Robin Cone-Murakami is an artist from Honolulu, Hawaii. Growing up in a city expanding within a complex island ecosystem, her work contemplates the changing landscape the world faces in contemporary society. She works in sculpture, photography, sound, installation and creative writing to examine the intimate link between humanity and nature. She has exhibited in solo and group shows throughout Oregon including McMinnville, Ashland, and Portland. Her photographic work has been published recurrently in Creative Quarterly The Journal of Art and Design, including their 100 Best Annual 2014 and 100 Best Annual 2016. In 2018, she was a low-resident artist at Leland Ironworks in Oregon City, Oregon. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Studio Art at Linfield College in 2014 and her Master of Fine Arts in Visual Studies at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in 2019.
Place and past are central to my artwork, which investigates the rhizomatic nature of relationships that bind communities to the land. When I was seven years old, I lost my father to cancer and gained an acute awareness of impermanence and loss. Drawing on familial history, my works explore the Hawaiian and Oregon landscape navigating the world between. Using personal narrative as a way to understand human experiences and trauma, my work explores how the uncertainty, fluidity, and flux of memory are signifiers of our humanity as we struggle with hardship and search for a connection to place and the people we love. My process begins with daily experiences, ordinary interactions and curious observations: the chilly breeze that irritates my asthma, the green moss that grows between sidewalks, the plastic grocery bags stuffed underneath my kitchen sink. Navigating through themes of memory, loss, and mortality, my works visualize the forgotten and overlooked moments of our history and invites viewers to take a closer look by examining their place within the physical world.
Jen Bacon: Can you start by telling us what you currently working on, any new surprising new ideas or evolutions in your studio practice that you’d like to share?
Robin Cone-Murakami: Lately I have been trying to puzzle together remnants of past projects. Sometimes I find myself surrounded by strips of handmade paper, pieces of old prints, and dowels of carved wood trying to make sense of it all. I’ve been working on distilling my practice down to the basics. I want to bring up the term simplicity now because I am often entranced by these grand gestures that I want to make as an artist. I sometimes forget that there is more than one way to make an impact. And although I say simplicity I think I probably mean specificity. I’ve been paying attention to the materials and craft that I am drawn to such as paper and papermaking and wood and woodworking.
As an artist, one of my main roles is that of a collector. One of my jobs is working for Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore so sifting through other people’s old stuff is essentially my job. People donate a ton of bed frames so I’ve been taking surplus bed slat boards home and sanding them down. I’m not sure where this is going yet but I feel that I’ll be taking a deeper dive into craft.
JB: I’d love to hear more about your role at Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, can you go further on how you were drawn to that organization and whether or not you see it in association to any of the themes in your work?
RCM: I can start out by saying I’ve been a customer of theirs for many years, back when I lived in Hawaii and now in Oregon as well. I think a large part of my interest in them began when I served in AmeriCorps during my undergraduate college years. I served my term with a different organization, however, that experience made me more aware of other non-profits that were doing good in their community like Habitat for Humanity and their ReStore. I was drawn to their vision to build strength, stability, and self-reliance in communities by building affordable housing, and how their work benefits the environment by reducing the amount of goods that may end up in the landfill.
As an artist, a significant part of who I am revolves around community and connection with others. Having gone through personal hardship myself, I would like to do what I can to help other people. I definitely see a connection between my role and work as an artist and my work at the Restore. Throughout my art practice, there are themes of connectivity and relationships, relationship to nature, relationships with each other, and relationships to place and to home.
JB: Literarily, philosophically, and visually, what/who inspires your work? What themes are you most interested in exploring in your work?
RCM: As the daughter of a librarian I love to read and I connect most with nature poetry and personal narrative. I’m greatly influenced by writers and artists employing empathetic styles of communication. So much of being human is about enduring and overcoming struggle. I think that in our contemporary world it is becoming increasingly important to find ways to communicate about those struggles and how we feel about them. Last year I was enthralled by the writings of Opal Whitely who, as a young girl, produced an enchanting nature diary about living in a small logging town in Oregon. It might seem funny that I was so moved by the words of a child, but in many ways, she taught me much more about ideas of home and the relationships that connect us than the text of some philosophers. There can be something immensely powerful behind empathy, and that is something I am interested in exploring more.
