Artist’s Vision Pursues Many Outlets

By Victoria Gail-White, Special To The Advertiser

Sunday, August 28th, 2005


Elsha Bohnert is a fountain of inspiration. She creates nonstop in whatever medium suits her purpose, from funky found-object sculptures to paintings. Dark, solemn, thought-provoking works and witty, bright colored pieces alike emerge from her studio.

Bohnert has no formal art education; she came to the art world late in life. For her, this has been a gift. She breaks rules, sometimes without knowing it, and strives to push beyond her limits to define her visual voice. From trash queen to gallery owner to art teacher, she has motivated the art-shy to come out of the closet.

Recently, she was one of the few artists chosen to exhibit in the Artists of Hawai’i show at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, where she also won the John Young Award. We met with her at her home, where she has conducted “Bad Art Monday” sessions with other artists for the past four years.

Q. What made you decide to open up your garage to other artists on a regular basis, and what do you mean by “Bad Art”?

A. I was part of a group of four artists who had taken Timothy Ojile’s class at Linekona Arts Center and we decided we wanted to continue working together. It has evolved from that core group to a free flow of people. Personally, I get so much nourishment out of it. We challenge each other and give each other feedback. Today we are in the process of painting mailboxes to raise money for the Oahu Arts Center. When I say “Bad Art,” I am referring to our doubts about being an artist and how it closes us up. Calling it “Bad Art” gives everyone permission to create without censorship. It is also an exercise to define my limits and to break through them.

Q. You live with your art; it fills your home. It would be hard to imagine that you have any limits considering your work is so varied and so out there. Were you raised that way?

A. I was born in Jakarta, Indonesia. My father was a prisoner of war and my mother was a nurse. I was raised by an auntie. I wasn’t given big rules. In Bali, everyone is an artist and everyone does more than one art. It’s natural.

Now, through taking art classes that interest me, I learn what the right thing to do is and if I don’t like it I just go ahead and do it my own way.

Q. Where do your images come from? Can you share something about your creative process?

A. It can start anywhere. There can be a line in a poem that gets me thinking. I do a lot of thinking and visualizing before I actually do any artwork. That stage is the most exciting because I can do anything. I look at my materials and decide what best suits my purpose. Usually, I like to use what I have or have collected.

Q. You are also a writer, and words sometimes appear in your artwork and your performance art. What part do they play in the execution of an idea?

A. The writing informs the art and the art informs the writing.

Q. Where does your kooky sense of humor come from?

A. Ornery-ness!

Q. Do you do something artistically creative everyday? Is it in some way a spiritual practice for you?

A. Yes, insignificant sometimes. I usually write every night. I love this combination of different disciplines of art feeding each other. However, I really don’t know what I am doing. Sometimes, I look at what I’ve made and wonder where it came from. It’s like riding a wave. I use making art as a way of defining myself. Am I just this body making this work? My definition of myself keeps getting larger as I get older. I care less about fitting in and more about going with my heart’s desire. My husband, Phil, is a wonderful part of all of this. He’s very supportive. We’ve been married 25 years.

Q. When did you decide to be an artist and what did you do before that?

A. I took a painted-furniture class here in 1993, and I loved it. That same year, I opened up the Magic Attic gallery in Kaimuki and later moved it to Aloha Tower Marketplace. Much earlier, I was a massage therapist and opened up one of the first Wellness Centers in Texas.

Q. Aren’t you also actively involved in art service?

A. Well, I suppose so. I was president of the National League of American Pen Women for two years and before that I was vice president. Presently, I occupy the visual arts chair for the up-and-coming O’ahu Arts Center in Mililani. I also manage the art gallery at the Honolulu Country Club. The “Dreams” juried art exhibit will be accepting entries Sept. 2-3 if your readers are interested!

Q. Is there an exhibit of your own work in the near future?

A. Yes, I am part of a group art show that opens Sept. 11 at The Balcony Gallery in Kailua, and I am also teaching an “Art on the Loose” class at Kapi’olani Community College beginning Sept. 17.

Q. You were one of the few artists accepted into this year’s Artists of Hawai’i exhibit. How did that feel?

A. It was a wake-up call. All my Buddhist practices of being nobody and going nowhere went down the drain. At first, it fed my ego big time. I’m just this funky artist. Then, it was accompanied by all this controversy. When I found out I got the John Young Award it was just incredible. … I recognized that a place was being made for me in the larger context, and finally a concept that was passed on to me by a kumu hula made sense: We are custodians of the arts charged with passing knowledge on to the next generation. Winning … got me thinking about the responsibility of it all. I am not working in a vacuum. Truthfully, it was really a sobering experience and I am not a serious person.

Q. What advice would you give to either a young artist or anyone wanting to explore their creativity?

A. Just make art. If you can sign your name, you can paint. Just close your eyes and paint if you have to. Do whatever gets you going. Start with trash. That way, you don’t have anything invested in it. You can take a piece of old wood and paint it or wrap it with something. We are only scared when we need control. If you don’t need to control it and you know you are safe, you can’t lose anything. And you never know what you might find. This is what I like about teaching. This is what I love about art. You never know what’s going to happen. What a wonderful way to live your life, not knowing. Every day is a gift.