Issue 11.4: August/September 2008

In the Garden of Earthly Delights

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.


 
photo by Shuzo Uemoto

Out on the lanai, Miyano’s wife, artist Karen Miyano, is busy soldering the frame of an almost-finished stained glass window, a commission for a private house. She breezes into the living room with two tall glasses of homemade ginger ale on the rocks. Carmen, the couple’s Jack Russell terrier, skitters at her heels.

Fit and youthful, Miyano wears his unpretentiously talkative manner like an old T-shirt. We sit down to sort out his triple career as an artist-sculptor, landscape designer and naturalist.

Which is it? I ask.

He sighs and tells me that at first he was an art major at UH-Manoa, where the visiting celebrity sculptor Isamu Noguchi once took him aside and urged him to redo his cut-clay sculptures in stone. Miyano admits he “loves the art part” but doesn’t know whether he can make a living from it. Most of his sculpture is the product of sporadic commissions; currently, he’s working on a large basalt piece for the state’s new judiciary building in Kapolei. “I feel that I’m just coming back into my art,” he says. “I had to put it on the back burner while I studied other things to collect ideas. … They don’t come easily. All the visual clues that I put into my work come from huge amounts of study.”

Miyano says he pays his bills doing landscape design for wealthy private homeowners, mostly on the Big Island and Kaua‘i, and site-specific work for institutional clients like the Contemporary Museum, the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the East-West Center. In the 1980s, Miyano frequently traveled to Brazil to study and work with the late Roberto Burle-Marx, a world-renowned environmental landscape designer. Together they fought a rear-guard action to protect Brazil’s disappearing coastal rainforests, collecting and propagating species as fast as they could.

Eventually, Miyano answers my question. “I call myself a naturalist,” he says, “because I’m not a specialist. I like to learn a lot about a lot of things. I like to see how they interrelate. My mind works along, then hits a tangent, and I’m off exploring that. That’s how my life has been. I’m not quite sure where it all leads, but I’m following wherever it’s going.”

I ask whether his art is an attempt to articulate what he, the naturalist, thinks.

“No,” he answers, “I’m not trying to be didactic. See, nature is both a destroyer and a creator, so I have these dualistic things going on. Some of them are actual specimens and pieces of wood and stone, and some of them are burned because things are disappearing, and that’s not beautiful.

“With all of our human activities, a lot of things are disappearing. What I’m trying to do is look for some of these disappearing things and bring them to people’s attention, build respect for them so maybe they’ll survive. … You know, ‘conservation’ has become a dirty word. They say it limits freedom of choice, but I say if you conserve as much as you can, you’re actually creating more choices for yourself.”

Miyano proudly hands me a big three-ring binder, a 200-page ecological field survey he and colleague Dr. Daniel Chung published in 2000 after months of unpaid and difficult research in the Wai‘anae mountains, the first transect study ever done on the native Hawaiian land snail, of which 90 percent of the species have died out. He shows me a photograph of a living snail with a “discoid” shell that they found—fifty years after it was thought to be extinct.

In another book, Miyano shows me a photograph of a native Hawaiian loulu palm, a Pritchardia growing on Lana‘i that he believes might be its own species. “Taxonomists are looking at it,” he says. “There’s still a lot we don’t know.”


 

Perhaps this naturalist’s greatest achievement is the extraordinary garden he has created out of the once-barren, 1-acre yard next to his house. At an elevation of about 50 feet, with good soil and plenty of rain, the exquisite 20-year-old composition of more than a thousand species of exotic and native plants—without showy color schemes or shapely settings—is as close to a tropical Eden as it gets. The dominant nitrogen-fixing canopy tree Chloroleucon has delicate pinnate leaves that filter the sun just enough so the understory runs riot, and its slender limbs drip with staghorn fern and awesome philodendron.

Miyano estimates he works the garden about a day per week. A purist who likes to grow a plant from seed, he built a 40-by-60-foot nursery out of recycled odds and ends and tucked it into a corner of the garden next to the compost pile. He says he uses no pesticides or chemical fertilizers and irrigates only during dry spells. Some plants, he says, don’t make it because of twig-bore, rust, rose beetles, etc., but the sheer variety of plants ensures that whatever plague hits, only a few will be affected. Miyano is not sentimental about things that don’t work out in his tough-love garden. He’s only interested in learning what does. The garden has become a lab for his attempts to cultivate native plants—ho‘awa, ‘ohi‘a, mamane, koki‘o, ‘iliahi, pükiawe, olopua and others—species that have all but disappeared from lower elevations throughout the Islands.

Again and again, as we wander the cobblestone paths of his private jungle, Miyano bends down to push away his ground covers of sedge, fern and false mint to reveal happy little shoots, none of them more than a foot or two high, each with a white plastic ID tag indicating its germination and planting dates. Here is a foot-high ho‘awa that took three years to germinate from seed, at which point it was planted to the garden, four years ago—seven years from seed to foot-high plant! An 8-inch-high pükiawe was sown in 2003, germinated in 2004 and planted in 2005.

“I have no sense of time,” Miyano explains.

Outside the garden entrance, a 6-foot-long block of heavily veined, flesh-pink alabaster rests atop concrete blocks. Its rough, uneven surface looks like some kind of blushing yet barren landscape—like West Moloka‘i from the air, Miyano says. Carved into the stone topography, faint lines suggest ancient earthworks or agricultural walls; a few deeper excavations hint at Pharaonic tombs and abandoned pit mines. Sketchy, blood-red survey lines wander, mapless; the sanguine shadow of a hand leaves a mark.

Destined for the Academy show, this 3,000-pound sculpture, “‘Iliahi” (sandalwood), is where Miyano says he’s working out his fascination with the idea of palimpsest.

“Do you know that word?” he asks.

“No,” I answer, “but I’m intrigued.”

“Well,” he says, smiling, “when they used parchment to write on, it was very expensive, so they’d erase the text to do another, but it never really disappeared. There would always be this shadow text. I’m interested in these layers—that no matter what you do to the land, there’s always some hint of what happened to it before.” HH