Words by Sarah Belclaire
Photographs by Sarah Belclaire
Whether crafting tiny metal mementos or installing curious, sprawling murals, artist Kameko Branchaud strives towards her imperative: to share the experience of art with youth who are finding their place in the world. Her portfolio is diverse, but her cause is plain. Art is a path to self-discovery — and for many young people already on this journey, an opportunity to experience pride in one’s own creations can be an invaluable reassurance and motivation to persevere.
Drawing from her own childhood experiences, especially those in which she used art to cope with a tumultuous adolescence, Branchaud seeks ways to make art a valuable tool for anyone. “Not everyone will have the same relationship with the arts as I did,” she points out. “...but I do believe that we all have something to gain from being exposed to visual arts. It could be an emotional outlet, a way to learn about the world, creating something to be proud of, a career path, a new way of thinking and seeing, or just something fun and memorable.” In a time when the future of federal arts funding has been left on the table, Branchaud’s work is an example of the value of creative education. Understanding that in a classroom setting every child comes from a different background, a different set of rules and accepted values, Branchaud’s methods hone in upon experiences of social engagement, visual literacy, freedom of expression, creative pride, and other universally recognizable assets of arts education.
Currently a Connected Learning Developer at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, Branchaud feeds her own experiences with the arts into her work as an educator. “It’s my personal history with the therapeutic nature of art that made me so invested in bringing arts opportunities to other young people, particularly those who are disadvantaged in some way.” With this in mind, Branchaud’s work with young students is as much about creative necessity as it is about classroom engagement or learning. She envisions a free and expressive environment as a necessity for a classroom wherein students feel supported and encouraged. Kameko describes how her middle and high school art teachers pushed and motivated her to imbue her adolescent tumult with all of the shapes and colors it had affected upon her. For the first time, she felt motivated to harness a creative identity. Being given this power and freedom at such a young age was career-defining.
These days, much of Branchaud’s personal artwork is motivated by her cultural heritage and the experiences of others. As an artist of Chamorro and French Canadian descent, she persists towards an understanding of the cultural expressions of diverse cultures, including her own. “My approach to learning and talking about different cultures has matured since I first became interested in education,” she says. “Part of what lead me to grow was investigating my own heritage. Personal conversations I’ve had regarding race and culture, and my education in education have both helped me fine-tune my approach to teaching about various peoples and their art. There’s a lot to learn from people in different times and places and I love being in a position where I can lead those conversations while continuing to learn.”
Perhaps some of her most stunning work, which keeps her busy when she is not teaching students, is a series of metal hand-fabricated, cast, and computer-edited three-dimensional pieces. These works, which speak to Kameko’s hands-on approach to the aesthetic of cultural expression, range from a tiny, silver ring cast from a 3D scan of a piece of coral to a bold chain necklace modeled from Polynesian spear heads. Remarking upon the creation of this chain, she states, “That was the first thing I made that launched this line of jewelry in which I’m trying to cultivate the image of Pacific Islander women as badass, opposed to the soft and docile image of the hula dancer. We are descended from warriors, and the spear chain represents that heritage.” Branchaud’s works are a nod to the Pacific islanders, but also to the flora of the Pacific islands — and yet they lack the potential stereotype of the graceful island woman with flowers in her hair. Instead, Branchaud gives us emblems and talismans which transmit echoes of island culture while empowering their wearer as symbolic adornments of ferocity, strength, and distinction.
Eager to photograph these pieces, especially worn by their creator, I was fortunate enough to arrange a photoshoot with Kameko in July of 2017. For most of the shoot, we utilized a deep blue backdrop and a deep blue hair light in order to give the photos an “ocean vibe.” However, we also experimented with several different colored light gels that I hoped would bring out the muted shine of Kameko’s brass and silver pieces. “When someone else is taking the picture, it’s unnerving not knowing what they’re seeing or capturing or thinking,” says Kameko. “But overall, I love working with other artists and have a lot of fun.”
For me, the experience of photographing a fellow woman artist is always invaluable. As artists, we strive to create rich, deep, and thoughtful images of women in our work, and to collaborate on an image with my subject is the greatest method towards this goal. As tempting as it is to utilize a female subject as an amalgam of fetishist poses and postures, the most satisfying photographic work results from a thoughtful session which highlights the subject’s individuality of spirit and relies upon her natural movements to convey her identity. In the same way that Kameko hopes to bring out the best ambitions of her students by channeling their passions, I hope to mimic this in my photos.
As both an educator and a studio artist, Branchaud continues to explore the boundaries between arts education and dissemination of cultural experience.
Promoting an understanding of artistic expression as a tool for educational freedom and future learning, Branchaud hopes to soon take her large-scale works to the next level. “I would love to create a large scale mural with youth. That’s my biggest challenge that I want to tackle, doing something large scale that requires a lift.” The concept of the shared artistic experience is one which, as an educator, has led Kameko to imagine even greater possibilities than she could have conceived when she first became an arts educator. Her passion for education is driven by the possibility that she could have some role in the creation of artistic work in many varied disciplines and media — even if she is not the one creating the work. As much as her own artistic exploration has blossomed into a deeper understanding of her role in the narrative of artistic heritage and cultural memory, Branchaud also sees the necessity of arts education in facilitating the cultural awareness and expressive freedom of youth. When asked what she would do if she received a $10,000 grant to undertake her dream project, Branchaud stated, “I always want to provide opportunities for youth, so if I got that opportunity I would want to do more than make my mark on the world. I would want to share the stage and make it something meaningful.”
