you on a journey, when do you think you will be done with it? Or will you always be searching for these messages left behind?

This has been quite a different journey for me than previous projects and yes, one in which I’ve really followed my intuition, the proverbial “gut feeling”.  Honestly, I’ll always be looking for these carvings hidden in plain sight.  As far as the project goes however, I envision it as a story made up of signs and just like a good story it needs a tight edit from beginning to end.  I’ve been working away on this for nearly four years and I think I’m reaching the end of this story.