Oshri Hakak stood on the banks of the Ganges River in March 2012 and watched the lifeless bodies burn. He stood where countless others have stood through the ages, witnessing the sacred Hindu ritual that releases a person’s eternal soul from his or her earthly existence. For a young man pondering his place in the world, the stark reminder of human mortality and the enduring quest for spiritual transcendence was profound.
“It was a real push for me to consider what I’m going to do with my life, and deepened my commitment to living more fully in the moment,” says Hakak. Soon after his return to the U.S., he gave his notice at the management-consulting firm where he’d been working and made the leap into the unknown, embarking on a journey as a full-time professional artist.
In fact, Hakak had been walking the tributary paths toward that journey all his life. As a boy he would take the aluminum foil his mother used to wrap his school lunch and craft little human figures. He learned how to play the oboe and could lose himself in the thrilling riffs of an improvisational composition.
At Duke, he studied cognitive and behavioral neuroscience with professor Warren Meck and took music classes with artist-in-residence Joseph Robinson, the former principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic. Under Robinson’s tutelage, he also cofounded the Duke Chamber Players, a student-run chamber orchestra that is still active on campus. In anticipation of a summer trip to Sierra Leone, he studied beekeeping and started the Duke Apiary Club.
“A year ago I wouldn’t have predicted I would be a full-time
artist, but as I began to fill my days with things that were meaningful to
me, it started adding up.”
And he kept making foil sculptures. It was almost second nature to him. They would appear overnight when no one was looking. A tiny figure in the lotus position, meditating in the concave curve of a leaf. An aspirational figure reaching toward the sky from its perch on a lamppost. A couple of shiny friends on all fours, crouching atop a display case in Perkins Library.
A friend joked that Hakak should drop out of school and become an artist, since that was where he seemed to be headed anyway. Hakak laughed and ignored his friend. He earned a graduate degree from the Fuqua School of Business, moved to California, and started working a desk job in consulting.
But that moment in India brought into sharp focus that his life was richer, his emotions deeper, his spirit lighter, when he was engaged in creative expression. The act of shaping a foil figure, painting a joyous mural, playing Indian music on his oboe, or practicing Kundalini yoga— these were the things that made his life feel balanced and whole.
“A year ago I wouldn’t have predicted I would be a full-time artist, but as I began to fill my days with things that were meaningful to me, it started adding up,” he says. And by following his instincts, other opportunities have presented themselves: invitations to show his artwork in galleries and events, commissions of murals and sculpture for jewelry, and collaborations on stop-motion animations.
Hakak says he continues to be guided by the question he contemplated in India. “Every day I ask myself, what am Igoing to do with my life, even if today is all there is?”