Refrain is a project that links iron, as an industrial material, to human expansion and the accompanying destruction of people and places. The construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad (1862-1869) exploited Black Americans and immigrant laborers. The project enabled the attempted genocide of indigenous peoples and near extinctions of various species across the United States of America.

Refrain is a sculptural project that represents the first Transcontinental Railroad symbolically through text and scale. I cast interlocking toy train tracks in iron, each embossed with words. Exhibition participants can pick up and handle the pieces and even create sentences with them. Each 6-inch piece will represent a mile of the 1,912 miles first Transcontinental Railroad. I hope to cast more sections at each conference and pour that I attend for the Foundry Tree. I plan to exhibit this work in stages and cast a track for each locale that hosts the Foundry Tree.

I will connect Foundry Tree to Refrain by connecting to iron pours and iron casting artists I meet through the conferences, to map the foundry tree through a physical representation. My ultimate goal is to cast and present the work at institutions/art centers across the U.S. until I eventually cast all 1,912 pieces. I am proud to note that on March 2, 2018, the first two pieces of Refrain were cast outside the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Columbus Building at the first on-campus iron pour. To date I have 172 pieces cast. I hope to have the rest of the pieces cast over the next 20 years.

I consulted with Nancy Spiegel, Bibliographer at University of Chicago Library, to source the literature. Nancy helped to identify literature contemporary to and referential to the construction of the first Transcontinental Railroad. The literature is often violent. I hope to draw connections to contemporary issues of violence towards immigrants, environment, and children. I will utilize the word pairing as content to stamp words on the front and backs of the tracks while in wax. These wooden toys, recast in iron, reference a handgun in scale and material.

I hope that Refrain, with its large/small scale and the multi-year fabrication process, references the social, environmental, and human impact of the Transcontinental Railroad. Refrain underscores the continued need for understanding the cycles of national violence, which we inherit and pass onto our children. This is a project that will steer my artistic activities over the next decades, as well as include my children in my art life and practice.

As of November of 2019, 172 tracks have been cast.

(Link here for images of the PROCESS of making these Refrain tracks.)

53 of the first 57 iron tracks cast. Photo taken September 2019
Ari and Ima Akagawa set up this configuration September 2019

By March 2019, the first 35 tracks were cast in iron. Some of them are documented (both sides) below:

Set 1. Side A
Set 1. Side B
Set 4. Side A
Set 4. Side B
Fourteen of the first thirty-five track pieces cast. Ari Akagawa configuration in April, 2019

Link here for images of the PROCESS of making these Refrain tracks.