story by Curt Sanborn
photos by Dana Edmunds
Leland Miyano is intrigued by lots of things.
“My first memory was of touching a plant and staring at the flower,” says the 53-year-old sculptor, landscape designer and naturalist. “I didn’t know what I was looking at, but it intrigued me.”
As a boy maybe 6 years old, he says, he was intrigued by the things he found as he wandered alone among the drifts of seaweed that piled up on the sandy shore near his home in ‘Ewa Beach: auger and cone shells, dead baby sharks, crab skeletons. More recently, he’s been intrigued by the shells of extinct Hawaiian land snails that he finds in construction ditches and by the reddish, oxidized skins on some of the huge volcanic boulders he collects for his splendid garden in Kahalu‘u. And lately he’s intrigued by the idea of palimpsest, the notion that something, anything—a landscape, a rock, a human face—is underwritten with traces of earlier events and earlier meanings, traces revealed to anyone who looks closely enough.
His is a kind of “radiant interest,” as poet W.S. Merwin recently put it when describing his friend’s “intense fascination with all living things.”
This year, the Honolulu Academy of Arts honored Miyano with its biennial Catharine E.B. Cox Award for Excellence in the Visual Arts. (Previous recipients include painter Dorothy Faison, the late sculptor Michael G.B. Tom and conceptual artist Kaili Chun.) As the 2008 awardee, Miyano is creating three sculptural installations for a one-man exhibition, Leland Miyano: Historia Naturalia et Artificialia, on view at the Academy through Aug. 24.
In the cozy, book-lined living room of his home halfway up Ka‘alaea Valley on O‘ahu’s windward side, Miyano shows me some of the dozen smaller sculptures destined for the show. About trophy size, the pieces crowd a tabletop. For the most part, they aren’t pretty, but urgent, almost savage in their intensity: Dead insects, dried toads and shells set into burnt-wood or driftwood reliquaries are held aloft by gnarled, burnt-wood hands. A Greek cross punched out of a polished milo-wood plank and charred black is reattached, off-center, onto the blond wood. A lustrous boar’s tusk curves halfway around the edge of a burnt poplar disk—the piece is called “Muku, the Dark of the Moon.”
A gruesomely pockmarked, multilimbed section of bamboo root, roasted to a splotchy black-brown, is called “Priapus.” Over in a corner is “Theatrum Mundi”; a loose tangle of copper wire binds the largest—and most sexual-looking—plant seed in the world (Lodoicea maldivica palm) to an armature of curlicue antelope horns and more burnt-wood hands.
Call it Miyano’s cabinet of curiosities.