JB: How does your physical process manifest, what techniques, processes, and/or materials do you like to work with the most to translate your concepts?
RCM: My process begins with daily noticings and curious explorations. I feel very connected with the natural world and much of my work is about this relationship so I take inspiration from my hikes through the forest or walks down old sidewalks where cracks are filled with weeds. I have been making an effort to align my art practice with my values and part of that is focusing on natural materials and repurposing human-made ones. There is something deeply satisfying about making something out of that which was harvested or repurposed as opposed to that which was bought. Paper, wood, and clay are materials I have been working more with recently because of this.
JB: The materials you’re using--the papers, wood, and clay--where are those materials sourced? Are you handmaking these materials or where would you say is the best way to find them?
RCM: I use handmade, harvested and scavenged materials so it often depends on where I am and what resources I have access to. I do my best to repurpose and recycle before I decide to harvest materials unless it is something I have grown myself. I save scraps of old paper from past projects and mail that I no longer need. This all becomes pulp that I can combine with cut grass or weeds that people don’t care for in their yards. I don’t want to leave a negative impact on the places I harvest from so it is important for me to understand which are native species to the area and which are invasive.
I often find myself scrolling through the free section of Craigslist more times than I’d like to admit and I volunteer to claim unwanted or unneeded things. There is so much extra stuff in the world that I don’t really have to look far. People tend to throw away a lot of things. The harder part becomes learning when to say no. If I’m not careful, I’ll end up filling my garage with the cement blocks of someone’s old garden, piles of broken pottery and a year’s worth of junk mail and have no space to work.
JB: Who are your favorite artists and designers right now? How have they impacted your work and your own ideas?
RCM: I am fascinated by environmental design. This is no doubt due to having an architect for a father and growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii. I’ve witnessed a fast-paced changing of the landscape as endangered species fight a losing battle against tourism and luxury resorts. Human and natural landscapes clash and merge in the most interesting ways and environmental design both capitalizes on and addresses this. I am concerned about ideas of the natural, the wild, and where we fit into those terms.
One of my favorite artists is Crystal Schenk. I first encountered her installation work in 2012 when I experienced her piece Artifacts of Memory. She uses personal narrative in a way that is quietly powerful. Her work continues to impact my perception of the power of memory and narrative to shape our understanding of the world.
JB: The power of memory and shaped narratives do thread through your work extensively, can you talk more about that and what resources you’ve delved into to further explore those meanings and their theories?
RCM: As much of my work is about memory and personal narrative, I really am only at the beginning of my journey to understanding it. For myself, I know that memory is inherently connected to loss and grief. It determines what I do, how I do it and why. So much of my work is me just personally trying to puzzle out how the world works and why I feel the way I feel about it. According to the encyclopedia, memory is the encoding, storage, and retrieval in the human mind of past experiences, but to many of us, the word memory is far more weighted than that definition suggests. I think because my work can be so personal, I get intimidated by attempts to scientifically understand it. I tried going to therapy a few times and then stopped because it can get uncomfortable when acknowledging the power of our own history and the memories we shelter. The fact remains that memory is slippery, it’s intangible. And the best I am able to do right now is try to visualize how it manifests and recognize that its character is instability, it is change, evolution, disappearance, reappearance, comfort, and anguish.
JB: Can you give advice on how to maintain focus on your goals? What tools do you use to organize and advance your art practice?
RCM: Prioritizing my art practice is not always easy. It can be very difficult when faced with obstacles like time, money and space. I make lists that I refer to every day for things that I need to get done, for both my art and non-art life. When you have three jobs, an internship and a new puppy things have a tendency to slip between the cracks. I make an effort to apply to a certain number of opportunities every year and that helps to keep me motivated and moving forward. It also sometimes helps to physically get rid of things, I can feel too attached to past projects and that can get in the way of new ideas. As for goals, I have a dream of combining various loves: art, nature and helping others. When the logistics of life get in the way of that I try to remember my reasons for wanting it. There are so many little things that can get in your way and sometimes it helps to put things back into perspective, to think about the grand scheme of things to get you back up and going forward.
