Hiroyuki Hamada was once an angry young man.
And he had no way of expressing it.
Forced to relocate from a suburban Japanese community to a small town in West Virginia — after his father landed a job in the United States — he became a minority overnight, with no concept of what it meant to be different, and unable to speak or understand English.
Until he found art. And that was a visual language he could understand.
“It was very shocking to me, a revelation,” Hamada said. “It really opened my eyes. I think when something’s profound as art, there’s something between the lines, there’s something there that’s hard to express, but it’s something you can feel as true. That is the visual language, and I could see it clearly.”
First, he began drawing, then painting, then sculpting, and eventually found himself bouncing from residency to residency — now proficient in English — all the while presenting what it means to be human.
“I had no idea residencies even existed. There are so many organizations that provide you with studio space, a place to live, and some of the places even give you money to get by while you’re there,” he said. “I moved from one place to another, I didn’t have my own place. Looking back, it’s really crazy, but it somehow worked out pretty well.”
Hamada laughed at the memory last Wednesday afternoon, as he drove to his home in East Hampton, where he has lived for nearly two decades. He would be headed to Guild Hall later in the day, to finalize the exhibition of his work, “Hiroyuki Hamada: Sculptures and Prints,” which is now on view.
“The show is already up and I’m very, very happy how it turned out. I’m excited about it,” he said. “I was told about the show in October, and I thought about a sculpture project that I have been cultivating in my head for a few years, and it’s the biggest piece I’ve worked on, and it’s kind of complex. But in my mind, I had an idea of how to finish it. So I usually don’t work with deadlines, and this is pretty much my first attempt to really do something for a show. But that’s what I did for this one.”
Hamada’s studio practice is a solitary one — and he finds comfort in that, as it reminds him of his childhood.
“I was a kid who could be stuck in a room, just making things for hours, and I was into making models and making drawings, so I think I am very comfortable with the studio and being alone — just being stuck with the process,” he said. “But I was really not thinking about what I can do with them. I enjoyed the process and I enjoyed how things can be what it is, something that didn’t exist. But I really didn’t have the notion of making something that has a cohesive whole and that has some sort of profound message.”
He wouldn’t have it for most of his life — until he moved to the United States at age 18. It was traumatic, he said, but it set him up for pursuing art.
“I wasn’t adjusted very well,” he said. “I was an angry young man. It didn’t seem to be an attractive idea to leave my friends and go to a foreign country. But I wasn’t really working, I wasn’t doing anything. I really didn’t have an excuse, so I came.”
His education began in ESL classes before progressing to community college — where he met the art teacher who changed his course.
“He had this ability to speak through his work, and he knows how to put it together and make this something that says something — just like people do with music, people do with movies,” Hamada recalled. “So it was kind of strange. I had no idea about it. I didn’t grow up with visual art around me. It really didn’t occur to me that making art can be something special in a way that you can say something about being human. In a way, you can communicate with others.”
Now able to speak — both visually and, over time, verbally — Hamada would go on to earn his bachelor’s degree from West Liberty State College, and a Master’s in fine arts from the University of Maryland, before his string of residencies began.
It is not lost on him that his move to the United States was a critical step toward his artistic identity, but at times, he still feels the rumblings of the angry young man he once was.
Last Wednesday afternoon, he had just dropped off his wife at the Hampton Jitney, the result of sharing a car after his broke down — the most recent addition to a wave of misfortune, he said.
“We are having multiple difficulties in the past few months or so; it seems like bad things just come at once, as if there’s some coordinated force out there,” he said. “I wonder what I should do.”
It bubbles to the surface when he considers the artist’s plight — a normalized struggle, for both recognition and compensation, engrained in a marginalized artist society, one that almost comes with the territory and has informed work for centuries.
But it is a plight that could be rendered moot by the current political and economic landscape, Hamada said, and he would rather feel it than not have it at all.
“It’s really a crazy time. It is more and more important to embrace the fact that there’s things we can’t understand and we have to be humble. We have to know who we are as limited beings in this vast universe, and I think visual expression somehow gets us to that place, and I think it can be a positive thing in itself,” he said. “It’s something we need to actively promote and protect, because art can be really, really strong. It can move people. It can say things that are hugely complex and hard to grasp.
“But at the same time, it’s very fragile,” he continued. “It can be destroyed so easily. It’s a lot like the environment we have, nature, and I think when we are losing so much nature around us, we should be concerned about losing art by co-opting it within the framework of authority. Artists should be able to speak freely and present what it is. Art is important to bring people together — and go beyond ideology and the boundaries we have.”
“Hiroyuki Hamada: Sculptures and Prints” will be on view through Sunday, March 25, at Guild Hall, located at 158 Main Street in East Hampton. A gallery talk with Hiroyuki Hamada will be held on Saturday, March 10, at 2 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, please call (631) 324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.