The Philosopher’s Stones

Sean Michael Gallagher is an enigma, a man whose person and artistic project are marked by duality. He exudes ruggedness. An outdoorsman with a muscular build, he’s dressed in cammo, and his ears bear the telltale marks of an MMA fighter. But he’s standing on a ladder, his ladder, outfitted from top to bottom in neon pink fur.

“Pink is my favorite color,” he mentions freely. Gallagher shies away from the camera but opens up about his philosophy on art. He is the latest artist in residence at Honolulu Museum of Art Spalding House, where for six weeks he’s installing a Zen garden of sorts in the 6,000-square-foot outdoor Surface Gallery.

Ideas of permanence and impermanence compete as Gallagher fashions large-scale designs from 50,000 pounds of rocks and clay that he’s spent the past six months collecting and digging from the earth by hand. Nearby is his fiery kiln, helping create the unexpected – because here it’s not the clay but nature’s rocks that he’s firing, giving them added durability.


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Sean Michael Gallagher with Woody Photo by Nathalie Walker

“Before this, I did extremely delicate porcelain work,” says Gallagher, who has an MFA and has worked in ceramics for 10 years. “There’s always been this dichotomy in my life. I’ve gone from porcelain to boulders.”

Rocks and stones of every size and in shades of red and gray are scattered throughout his work space. Some are plated in gold, some drip Dali-esque with blue paint and others rest in piles. Gallagher’s faithful companion Woody the pup mirrors his master’s interest, frolicking nearby, salivating over his own pet rock. Gallagher has been known to dive into six feet of water after a prime igneous specimen.

Meditating on the project, Gallagher lets out snippets of thought: He likes telling a story with his art, even if it is esoteric; he’s keyed into the problem of erosion and for a moment chuckles at the idea of firing the mountaintops (kiln-style) to make Oahu that much more permanent. He likes bringing attention to the humble material that people take for granted, trampling it beneath our feet. He spends much time engaging in art, “plagiarizing nature,” he says, by firing rock, thereby changing its hue and making it more solid. Then he returns it to nature (see and search for “seanmichaelgallagher”). With his current project Borrowed Time, he’s enjoying putting that same material in a new context, one where it’s inherently perceived as art, and he loves the idea of the process being interactive. Visitors can see the work in progress and converse with the artist.

“Everything is essentially on loan,” says Gallagher. “This exhibition is borrowed: the space, the time, the material. As the artist, I am being borrowed by the museum. Ownership is a myth – we have the privilege of borrowing things in our temporal lives.”

Instead of looking for meaning in products, which are inevitably ephemeral, Gallagher encourages the viewer to find more introspective meaning while surveying the external environment.

Gallagher’s project was chosen by museum and UH staff from a pool of proposals. Four proposals, one per season, are accepted each year, with a new selection to be chosen Feb. 1 (call 237-5242 to learn more).

“One goal of the residency is to involve our visitorship so that they can participate in creation of the piece and interact with elements of it,” says museum educator Bradley Capello. “We try to choose from across media.” This year, they’ve showcased a muralist who used the walls of the Surface Gallery, photographers who strung prints across the space and a sculptor whose work reached into the trees, and now Gallagher is excited about making use of the entire space.

the TICKET stub
When: Through Feb. 16
Where: Honolulu Museum of Art Spalding House (2411 Makiki Heights Drive)
Cost: $10
More Info: 532-8700, borrowedtimehawaii.