Sculptor Sachiko Akiyama's path to receiving the Piscataqua region's Artist Advancement Grant from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation can be traced to a ball of Scotch tape, her first, sincere experiment in materials and sculpture. Today, she's known primarily for large wood sculptures, the work that landed her the $25,000 unrestricted award.
Akiyama, a Portsmouth resident, was a finalist in 2017, the first to receive the cash award earmarked for two finalists in the grant competition in addition to the main award.
"This year, I got the big one; I know! I was shocked and very grateful," Akiyama says. "I'm not really one for words, but I really appreciate the people that value art and (created this award). It's unusual."
Akiyama taught sculpture at Boston University before taking a position at the University of New Hampshire where she is an assistant professor of sculpture. She has had solo exhibitions from Boston to Hamamatsu, Japan, and her work is included in the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park collection in Lincoln, Massachusetts.
Akiyama works primarily in wood, creating near life-size figures, human and animal.
"I've always had a natural affinity for wood. As a kid, my godfather was a carpenter and we'd make projects in the garage," she says. "I'm just drawn to it and I think it really relates to my subject matter, too."
Some of her sculpture incorporates resin, glass, metals, paint, clay and other media. The newer two-dimensional forms, created on three-dimensional objects, are drawn and painted. Most recently, she's begun experimenting with environments for sculpture and woodblock printing.
The works are "internal portraits," she says. "I'm trying to describe the psychological, internal worlds."
The influences are broad, world religion and Wyoming among them.
"So, one thing I've been trying to do over the years is develop symbols I like to use," she says. "I like to combine them in a way that allows for multiple interpretations. I think it makes it more accessible, or I'm hoping so."
Her work often includes images of migrating birds, "I love the idea of journey." Mountains also appear frequently. She became interested in them during a Wyoming residency, and began to study their development "under the ground, forming the landscape."
Akiyama, who moved to the city four years ago, submitted for the grant as soon as she was eligible. After receiving $3,000 in last year's round, she committed herself to entering a submission annually.
"I'd seen there was a pattern. A lot of people were finalists for multiple years before they got the award," she says. "But honestly, I didn't expect to get it. I was pleasantly surprise."
This year's submission request was "a pretty big change from my first year ... and split up into many parts."
Akiyama used the previous year's prize to help build a "dream" studio on her property. "A teacher showed us a slide of his studio on his property, and I decided I wanted that," she says. "So, it took me 18 to 20 years to get it."
The structure complete, her grant request tackled other supports.
To date, the recent grant funds were used for a ventilation system ("my work is very dusty"), and a heating system allowing year-round use of the space. She also installed a pulley for lifting, "the work is so heavy ... physically tasking."
Additional funds are earmarked for education, an assistant and materials; "It's expense to work big," she says.
"The rest, I'm using to make new work. Because I'm so slow, I'm hiring people to help me, specifically for sculpting (wood carving) and painting."
Still more money will go toward promoting the works.
All these aids together should allow her to push her work to another level, she says.
"My goal is, once I make a new body of work, I'll really actively solicit places to show it," she says. "I'm going to New York more often this year, trying to develop relationships. I know it's a long shot, but I'm going all out."
As for that Scotch Tape Ball sculpture, Akiyama created it while in kindergarten. She'd seen a commercial for the product, and asked for it as a Christmas present.
"I thought it was the neatest material. I remember distinctly thinking 'I want that material. I want to make something from it,'" she says. "So, I made a big ball, and I thought it was a sculpture."
While her parents didn't quite understand, they supported their daughter's exploration, even set up a space in the basement, outfitted with a hammer and saw. They even understood when, after completing her pre-med program and teaching science for three years, she enrolled in art school.
An exhibition of Akiyama's work, along with that of this year's grant runners-up Tara Lewis and Jocelyn Toffic, will open at the UNH Museum of Art in April. She also has upcoming exhibitions in Vermont and Massachusetts. There's that, and lots of long hours to log in the new – and improved – studio.