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.

Rafael Soldi | Dark Mirrors

Interview by Adam Boehmer | Photographs by Andrew Waits

We are unsure why the sun is out in late Seattle winter, pouring through Rafael’s kitchen window and onto the photo strips hanging on his refrigerator. Small moments, sequential, black and white; time spent in Capitol Hill bars with friends and lovers. The panes of his vintage windows frame everything in the room similarly in the bright light of late afternoon.

I first met the Seattle-based photographer and artist Rafael Soldi 4 years ago, soon after his rather tumultuous move from New York City. His lover had literally disappeared, walked-out on the relationship, lighting a match and watching everything burn.

The full emotional upheaval of this has been encapsulated in his celebrated series “Sentiment”, which showed in its entirety for the first time in Seattle at Greg Kucera gallery as part of the exhibit “In the absence of,” following a solo exhibition at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Boston.  In the series, moments out of sequence:  Rafael and his lover posing in shadow and light, yellow flowers shrouded in heavy lace curtains, the bravery of a self portrait in this emotional aftermath, a mass of black balloons left as a gift in a sterile apartment hallway. All of it exists as a chosen documentation of intense loss and release.


BOEHMER: How does it feel to finally have Sentiment exhibited fully?

SOLDI: This work was made a long time ago and though I’ve shown parts of it numerous times over the last five years, seeing it all together on the wall for the first time is really exciting and cathartic. It’s been such a long time since the actual events that prompted this work that I have so much perspective and I experience these images on a very different dimension than before. The installation at Greg Kucera Gallery was very satisfying because the size of the room really allowed viewers to step back and see the whole thing, and the work by fellow artists curated around it also informed the piece nicely.


We drink tea and move around his home, which currently doubles as his studio. I watch Rafael shift from gracious host to careful vessel of thought each time I inquire about his process or new work. “For the first time, I couldn’t make pictures of the things I was trying to say,” Rafael tells me, as he explains his interest in removing himself from the narrative and diving into his subconscious for symbolic clues of what to create. The diptych “All Day I Hear The Noise Of Waters” is devoid of any of the color or light or narrative of “Sentiment”. It is a pair of dark and closely-cropped photographs of water that look as though they could have been chiseled out of onyx. The sculptural ripples carry a new energy toward some unseen shore.


BOEHMER: This work stems from the events that spurred the creation of “Sentiment”, yet the finished work is entirely different. Talk with me about your conceptual shift.

SOLDI: That breakup was a life-changing moment for me, beyond heartbreak. It introduced me to adult human emotions like fear, anguish, guilt, panic, and regret. In the years that followed I began to notice an inner selfhood that I couldn’t define. Each of us has a certain resolute innerness, an abstract self that we don’t share with others because we cannot even define it. So while my earlier work was a direct narrative representation of what I was feeling right there and then, this new work is an abstract reflection on the consequences of those events. It investigates the private spaces within me that I shield not from others’ eyes, but from my own. These new works explore my growing awareness of my spiritual subconscious and my fears. For the first time I am taking a conceptual approach, rather than a narrative or representational one.


Rafael spreads some newer work out in his studio for us to peruse, specifically a series called “I Choose to Remember/Forget”. What appears to be a grid of white rectangles lifted just slightly from their backing turns out to be photographs of him and a past lover mounted backwards. They were sent to him in a box from his family, who had been holding onto some of his personal effects while he moved to Seattle. A box of memories he didn’t want to keep, but couldn’t get rid of.

“I like these because they’re orderly, beautiful, sensible…” he says. His apartment reflects this: every object, book and piece of furniture meticulously placed and ordered. The photos indeed look intentional, but also quiet. Their immediate language is limited to the slight shifts in light, texture, and color. Knowing that on the other side  of each object is an image, a memory that might not ever be seen again is jarring. “Do you remember which photograph is which?” I ask. “No,” he says. “Not anymore.”


BOEHMER: Memory is such a huge part of your past work, and now you’ve added this new futurity into the mix. How do you feel time is represented in your current work?

SOLDI:  I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about memory and the way we process our past, and how we deal with it on a daily basis. Concepts of time, in a variety of ways, show up quite a bit in my new work but usually in a somewhat abstracted way. The new works are meant to be read in more than one way, they are based on my own experiences but they are not explicit, I want viewers to get a sense or a feeling of what they are looking at but fill in the blanks with their own experiences—they are essentially screens. “I Choose To Remember/Forget” definitely deals with memory which is inherently linked to time. Another piece titled “And All of a Sudden You Were Gone” is a grid of photographs that loosely resembles the physical depiction of a timeline. Untitled (XIV) depicts the back of a man’s head looking into a black expanse, which I interpret as looking into the past.


We end our studio visit with a viewing of a concept for a new piece that is a complete departure from photography: a pair of full-scale black facsimiles of Michelangelo’s “David”. They appear to stare into each other’s eyes. Their presence is intense, and I imagine these two dark lovers or twins or brothers caught observing each other’s frozen beauty for eternity. Or maybe their gazes just miss, their only view of each other off-center, forever stuck in each other’s dark periphery.

“I see my work as this long thread that is catching all these experiences”, Rafael tells me. “There’s a soul, a privacy, and an innerness.”

It has grown darker in the apartment and we both take notice. I gather my things and we exchange farewells and part ways. Walking into the early evening, I catch the dark windows of different apartments and houses brighten with lamplight. We are all getting ready for the night.