Being a native of Kyoto, Japan, Nelson finds that much of her inspiration comes from the gray area between two cultures – east and west. “In between, there is no comfort space. It’s kind of nice. At first it’s disorienting because it is a kind of lonely situation, but that stimulates creativity,” she says. Nelson recounts that even though she has a home in Kyoto, it does not feel the same as when she lived there before. “When I go back,” she explains, “I recognize that I am no longer Japanese because it’s a very different way of thinking, and if I’m eating Japanese food every day, I get very tired because I already experienced and explored another taste. Once you know that, you cannot go back.”
Oftentimes, Nelson finds herself not American either. She retains her Japanese accent, and her art is a constant reminder to others of her roots. For instance, one of her recent works called Reflections involves bamboo chopsticks arranged into spheres placed upon a pool of water reminiscent of her upbringing. Keiko’s mother was an artist who practiced many Japanese crafts like tea ceremony and flower arrangements. Yet, similar to how Nelson views herself, her artwork is not purely Japanese either. Keiko’s name is a common feminine Japanese name, but Nelson is a very Western name. She goes by “Nelson” because, in her eyes, her maiden name no longer represents herself.
Many of her art pieces adapt to local cultures. When the Metropolitan Museum of Mexico invited her for an installation, Nelson could not accommodate the bamboo that she initially planned to use for her artwork since bamboo is scarce in Mexico. As an alternative, she and the people of the museum opted for the more abundant sugar canes, a local material of the area. “It is an interesting and exciting experience to adapt to local cultures and local art materials,” she says.
While she often does installations all around the world, Nelson is also engaged with the local bay area community as well. She currently watches over the Arts Committee of the United Nations San Francisco Chapter, a volunteer-staffed arts group. The members usually have their own separate careers, so meetings are typically once a month. One of the projects they are currently working on is the Peace Dove Project.
The design is simple – a dove with a heart shape cut out of it, which was originally her design for a bronze fountain in a church plaza. The concept is about “filling your heart with love and peace,” and was later adapted into her United Nations work. “They asked me to do some kind of mural,” Nelson said, “so I chose to represent both the peace dove and the flags of all the countries for my design. Since the United Nations SF Chapter wanted to bring the mural panels to every event, they asked me to create a mural with five smaller panels that measured 20 feet by 8 feet together. The board member liked it, and they are using the design on their Facebook, website, and everything.”
Currently, Nelson is readapting the peace dove design to be a souvenir for the United Nations in the form of jewelry with the U.N. logo engraved on it. With development still underway, there is a lot of work that has to be done. “The design is not mass produced, says Nelson, “so after the order, it takes one month to make it. This is a nice way for people to start thinking about it and connect with peace.”
The dove project expands beyond that; it is surprisingly quite interactive! Prior to its painting on the U.N. panels, the peace dove was used as a fun project for Fukushima high school students who came to the U.S. in the summer of 2014. Clay copies of peace doves were given to students to paint on. It was a wonderful way to communicate peace with the Fukushima kids.
Recently, Keiko Nelson received a Richmond Neighborhood Public Grant. “It is a wonderful opportunity to make an installation at a permanent location. I want it to be a permanent installation so that people can see it,” said Nelson, “and I am including Richmond sister city, Shimada, Japan.” The installation will include 500 doves displayed collectively in the shape of a heart. It is still being created, but it will soon have a permanent home in the Memorial Auditorium of Richmond.
The doves will be made with laser cut plastic and then handed out to the students and neighborhood community to paint their wishes for peace. The hearts are given to the participants, while the doves will be returned to create the collective art piece. This way, the project will have a greater impact. “We are sending 200 laser cuts of peace doves to Shimada. And all the Japanese people painting on it will have their names on there,” she added, “So if they visit Richmond, they can say, ‘Oh, my [dove] is there.’”
With plans to continue promoting peace, Keiko Nelson is far from finished. She plans on organizing more of these city-to-city interactions with her artwork. Hub will be taking on her Peace Dove Project in September 2015.
Interview conducted by Communications Intern, Brian Pan.