Artist Katie Yamasaki works primarily as a muralist, community artist and children's book illustrator. She has worked on community projects with diverse groups around the world, and she also teaches art at Ballet Tech, the New York City Public School for Dance.
Katie lives in Brooklyn, New York City.
Can you tell us about your family background? Did you always want to be an artist?
I come from a family full of artists, so I never really thought I would take that road. My grandfather was an amazing architect, my grandmother was a concert pianist, my uncle is a photographer, my aunt is a tai-chi teacher, and so many of my cousins are artists across all genres. I always enjoyed making art as a kid, especially crafty things (our mom would let us paint the windows and we were allowed to draw on the walls in my brother’s room), but I didn’t think it was the career for me. It seemed a little too solitary and I didn’t have a sense of how art could be used to make a difference in the world.
Since I was young, I have always had a very strong interest in social justice, and I didn’t see how I could connect that with an art career. I didn’t actually ever learn how to draw until I got to college. I went into college thinking I would be a social worker and then I signed up for a drawing class when I was 19. I was the worst one in the class, but once I started I didn’t want to stop. I loved the feeling of drawing so much that I didn’t care that my drawings weren’t good.
I understand you were invited to Japan to carry out research for your book Honda: The Boy Who Dreamed of Cars. How do you think this influenced your final artwork?
That was such a special trip. I had never been to Japan before – I’m fourth-generation Japanese. My great-grandparents came over in the early 1900s and settled in Seattle and Los Angeles. I grew up north of Detroit in a small car-factory town where Japan wasn’t that popular because of the auto industry. I had always dreamed of going and it was funny that the reason I was able to go ended up being because of the Japanese auto industry – Honda completely paid for my trip.
It was interesting to me because they didn’t really do much in terms of addressing the company’s history or the life story of Soichiro Honda. It had more to do with where the company is now. What really affected me, though, was to see what Soichiro Honda had been able to create – to envision. He was truly innovative and deeply imaginative. Being able to be in Japan helped me better understand his imagination and visualize his dreams from within a different context.
You have a new book coming out next year, Fish for Jimmy: can you tell us about it?
I’m so excited about Fish for Jimmy. This is a book that, in various forms, I’ve been working on for the past 8 years. I’ve always wanted to do a book about the Japanese Internment during WWII. My family was deeply affected by the internment: most of my ancestors were sent to various camps during the war. I always wondered, when I was growing up, why the internment was never taught when we learned about WWII.
Fish for Jimmy is based on a true family story. It is the story of two brothers named Taro and Jimmy who are sent to an internment camp. When they get there, Jimmy (the younger brother) stops eating. He doesn’t like the food at the camp and doesn’t understand why they’ve lost their home and have been sent to live in barracks in the middle of the desert. Taro becomes very concerned about Jimmy and his health and goes to great and risky measures to help his younger brother.
What or who inspired you to become a mural artist?
I always loved murals growing up. We used to always visit the Detroit Institute of Arts when I was a kid, where Diego Rivera (the master Mexican muralist) has his greatest work about the Detroit Auto Industry. It never occurred to me that being a muralist was actually a professional possibility, largely because I didn’t learn how to paint until I began my MFA program at the School of Visual Arts. When I graduated, I had no idea what I was going to do. I was working on books but hadn’t sold anything, and I wanted to find a way to engage artistically in the world around me. My friend invited me to paint a mural in her school and I was hooked. I loved the interaction with the community, the scale, the collaborative process and working on scaffolding. Diego Rivera was my first (and remains my constant) inspiration, but the deepest motivation for painting murals are the amazing stories you hear when you plan a project with a community.
Your work has taken you into many different communities, both as the creator of murals and paintings, and as a teacher. Are there any particular moments that stand out for you among young people, whether viewing or participating in your art?
I am so fortunate that there are so many moments that stand out during the course of these projects. Both of the ones I am thinking about have to do with dialogue that can happen with art as its platform. I did a mural about military recruitment in the inner city with kids who felt very exploited by the military recruiters. The mural addressed this, and also statistics around US veterans and the experience of women in the war in Iraq. During the dedication, there was a small group protesting the mural, led by a woman whose son had just come back from Iraq and she didn’t want him to “have to think about all of these negative statistics.” She and another woman (who supported the mural) got into a deep discussion, the other woman encouraging her to keep an open mind as her son, also a veteran, had tragically died due to complications with his PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder). It was a painful talk, but one that might not have otherwise happened if the mural hadn’t opened the door.
I also did a project in Cuba in 2007, making an exchange between my students in New York City with their peers in Santiago de Cuba. My students wrote and illustrated postcards describing themselves and their lives in NYC. I did large paintings of them in the New York City they described as their own. In Cuba, I showed the work and the Cuban kids went around the gallery, reading the postcards and checking out the paintings. They then chose the NYC kid with whom they most closely identified. They wrote a response card describing themselves and what their life is like in Cuba. It was amazing to see both how many preconceptions each group of kids had about the other and how easy it was for them to let go of those ideas and be very openhearted and honest about what their life is like. To see two countries so blocked in terms of communication; it was wonderful to see what happens, how similar we all are, when kids can just speak for themselves.
What projects are you working on at the moment – and plans for the future?
At the moment I’m in the middle of a big project working with incarcerated mothers at Rikers Island Jail in New York and their children in the East Harlem community. The children designed a mural and a message for their mothers that the women painted inside of the jail, near the jail’s nursery. The mothers also designed an image and a message for their children that we are now getting ready to paint in the community. The project has been really exciting for many reasons, one of which is that it is a Kickstarter project so it was funded completely by over 275 private donors. It has been one of the most challenging and most moving projects of my career to this point.
Coming up, I have a couple of smaller murals in Brooklyn and an international mural conference in Argentina in the Spring. I’m really excited for that. I’m also working on several new book ideas – lots of irons in the fire!
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