Lines of Communication

Artist Trisha Lagaso Goldberg

This local artist creates her work with an unusual medium: sugar.

Trisha Lagaso Goldberg creates drawings out of sugar, but don’t be quick to label them as simplistically sweet. Her latest piece, Eshu Veve for Olaa Sugar Company, is both visually pleasing and conceptually intriguing in a way that begs close inspection. Her work is, by no stretch of the imagination, just eye candy.

On a Saturday afternoon, I meet Goldberg at R&D in Kaka‘ako to talk story. We grab lattes and hunker down at a communal worktable, its surface a dry-erase board.

Prior to meeting Goldberg, I was aware of her role as an arts administrator and curator – she is the project director for the Art in Public Places Program for the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and was a curator at thirtyninehotel multimedia space – so it was a pleasure to discover that she also creates compelling work.

Goldberg has had a remarkable journey, from her hanabada days at Waimalu Elementary School to the blossoming of her professional career in San Francisco to her return to Hawai‘i as a wife and mother, art-world pro and artist.

Goldberg describes her upbringing as typical, but is quick to note the sudden awakening of her class-consciousness in the seventh grade, when she began attending Mid-Pacific Institute.

“It became clear to me that I had friends who were from different classes and had a lot more money than we did,” Goldberg says. “We were very working class.”

In her formative years, she developed a misconception that people with more money were somehow more cultured, and that her immigrant plantation background was something to be ashamed of. “When I moved away, that became the subject of my work,” says Goldberg.

In 1991, Goldberg left Hawai‘i for San Francisco, where she earned her BFA from San Francisco Art Institute and her MFA at San Francisco State University. After graduation, however, making new work proved impossible.

“I couldn’t make art after that,” she told me. “I didn’t have a single idea that felt authentic. Then I had the opportunity to start curating, so I did.” This sparked a career in the arts that is now two decades long.

In 2004, Goldberg, along with her husband and their son, prepared to leave the country, hoping she had secured a fellowship that would take them to the Philippines.

“I didn’t get the fellowship, and we were trying to decide what to do,” admits Goldberg.

Hawai‘i was the next option. In 2005, they decided to return to O‘ahu and stay for a short period before continuing on to the Philippines. “So that’s what we did,” Goldberg says. “And we never left.”

Interestingly enough, Hawai‘i proved the catalyst for her artistic output. “I came back home and immediately I had so many ideas!” says Goldberg.

I open my laptop and click on an image of Eshu Veve for Olaa Sugar Company, a labor-intensive labyrinth of carefully sifted C&H sugar assembled in neat lines that twist and curlicue, punctuated by items like thread, fruit and musical instruments.

Goldberg tells me that she merged an aerial map of the Olaa Sugar Company plantation, where her family had worked, with the ritualistic practice of Yoruban drawings, in which cornmeal is used to create intricate works on the ground (a West African religious tradition that pays homage to her husband’s ancestry). The objects refer back to specific family members, mementos of their existence.

The piece functions, she tells me, as a portal, a two-way access road to her ancestors as a way of communicating to them her deep gratitude for their work. Where she was once ashamed of her parents’ past, she now, in the form of art, celebrates and embraces it.

Although her use of sugar references her family’s past, it leaves the door open to multiple readings and personal interpretations.

“Sugar has so many associations,” Goldberg says. “On the one hand, it symbolizes a kind of promise and hope for a new beginning, and that’s why immigrants came here. But there wasn’t equality on the plantations, it was hard labor, and my family went through a lot of painful moments.”

Goldberg continues, “Sugar symbolizes a kind of tragedy, but it’s simultaneously charged with new beginnings, because now we’re prospering here,” she says. Sweet.

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