“Battle Mask 1” by Hanako O’Leary was inspired by Hannya masks from Noh theater in Japan. The piece is a symbol of O’Leary’s stance on modern feminism. (Sarah D. King)

“Battle Mask 1” by Hanako O’Leary was inspired by Hannya masks from Noh theater in Japan. The piece is a symbol of O’Leary’s stance on modern feminism. (Sarah D. King)

See modern feminism expressed through ceramics at EdCC exhibit

Hanako O’Leary’s exhibit, “Izanami,” challenges society’s unease with female genitalia.

Hanako O’Leary’s ceramic art turns heads, much like how ancient Greek sculptures of the human form still do.

O’Leary, 31, expresses modern feminism through sculptures, illustration and her Japanese ancestry. “Izanami,” on display Jan. 13 through March 19 at Edmonds Community College’s art gallery, is some of her most evocative work yet.

“I feel like my generation has more voice, more autonomy and more freedom than any generation that came before me,” said O’Leary, who is half-Japanese.

“Izanami” will feature two series of six sculptures inspired by Japanese folktales, mythology and imagery, but with a feminist twist.

“Battle Mask,” the first series, resembles Hannya masks from Noh theater, a form of classical Japanese opera dating back to the 14th century. The traditional mask is an archetype of a woman’s wrath and emotional strife, with bull-like horns, metallic eyes and a leering mouth.

But O’Leary subverts this imagery by putting vaginas where the faces should be. She said her intent was to challenge society’s unease with female genitalia, while questioning the underlying fears associated with it, especially when “our world is full of phallic symbols.”

This theme continues in the second series, “Venus Jar,” which was inspired by Buddha statues and a Japanese folktale from the 19th century about a heroine who is doomed to perish at sea in a strange ship.

One piece, “Utsurobune, Hollow Ship,” shows a vessel with 22 arms rising from it with varying hand gestures, some of which are sexually suggestive or represent forms of prayer. In the middle is another vagina, though less pronounced than those on the masks.

O’Leary, of Seattle, said the more sensitive aspects of her work are about celebrating the human form, similar to how sculptors in ancient Greece portrayed gods and goddesses. Her intention isn’t to make you uncomfortable, but rather make the subject less taboo.

“Muscles and butts and faces are beautiful, and so are vulvas,” she said. “I just want to represent it that way.”

O’Leary’s sculptures are made of clay, but vary in designs, patterns and shades of glaze and casein paint. Each piece takes up to four months to make.

The exhibit is named after the Shinto goddess of creation and death who died while giving birth to fire and was subsequently sent to the underworld. O’Leary, fascinated by the mythology, said her works are interpretations of what the realm could look like.

“This is a way to imagine a heroine’s journey and what it’s like to be a queen of this realm and an omnipotent ruler of this universe,” she said.

O’Leary turned to art from an early age as a way to deal with her emotions — a practice that carried well into adulthood. She started working on “Izanami” shortly after having an abortion two years ago.

O’Leary said she created the first piece, “Utsurobune, Hollow Ship,” while angry about society’s contempt for the procedure. As the series progressed, however, her focus turned to empowering women’s rights to control their bodies and to break down gender-based power structures.

She hopes her efforts will also pave the way for future artists who tackle controversial subjects.

“I feel empowered that I’m somehow contributing and passing on something that helps the next generation do an even better job,” she said.

Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, ethompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.

If you go

Hanako O’Leary’s exhibit, “Izanami,” will be displayed Jan. 13 through March 19 in Edmonds Community College’s art gallery, which is on the third floor of Lynnwood Hall, 20000 68th Ave. W., Lynnwood. The gallery is open from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 2 p.m. Friday and from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

An artist’s reception is set for 3 to 5 p.m. Feb. 21 at the gallery. Find more about the artist at www.hannyagrrrl.com.

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