You can read my entire interview with Kameko Branchaud below.
INTERVIEW WITH KAMEKO BRANCHAUD
Sarah Belclaire (SB): Describe your career in arts education and what led you there.
Kameko Branchaud (KB): I consider myself a youth worker and teaching artist currently working as a museum educator. As an educator, I look to provide young people with quality and meaningful experiences that can provide them social, emotional, and educational growth. My experiences in the visual arts gave me a kind of refuge. It’s my personal history with the therapeutic nature of art that made me so invested in bringing arts opportunities to other young people, particularly those who are disadvantaged in some way. Not everyone will have the same relationship with the arts as I did, but I do believe that we all have something to gain from being exposed to visual arts. It could be an emotional outlet, a way to learn about the world, creating something to be proud of, a career path, a new way of thinking and seeing, or just something fun and memorable.
SB: How has your cultural heritage informed your perspective on arts education? Or on art in general?
KB: My approach to learning and talking about different cultures has matured since I first became interested in education. Part of what lead me to grow was investigating my own heritage. Personal conversations I’ve had regarding race and culture, and my education in education have both helped me fine-tune my approach to teaching about various peoples and their art. There’s a lot to learn from people in different times and places and I love being in a position where I can lead those conversations while continuing to learn.
SB: Can you describe two or three of your favorite works in metal that you have created and explain how they align with your other work? Or, on the flip side, how working in this medium is a different experience for you from painting or drawing?
KB: The most compelling thing about making artwork is the primal sense of accomplishment you get when you create something. I love knowing that I can manipulate metal with my bare hands, it’s really powerful. Working in three
dimensions allows me to work more abstractly and it’s just feels different when you can hold, feel, and wear the final product instead of just putting it on a wall-- or in a folder in a closet, which is where a lot of my 2D work ends up. My favorite piece I’ve made is my spear chain, which is a necklace inspired by Polynesian spears. That was the first thing I made that launched this line of jewellery in which I’m trying to cultivate the image of Pacific Islander women as badass, opposed to the soft and docile image of the hula dancer. We are descended from warriors, and the spear chain represents that heritage. I want to make a series based on that piece but it’s difficult without having access to a full metal studio.
SB: Tell me about a life-changing experience you had as an artist – anything from a teacher who changed your perspective to a friendship that greatly influenced you or a challenge you had to overcome.
KB: Even though I always excelled in school, the arts was my domain. This was especially important in middle and high school when I didn’t have any control over my tumultuous home life. I had other ways of gaining a sense of control, but they were all self-destructive. The art room was the place I most looked forward to being, and I think a big part of that is the freedom I was given by my teachers. They let me come up with my own projects and were very supportive. So not only did I have this one venue of freedom and a sense of control with the materials, but it’s one area I was universally supported and encouraged.
SB: I know that in my own experiences as an artist, I am constantly losing interest in one thing and gaining interest in another. I fluctuate back and forth between fine art and editorial work. Sometimes I get really obsessed with lighting, then I lose interest and move on to creating a portfolio – but I never lose interest in my craft overall. Have you found that over the course of your artistic life your interests have fluctuated at all? Is there something in art that you’re passionate about now that you would have never imagined yourself doing in the past?
KB: Absolutely! Sometimes I wish I could just narrow my focus down to one thing but I’m the type that allows the idea to drive the medium, instead of letting the medium determine my direction. I get excited about experimenting with different materials, playing with them and seeing where they lead me. I know I would benefit from becoming specialized in one medium, but I do like the constant refresh in approach. Knowing a wide range of processes makes me a dynamic educator though. It’s is especially useful in the museum setting where your activities tie to what’s currently on view; I can work with any show. And if I can’t, it becomes an opportunity to learn something knew. Actually that’s the thing that surprises me about where my creative practice went-- growing up, I had no idea I’d become passionate about education. Teaching is enormously creative and I find it satisfying even if I’m not the person making the work.
SB: If you received a $10,000 grant (or more – dream big here…) what would you use it to work on? What project would you undertake?
KB: I would love to create a large scale mural with youth. That’s my biggest challenge that I want to tackle, doing something large scale that requires a lift. I always want to provide opportunities for youth so if I got that opportunity I would want to do more than make my mark on the world. I would want to share the stage and make it something meaningful.
SB: Of your entire portfolio, what has received the greatest amount of attention? What honors or distinctions has this work received?
KB: Oddly the pieces that I put the least care into have gotten the most attention, mostly though just because they were done in public. I did a couple of small mural jobs to build my portfolio of solo work and took a more lighthearted approach than usual. They were murals of cats, and people responded to them pretty emotionally-- laughing, sharing stories about their cats. I recently tied for first place in the juried competition of twenty murals done by local artists through Punto Urban Art Museum in Salem.
SB: And, lastly, I ask everyone: How do you feel about having your picture taken?
KB: I do get self-conscious, especially knowing that I have lots of bad angles and some really good ones. When someone else is taking the picture, it’s unnerving not knowing what they’re seeing or capturing or thinking. Even the finishing stage leaves me a little anxious. But overall, I love working with other artists and have a lot of fun.
To keep up with Kameko's work, visit her website www.kameko-branchaud.com.
To view or purchase Kameko's work, please visit her Etsy site at www.etsy.com/shop/kmkostudio.