Excerpt from Daphne Asada: Catalogue Raisonné compiled by the Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, N.Y. Proceeds from the sale of the book support the Daphne Asada Research Fund for Childhood Leukemia.
Daphne Asada (1933-2015) and Workshop
Human heart, gold dust, lacquer resin, formaldehyde
The final masterwork of Japanese-American ceramicist Daphne Asada, this piece was designed by the artist prior to her death and completed post-mortem by a small, grieving team from her workshop in collaboration with a private New York hospital. Moments after she passed away, the artist’s heart was removed from her chest cavity and taken to a surgical theater where it underwent a process of arterial embalming designed to expand and preserve the blood vessels. Following this process, Asada’s workshop team threaded sections of the heart with gold dust and lacquer resin according to kintsugi, a traditional Japanese technique of mending pottery to accentuate repairs. Each vein of gold visible on the work’s surface represents a moment of heartbreak in the artist’s life and is numbered according to her notations.
- The first time my heart broke, I was five years old. My brother was given a kitten on his birthday, and there was no real injustice for me to complain of. But I was stunned by the gift; the kitten had been wrapped in a box with holes I could not see and had fallen asleep. When my brother opened the box and saw the kitten, he was so happy that I immediately burst into tears and could not be consoled. My mother held me, her strong hands cupping my shoulders, as I struggled to understand how love and shock and grief could feel so much like the same thing.
- & 3. My second and third heartbreaks came at nine and fourteen. My father, a second-generation Japanese immigrant born in Salinas, was deemed “potentially dangerous” by the U.S. Government and interned at Crystal City, Texas. The rest of us were sent to Camp Lordsburg, and I didn’t see him again for three years, by which time he had aged considerably, as had I. The day he left, I held my stuffed bear in the crook of my elbow as I hugged my father goodbye. When he pulled away, the bear fell onto the ground, and the look my father gave me as he picked the bear up and handed him back to me, as if it would be the last kind thing he would do for his daughter, remains the most devastating expression I have ever seen on another human face. Later, when we were reunited, he tried to lift me into his arms but had become too weak to do it. Instead, he held me for a long time, then looked at my mother, and we all walked back to the house. There we struggled to regain our closeness. He died two years later, but I found I could not mourn him a second time. I count the irreparable guilt of this as my third heartbreak. It was to combat this loss, hers and mine, that my mother began to teach me to throw pottery. She said, “If you love your art, if you are careful with it, your heart will not hurt so much inside your body,” but I have not found this to be true.
- The fourth came in high school, when there was a boy I loved, as there always is at sixteen. We spoke only once, when he told me he thought I was “really nice,” in the meaningless way boys do when they have no idea you love them, and really would prefer not to know. Perhaps it was partly hormonal, but as he spoke, my whole heart fell open in my chest and I spent the afternoon sobbing in the girls’ bathroom. I would have flushed my heart down the toilet then if I could have, as if its breaking was evidence of some awful crime. Later my friends pounded on the door to ask what was wrong, and I said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m on my period.”
- The fifth break came years later, after I had married and had a son. When he was born, we wore birthday hats and planted a tree in my mother’s yard. But Ben was never a well child. He had respiratory infections for years, and just when we thought he was growing out of it, Ben was diagnosed with leukemia. He passed away a few days shy of his eighth birthday. Not long after, the tree we planted contracted something called “sudden oak death.” It too died. I spent two years in a sanatorium near Big Sur, touching every redwood, every oak, breathing Ben’s name, before I could come home again. This is the break that bisects the whole heart and feeds into every other vein of gold.
- The sixth break branches off from break #5. It is the divorce that followed the death of my son, and the loss of the ability to look into Ben’s eyes every morning, because my husband shared them. I did not miss the man half as much as I missed the shape and the wet loam color of Ben’s eyes.
- The final heartbreak is the death of my mother. She had a long life, and a hard one, and I have loved her steadily throughout every other loss in our shared lives. Together we said goodbye to my father; together we held our hands to the clay. Together we picked up the rotting shards of Ben’s tree as if they were his toys left out, sun-bleached, in the yard. We laughed together too. And now she is gone. And I am old. I miss my son more than ever. But even now, I know these loves, theses shocks, these sorrows are bright, unbreakable things, strong in their liquidity: molten gold.
Jamieson Bunn is a writer in San Francisco and a graduate of the MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She (like many writers) is working on a novel about an apocalypse, and she hopes to finish it before being preempted by anything reported in The New York Times.