By Leslie Iwai

The Awkwardness of Art and Life: An Interview with Leslie Iwai

Not all of us are able to be at Urbana, so we’re bringing a bit of Urbana to The Well! We are so pleased to introduce you to Leslie Iwai, the Urbana Artist in Residence. We spoke with her from her studio about her best teachers, how she became an artist, and her spiritual practice.

If you’re at Urbana, you can meet her at Women in the Academy and Professions Day in the GFM Lounge — Sunday, December 30 from 3-4 pm.

The images throughout this piece are sneak peeks of the installation Leslie created for Urbana. Scroll to the bottom to read a bit more about this work.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? How did you become interested in the work you’re doing now?

I was born in Germany and my dad was in the military. He ended up in Nebraska and when he left the military, we stayed there in Bellevue, Nebraska, right near Omaha. It was a diverse community; students had been all over the world with their parents in the military, but were now right there in the middle of the Midwest. I really enjoyed it.

I have four sisters; I’m second-oldest and there's a 16-year spread between us. I grew up being around kids, playing and helping. I grew up liking art and making stuff, but I never thought that it was something I could actually do. I never considered it as a profession. I was always very good at the sciences. I took some art classes in seventh and eighth grade, but got down to business with AP classes in high school — calculus and biology.

When I went to undergrad, I applied for an honors scholarship. With five kids in the family, we all had to help however we could. I ended up getting a great scholarship for Wayne State College, a beautiful little state college in Nebraska. I was part of an honors program and colloquium called the John G. Neihardt Scholars Program. It was a full scholarship for four years, with a specific curriculum. We took a broad spectrum of classes and we had five teachers that taught us all together the two first years. I took western civ, literature, film, music history, art history, philosophy, and during that time I was also taking a lot of math and science classes because I'm good at that. I find the sciences interesting and I like to solve problems.

During this time, I felt like I didn’t even know what to do with my life, but I had to have an honors project in order to graduate. I wanted to study architecture because I felt that it connected so many disciplines. I was ready to freak out and transfer to an architecture program at the end of my third year of college. My dad reminded me that one of the biggest things you can do in your life is to complete what you begin. He asked me, “Is there any way you can finish what you started?” I then figured out that in a year and a half I could graduate with a math degree and a minor in chemistry. I enjoyed the challenge of math; so I barreled down and finished in four years with my math degree. My honors project was on fractals, the studying of intermediate dimensions. I was just having fun with it and also applying to graduate school.

What did you enjoy about graduate school? How do you see your education shaping your vocation?

I got into three graduate architecture programs, and moved to the town of one for a summer. I decided it was really hot still just like the Midwest, and I needed to jet. I called my parents and said, “I moved to this place, but I really think I don't want to be here.” My parents were very adventurous and fostered independence in their girls. We never had anyone tell us that we couldn't do something; we just had to try. When I called, they said, “Why don't you check out Virginia Tech? — you didn't say no, so maybe you should just call them.”

The next morning I drove to the AAA office and got a TripTik, and then drove across the country to Virginia Tech. I called the Dean's office and drove to campus. It was foggy and there were sheep and rolling mountains. It was so beautiful. I got to the architecture studios at midnight and there were all these students working and making stuff and studying. I was sold. I decided that was where I wanted to be.  When we began, we were thrown into the mix and they had us start making stuff immediately.

On one of the first few days of our program, one of my architecture teachers told us to think of this as an education and not a training -- to open up our minds to the education. He said “Fifty percent of you will not even be architects. You can take this education anywhere you want.” And all of a sudden I was just totally free. I had always thought that this sort of freedom was so important, but I didn't know how to put words around it until he said that. It ruined me for eventually becoming an architect.

I started doing my Master's. It was three and a half years, and during that time my dad died. I was devastated. It took a year longer to finish. When someone dies, it’s like a bomb goes off in your family, leaving an open hole where they used to be. He was just getting his head around his daughter being less practical than maybe he hoped, but he was really enjoying it about me, and that was big. This shifted my life trajectory majorly. I started embracing making things.

During grad school, I was making things all the time, but suddenly I didn’t know if I really liked making things that were models of something else. I realized I kind of enjoyed making the thing itself. I ended up doing a few installation-based projects and another teacher looked at me and said, “You’re an artist.” And I looked at him and said, “What? No! Don't say that. I don't want to be an artist. It's embarrassing.” But it planted the seed and the secret hope that I maybe had when I was really little was kindled.

Another great teacher I had was a Christian but didn't say it with words. The readings that we had were so phenomenal. We read Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry by Owen Barfield, a member of of C.S. Lewis’ literary group The Inklings. In unspoken ways this person influenced me greatly in the love of studying and making. He didn't have to say it out loud but I knew and that was encouraging to me. He was always pointing us towards wonder. He was so evocative — I don't think you could walk out of that class not feeling drawn to the mystery of things, that this is beautiful and that there's a deeper truth behind everything that we do in the world. That class was so sacred.

It was bittersweet to finish out with my dad not being there. I graduated, I decided I had to move back to Nebraska to help my family. My dad had been in the middle of a house renovation, that of course stalled. I did the best I could to finish that. I didn't get a job right away. I was at home living in the basement trying to finish this house. And we did it.

In the middle of that, I started working in an architecture firm and I could just tell that it was not for me. The day that I signed on to the architecture firm, I also signed onto an art studio that was being renovated from a giant mattress factory, but it wasn't going to be ready for a year.

A year and a half later, I had one of those moments of life decision. I knew in my heart I was supposed to make art. I was taking a walk during my lunch hour at work and I was thinking, “I just want to quit, quit, quit, quit, quit. I just want to do my art.” But I felt strongly from the Lord that if I were to do that, it would be out of pride. So I decided I wasn't going to quit but I said to God, “If I'm not supposed to be here, please make it happen. I don't know how to do this.”

