At first glance, the faces of Sachiko Akiyama’s statues stare blankly, their compositions simple — but that illusion vanishes as one realizes the emotional and symbolic power coursing beneath her statues’ surfaces. University alumna Akiyama gave listeners a glimpse into those depths when she returned to her alma mater on Wednesday to present a lecture on her journey as an artist and the process of creating her current exhibition of sculptures and prints, “Long Hand Poem.”

On display in the Kniznick Gallery of the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center, Akiyama’s sculptures combine human figures with animals and landscapes, echoed by her prints, which show a variety of birds flying, as if migrating. 

The works in the show were drawn from 13 years of Akiyama’s career, highlighting her exploration of different sculpting styles and her own identity. A constant throughout her artwork is her pairing of animals and landscapes with internal, meditative figures.

“A lot of my work is about me … trying to understand that internal space,” Akiyama said when asked about the presence of her figures in her artwork. “The way I’m trying to find my answers is by looking at nature and the natural world.”

In “Long Hand Poem,” her appreciation of nature focuses specifically on birds. Since her early works, Akiyama explained in the lecture, she has seen birds as powerful symbolic tools, able to present the ambiguous symbolism she loves to weave throughout her artwork. Using the example of owls, she explained that the bird carries both the positive connotation of wisdom for Western cultures as well as negative connotations for cultures that distrust and fear the bird. Ancient Christians, for example, believed them to be bad omens. 

“I like this idea that it could be a good thing, it could be bad,” she said, “but there’s ambiguity to how you can read it.”

Through her lecture, Akiyama also gave listeners insight into the diverse historical and cultural influences behind her work. Her figures’ poses, she explained, are heavily influenced by “sculptural traditions with religious or spiritual roots,” such as medieval Christian depictions of saints and Egyptian funerary statues. The rigidity of her figures and their symbolic gestures are a result of her interest in that artwork, especially the “small little gestures” found in Egyptian sculptures.

Two relief carvings in the exhibition take these historical influences further, combining the styles of Renaissance relief carvings with those of Chinese and Japanese landscape paintings. In other works, Akiyama’s approach to her technique and her artwork’s content was influenced by everyone from medieval German artists to 20th century artists like Marisol Escobar.

In “Between Dream and Memory” (2004), a sculpture of a girl stoically holding a heron in her arms, Akiyama’s Japanese heritage fused personal experience and artistic inspiration. 

Discussing her motivation for creating the piece, Akiyama explained that she was inspired by a Pablo Picasso sculpture, “Man with a Lamb” (1943 to 1944), in which a man calmly holds a massive lamb in his arms. Searching for an animal for her own sculpture that would have the same unwieldy quality but with personal significance, Akiyama considered a crane, “a very ubiquitous symbol in Japan.” However, she explained, “I wanted to find an American version of that symbol,” which became the heron she saw every week while jogging along a river.

Drawing on the installation styles of modern artists like Kiki Smith, Akiyama chose to break from her sculpture roots and explore her passion for drawing in “Long Hand Poem.” Using the University Print Studio, she made woodblock prints of migrating birds to attach to the walls framing the three-dimensional works. What she originally intended to be a massive swarm of birds became a sparse scattering of birds when the exhibition was finally put together, a change indicative of Akiyama’s artistic process.

“I would call myself a flailer,” Akiyama said when asked about her process. “I think that’s how artists work — you start with a seed of an idea, but the whole joy of being an artist is trying different roots or experimenting with different ideas.”

Akiyama also showed evolution in her style, experimenting with resin and gold leaf between “On Finding Home” (2013) and “Origins” (2014). 

She has also started to play with more visible carving marks, the effect height and scale have on a piece’s presence, the ideas of weight and lightness and the interplay between two- and three-dimensional images. 

Additionally, she explained that she has stopped pressuring herself to only create pieces destined for exhibits and shows, and has grown conformable making smaller experimental works. For example,  “Mountain Studies” (2017) began as experiments that Akiyama then decided to include in the final show.

“Long Hand Poem” will be open at the Kniznick Gallery through Oct. 27.

– Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the title of the exhibition as "Long Hand Poetry," whereas the actual exhibition is titled "Long Hand Poem."