Hiroshi Hayakawa explores beauty and fragility in "Vanitas" at 934 Gallery

In the 17th century, Dutch artists made still-life paintings imbued with a moral lesson. The works incorporated objects that conveyed a sense of both the beauty and transience of life. Fresh flowers and fruit, sea shells, butterflies — all as fragile as they are lovely. And in case the moral was still ambiguous, artists sometimes included a hollow skull.

The genre is known as vanitas — a Latin word that translates to vanity, worthlessness or futility — and it began to resonate in a meaningful way with artist Hiroshi Hayakawa in 2014, the year his father died. As he processed the death, he began work on a vanitas-themed series, and to do so, he embraced a medium that he’d let fall by the wayside over the years: pencil drawing. 

“I just decided to go back to a basic discipline and a task to process my emotional experience by actually making something with my own hands,” said Hayakawa, who teaches photography at CCAD. “What I like about drawing, especially with graphite, is the closeness of the physical; it's close to your own body, and you actually use your hands. The process itself is pretty primitive, but it allows so much potential and possibility.” 

In the last five years, Hayakawa made 22 pieces in the series, most of which will be on display beginning this weekend as part of “Vanitas” at 934 Gallery. (From noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday , Nov. 2  Hayakawa will draw portraits of visitors, followed by a 7 p.m. opening reception.) There’s a twist in Hayakawa’s works, though. While you’ll find fruit, sea shells and flowers in the drawings, the artist paired these objects with figurative work — primarily female nudes, drawn from Hayakawa’s own photographic portraits. 

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“I tried to match up figure work and still life. You can place the figurative part into the same symbolic context. That was the bridge I was trying to build between them,” said Hayakawa, who spent as much as 250 hours on some of the pieces. Over time, he also branched out from graphite, incorporating charcoal, pastel and watercolor.

In several pieces, a woman reclines on a table covered by a cloth (with hyper-realistic, finely rendered folds) next to an ephemeral object such as a fish, sea shell, lily or a pomegranate. “It is a really strange fruit. It has a sort of religious connotation to it," Hayakawa said. "And the juiciness of the fruit, it's easy to associate with blood.”

In one piece, a woman with her back turned examines a skull in her hand, presumably staring her own eventual death in the face. In another, a single leaf falls from above, mirroring the view outside 934 Gallery’s windows, as autumn’s colors give way to winter’s pale.

Five years into the “Vanitas” series, Hayakawa said the work has given him some perspective. "I do have more awareness of the temporal nature of all things,” he said. “Whatever you have in your life, just enjoy it while you can, because it’s not going to last forever.”