Within two months from that moment, my studio opened and I got involved with a public art project. And then in a three-month frame, I got laid off and I got all this severance and vacation pay. I tried to work in an architecture firm part-time, but no one would hire me unless it was full-time. So, I moved out of my home and I was unofficially living in my art studio for six months. I ended up being asked to teach at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in the design department for a year, and then transitioned to teaching as sabbatical relief for the sculpture faculty at the University of Nebraska in Omaha.  Afterwards, I stayed and taught sculpture and design as an adjunct faculty.

As I progressed in my studio work, I eventually was able to do my art full-time with very inexpensive rent and really being frugal.  In 2011, I moved up to Madison, Wisconsin after I got married. It's been a series of situations of God being faithful. I'm so thankful for what I get to do.

How do you see your faith and work overlapping?

To back up to architecture school, I had come to a point where I was either going to pull closer to God or reject him. By the grace of God, I was not mad at him for my dad's death but was comforted by coming close to God, and I often pulled into that verse: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” I held onto that. At that time, I couldn’t figure out how to finish graduate school or how to make anything, so I squirreled away with God, often wandering around praying or just being with God. I was devastated and things that I would normally get done I was really freaked out about and often was paralyzed with anxiety. I saw God’s faithfulness through this as God would reveal a solution, or someone would help me complete something in a way that would save time and stress. The world would say don't spend time with God because you're so busy, you have so much to do. I really felt like I didn't have time not to spend time with God. I desperately needed God and I just hung on.

When I was little, my mom was Catholic and my dad was Buddhist. They got some sort of waiver to get married. I always would pray that my dad would become a Christian. I wanted my dad to know God. When my sister who is six years younger than me was baptized, my dad was baptized. I’ve seen so many prayers answered.

My faith is what I hang on to accomplish anything. I tend to get very big visions for projects that somehow seem possible for a second and then all of a sudden I'm wondering why I got myself involved in this and how I'm going to get it done? The onslaught of doubt comes and issues with a project or a concept come up. When I was back in Nebraska, I learned a lot about and practiced contemplative prayer, it saved my brain and my spirit. I love to worship with music and other outwardly expressive forms, but it was this quiet presence with other people with the Lord that has been transformative.

Moving to Wisconsin is a totally different kind of faith community. At first I was trying to recreate my faith community from Nebraska, but of course if you do that you're going to be disappointed because it's never going to be the same. I've had to pray that God would help me fall in love with where I live now. Seven years later, I can say that I am truly overwhelmed with love for my neighbors and faith community here in Wisconsin!

I got a big vision for this project I'm doing for Urbana. I was commissioned to be the artist in residence in late August, so I didn't have a huge amount of time. People from my church keep coming to help almost every day. They have said, “We believe in what you're doing, and we want to help you get this done.”  My church prayed for me and commissioned me as an artist. I had never had a church actually acknowledge the importance of visual arts and pray for me in such a direct and affirmative way. All those people took on that mantle of help selflessly. God has been renewing my strength continuously through the help of my church, friends and family. I think of Psalm 20: “Strengthen us from your temple and send help from Zion.”

What’s a spiritual practice you have found meaningful or would advise to women in the university?

I would say a spiritual practice of not saying “I'm too busy.” The practice of not being too busy to talk to someone or pray with someone. Know that time, given to God, will expand. He cares about us caring. When I was so sad and grieving and people took time for me, it really ministered to me. So I want to be a good listener even when I'm busy. I learned that being busy is actually prideful. Before my dad died, I was learning, often the hard way, that it was pride to act like everything I'm doing is the most important thing.

When I was living in Nebraska, I got into practicing contemplative prayer. It looks different to a lot of people, but includes meditating on Scripture and waiting with and for God. Sometimes I just count because I'm so busy in my head that I can't even let God speak. I'm just talking, talking, talking, talking in my head. I'm trying to embrace keeping my mouth shut, learning to be quiet so that other people (even God) can speak.

God gave me a practice of listening, so maybe I could hear what's going on for a minute. It became more important to be quiet. I'm trying to embrace the awkward silence that I used to be trying to fill. Art is uncomfortable and can be really embarrassing. I figure it's probably good for me to feel awkward and a little uncomfortable regularly, so I can stay with the awkwardness of art and life.

Hold Fast

The Book of Revelation opens with a compelling vision of holiness, light, and intimacy. The author John describes his vision of Jesus Christ standing amidst seven golden lampstands, which represent the seven churches in Asia Minor to whom the book is written. From his place among the lampstands, Jesus admonished, commended, and made promises to each of the seven churches.

The seven woolen garments reflect each of the seven churches and communicate a portion of their story, warning and welcoming us into a larger narrative.

You are invited to come inside, carefully handle and fasten material to form a corporate garment that is rooted and branching, reflecting often-invisible connections that hold us fast to the Truth and to each other.

About the Author

Leslie Iwai is an installation artist who draws upon her multidisciplinary background in mathematics, chemistry and architecture to create interactive and material rich environments.

“Two important questions I ask when I am making something are ‘How is it?’ and ‘What is it?’, usually in that order. Through this, I am inevitably led to new connections and uncovered narratives.  One of my favorite seminars in graduate school was Craft and Scholarship where I happened upon the threads between the woven, the engine and the feminine. Between the hardness and softness of these three, my work rests.”

Leslie Iwai lives and works in Middleton, Wisconsin where she makes her art, teaches, untangles knots and occasionally goes to an orchard with her husband.

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