JB: What resources do you use to invigorate your art practice? What advice would you share on how to seek opportunities to make/display new works?
RCM: Honestly I’m invigorated most by non-art related experiences. Don’t get me wrong, I’m entranced when I walk into an art space with an awe-inspiring show or installation piece. But in those moments, I feel like a sponge that is feeling what I was told to feel, instead of processing something naturally and being inspired by that. It is the other moments when I am experiencing a pivotal life experience that in turn invigorates my art practice. I go hiking in the mountains or volunteer with an organization I care about. I travel and I grow a garden at home. I try not to overthink my next piece or project because I tend to unearth ideas most often when I’m just living life. I do seek out artist opportunities like residencies and shows, but I’m moving farther away from being a gallery artist. I’ve been looking into public art and less traditional ways that my art can participate in and help communities. I am still figuring out what does and doesn’t work for me, but I think cultivating interdisciplinary relationships and collaborations are an important step.
JB: Looking back over your evolving art career, where do you see a pivot moment in your practice? Who or what ignited that shift or alteration?
RCM: It is difficult to think of one specific moment that changed the trajectory of my path as an artist for there have been many. Last spring I graduated with my Masters of Fine Arts, and although that was a significant step in my career, I think the truly pivotal moments are the ones that happened outside of my strategic and financial decisions that dictate how to “make it” as an artist. Every so often I experience moments that remind me of why I want to make an impact on the world, and it is those that stay with me and have ultimately guided me on my path towards the kind of artist I want to be and how I want to get there. One such moment was a night in the spring of 2013. I was on a boat floating down the Tiputini River in Yasuni National Park in the Amazon rainforest. We had turned off the engine so we could listen to the night. As I felt our boat gently move with the water, my ears opened to the sounds of all the living things surrounding me that filled the air. It was clear to me then, how in our complex and intricate world, we are all connected in some way. The trees and river, the fish and birds, me and that boat. In that moment a lot of things clicked into place in my mind and I felt at peace. I often wish I could replay that part of my life over and over again to remember exactly how unique and wondrous our world really is, and how important it is to do things that remind ourselves of that.
JB: What is in store for you next? What projects are you working on and where can our readers see you and your work next?
RCM: If you are interested in learning and experimenting with cyanotypes, a cameraless photo process, I will be teaching a workshop in July at the WildCraft Studio School in Portland. Sharing this process with others and seeing the amazing work that comes out of their experiments is always invigorating and fun. Part of the reason I enjoy leading workshops is that I often learn something new from my students every time! Later in the summer, I’ll be participating in an artist backpacking retreat with Signal Fire. We will be hiking through old-growth forests in the Cascades and I’ll be using that time to read, write and connect. It may sound odd, but I’m really looking forward to getting out of the suburbs so I can smell dirt and trees, sleep on the ground and listen to the wind.
1. The Little Book of Country
Glass terrariums, image transfers on wood, moss, lichen, rocks, audio
60" L x 30" W x 10.5" H
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci
2. The Little Book of Country [Detail]
Acrylic photo transfers on plaster
22" W x 25" L x 114" H
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci
4. Between the Cracks
Wheat grass, dirt, cement blocks, grow lights
114" L x 8" W x 36" H
Photo credit: Robin Cone-Murakami
5. Between the Cracks [Detail]
6. A Wild Disconnect
Wildflower species, cedar picket fences, grow lights, dirt
48.5" L x 24" W x 199" H
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci
7. A Wild Disconnect [Detail]
Photo credit: Robin Cone-Murakami
8. A soft knocking
Artist book with handmade grass cover paper
5.25" L x 0.75" W x 8.25" H
Photo credit: Robin Cone-Murakami
9. A soft knocking [Detail]
Wood, metal, books, furnishings
144" L x 120" W x 120" H
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci
11. Remembrance [Detail]