Leslie Iwai’s "Daughter Cells": Division without separation

An installation artist explores science, family, and discovery itself at the Watrous Gallery.

All photos courtesy Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters.

All photos courtesy Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters.

The process of knowing the body, both internally and externally, is essential in both science and art. The two disciplines come together around this pursuit in Middleton-based artist Leslie Iwai's mixed-media show Daughter Cells, on display through January 22 at the Watrous Gallery. Iwai's show features installations, a photo series, as well as personal drawings, in collaboration with Mark Burkard, a doctor and researcher at UW's Carbone Cancer Center. Together, the artist and the oncologist give us a way to understand how we view ourselves, our relationships with others, and ultimately with the world.

That said, my first visit to the show left me puzzled. As abstraction and three-dimensional pieces filled the room, I thought to myself, how tangible can science truly be? On my second visit, Iwai joined me and explains her creative process and the sentimental value of most, if not all, of her art pieces.

Over time, it sank in that Daughter Cells is about inheritance and the idea of family. It's a conversation about how we interact, how we shift, and how we affect ourselves and our relationships. "It's division without separation. It doesn't always have to be painful," Iwai says. "I wanted to it to feel like a home, a space of discussion, not necessarily agreement, but not necessarily war. This idea that we're needing to go."

As Iwai and I make our way around the exhibit, the narrative of honesty is evident in Iwai's work. Her work is a statement of honesty; it creates conversation around a personal narrative that explores both her own life as well as ours.

"Sometimes in art, we just have to start somewhere," Iwai says as we make our way around the gallery. We begin discussing the idea of escape—some of the pieces in the show use eggs to represent new beginnings and openings for growth. In "Hatching Plans," Iwai begins her process by making small eggs. She asks people looking at the work to consider this question: "If you needed an escape scenario, what would you take as an object, what implement or tool would you use to escape, and what attribute would you bring with you?" Iwai inspirations comes from, "hatching an idea or plan, an idea of breaking something open and creating something new."

Iwai explores art through risk. Working with a large range of textiles and other materials, Iwai spends a lot of time in the studio thinking about the tensions between art and science. "Sometimes in my art I need to make it look very science-like, and then I realize that it's not really being me. I'm more conceptual," she says. "I love drawing, it's a good way to think, but there are already beautiful things that they've found in the lab, do I need to the same, or do I make something that's new, different, and conceptual?"

But then again, Daughter Cells overtly takes science as its starting point. "I was inspired by the new scientific discovery about cellular division and how it can relate to us in both big and small ways," she says. "I hope to communicate that at many levels divisions exist, both cellular and between us in relationships big and small. I hope that the story of letting go and the quiet beauty and work of that process inspires and brings light to the scientific discovery as well."

Discovery remained both a theme and a key feature of Iwai's creative process, even while she was setting up the show in the gallery.

"One of the pieces I enjoyed the most was the house dividing piece with the red thread sewing together the windows," she says. "That was a piece that did not appear until installing in the gallery. So, it was a bit of a mystery unfolding to me as well as a vision I had had coming to fruition. Plus, the process of threading that particular space was challenging and quite lovely in itself."

So what, I ask, can this exhibition teach us about our own human narrative? "I hope it can teach us that discovery takes careful looking and sometimes a long period of time," she says. "I hope that it brings hope as the search for cures for cancer continues and the cure for dissension and division is part of our lives. And that we can recover and be resilient as well as move forward bringing all of our story with us."

The show's focus on heredity raises another nagging question for me: If we inherit many of our relationships, I ask Iwai, what do you believe is truly ours?

"I believe that it is what we do with what we inherit," she says. "How do we treat our relationships? how do we let go of entanglements that may limit us going forward, and how do we do that gently in many cases… ? And that this often takes time, attention and work."

As we finish making our way around the exhibit, Iwai reflects on how long it's been since she began this project. The idea emerged in 2013 and flourished over the course of 2015, presenting Iwai with conceptual challenges, but also the rigorous labor of hand-making, crocheting, molding, drawing, and ultimately creating a life within her exhibit. Some of the pieces in Daughter Cells took about 100 hours each to make. And that's where the show's connection between science and art becomes a bit more tangible for me: They're both processes of discovery that simply take time.

Iwai and I conclude our interview by discussing the show's photo series,"Daughter Cells: Cytoplasmic Bridging," which offers something familiar and beautiful. "There is something gentle and good," Iwai says. "The girls used in the Daughter Cells photo series are daughters of a close friend. I wanted to show domestic life, that doesn't have to be this intense process. They're on the cusp of being women, and vulnerability, isn't quite gone, yet."

Iwai finds that biological truth, in its rawest form, does not have to be perfect to be beautiful.

"When you initially think of something, it's like a person," she says. "You think one thing and once you get to know it, it gets way better and more interesting. I love when things grow on you, instead of shrink. This grew."