CIVA SEEN Journal Essay by Leslie Iwai

On Art and Installation

By Leslie T. Iwai

Over and over . . . when I think of “practicing” my art, other forms of practice come to mind; playing the piano, dancing, training for a race, practicing medicine, or even preparing for a spelling bee. These forms of repeat, refine, perform and/or compete help give me perspective as a practicing artist. When I see a vision for a new work, I am motivated to enjoy the pure challenge of the many moments to get there, knowing I am in the midst of a whole lifetime of beginnings and endings.


The overarching work I create bridges a few disciplines: installation, sculpture, and performance. As I began to understand that art making would become my vocation, I had already begun seeing connections between structure and freedom, the bound and unbound, and the conceptual and concrete. The word, “installation” has its roots in the idea of “arranging” or “fixing” in place and also “stall” which refers to a room or place for cattle or horses. In the context of my art making, the practice of installation is the act of stilling a concept, one that is rather fluid and diffuse, in both time and space for a moment to reveal its essence. This temporal quality has a lightness of presence that essentially depends on its impending absence. As I continue to meditate on installation as an art practice, my own presence and absence is woven into how I continue to create when the absence feels vast and my presence needs to be tended. 


 Little Acts of Completion


One moment during graduate school, I was creatively stuck—unable to start and out of ideas. Immobilizing me was the thought that I had to know the what and how of a thing yet to be made. I remember praying for help, for inspiration. The thought occurred to me that if I could just make something in five minutes, I would feel a sense of completion, a little spark of confidence, and hope. I started with material (window screen), and a method (sewing) and my five minutes turned into about 20 hours. I still use that exercise in my practice today (and window screen!), challenging myself to create quickly with a simple material and method, sometimes even using a timer. Those five or so minutes often lead to new ideas stored in my “back pocket” for the future and can help propel a current idea further. In a studio practice, where some projects span months or years, these little acts of completion help me move forward through tough moments.


Communing with Saints and Materials


I love connecting with others during my creative process. Intermittently, during the heart of a project, I’ll invite a close friend or colleague to my studio to spur my creative process or help bring order to the chaos. Some of my most meaningful breakthroughs have come from those interactions. On one such occasion, I showed a friend my inherited well-worn sawhorses, and she helped me see the beautiful markings of the surfaces and mine their deeper meaning. While I often work in solitude, I count on these visits as well using local communal workspaces to me continue to learn, gain perspective, and receive input and encouragement.



Letting My Field Go Fallow


For me, the process of creating each new work follows a similar course. I discover a narrative, commence working out its expression through physical materials, which culminates in the inevitable intensity of bringing it to form and completion. When this cycle concludes, there is a particular moment I take a breath and ponder, “What is next?” This question, loaded with wonder, excitement, and insecurities both intrigues me and causes various forms of anxiety. It can energize or paralyze. 


Having recently completed a large body of work, I am back in that place, asking that question and leaning on restorative practices. After a period of intensity, I often feel I should be able to move forward instantly, but when I think of the compassion of the Sabbath in making a space for even the soil to rest and restore its fertility (Exodus 23:10-11), I am encouraged to have compassion on myself and even my physical spaces at home and in the studio. Often, home and relationships get a bit neglected during the frenetic finish, and the studio is overrun with a level chaos that threatens to overwhelm.


A quote by Luis Borges, “Grace loves low things, and is not disgusted by thorny ones and likes filthy clothes,”[1] often encourages me as I struggle for grace in the bits and pieces and general mess of making things beautiful. I am learning to be gentler during these transitional times, letting the work and the workspace rest for a time, allowing things—both physical and mental—to settle, stay unresolved, disordered. Taking time to Sabbath—to be still and know that my life and practice are not my own—connects me to our compassionate God, the One who loves my creative mess, who brings me peace, joy, and comfort, even as my independent self often wants to clean up right away and move on.


Shiny Furrows


Thankfully, the still point of Sabbath becomes the place from which I can move and re-engage. When refreshed, I am able to see my studio with new eyes and begin to bring order in big and small ways. The act of cleaning just one work surface or small space helps percolate ideas as I touch materials, arrange various tools, and bring some closure to the day.


After an extended Sabbath from my workspace, I am more able to let go of the old to make space for the new, even get a peek into what’s next, or realize that the seed of an idea that has lain dormant is now glistening green. At this point, my hope rises, and I envision a new season of making emerging—the ground is fertile, the blade is sharp, and the yoke feels light.


Leslie T. Iwai is an interdisciplinary installation artist and educator, living and practicing in Middleton, Wisconsin. With a B.S. in mathematics and minor in chemistry from Wayne State College in Nebraska and a M. Arch. from Virginia Tech, Leslie has made a vocation out of connecting diverse concepts with materials, untangling threads, and teaching others why this is important. Her work can be viewed at


[1] Umberto Eco, The Limits of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 51. 

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