Portrait of an Artist: Kumi Yamashita

Constellation - Mana / By Kumi Yamashita / Brads and single, unbroken thread on wood panel, 2011 / Collection of the artist
Constellation - Mana / By Kumi Yamashita / Brads and single, unbroken thread on wood panel, 2011 / Collection of the artist

Q: Where are you from, where do you live now?

A: I was born in Takasaki, Japan, and I now live in New York City.

Q: What medium(s) do you work with?

A: I work with various mediums. I’ve done a lot of sculpture with light and shadow—three-dimensional thread works that are similar to my entry piece. I also work with fabric and paper.

Q: Tell us about your technique/creative process.

A: A lot of the work that I have created begins visually. I will see an image of the work almost fully formed in my mind’s eye, as opposed to working out an idea or concept. If the image sticks with me for a few days and continues to excite me, I’ll have the desire to attempt to make it. I then have to figure out how. With work such as my light and shadow sculptures, this may mean weeks or months of in-studio trial and error until I either succeed or realize it is not possible and move on. A light bulb, some objects that I fashion from wood or metal, and just my eyes and hands—it’s pretty analog.

Q: What is your background (education, career, etc.), and how does it contribute to your art?

A: I first came to the States as a high school exchange student, spending a year in Indiana and then another year in upstate New York. After graduation, I went to Florence and studied for two years before returning to the U.S. to receive my BFA from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. I then went to Glasgow School of Art for my MFA.

If anything contributes to my art, I imagine it is this exposure to various people and cultures. If one looks at my body of work, an interest in the human figure, in the human face, is apparent. And perhaps this has to do with my meeting so many interesting and different people outside my culture.

Q: Tell us about the piece you submitted to the competition.

A: My submitted artwork is from a series I call Constellation. Thousands of tiny nails called “brads” are inserted into a wooden panel painted white, and one unbroken sewing thread is woven amongst the brads to create the portrait. I created this portrait of my niece from a photo that I found as I was going through a box of snapshots. There was something in her young, open face that made me want to stare at her for a long time.

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: I’m currently close to finishing another Constellation work, which is also of my niece Mana, but at a little younger age. I’m working from a photo taken of her as she is about to blow out the candles on her birthday cake so it has a really beautiful quality of light.

Q: Who is your favorite artist?

A: I love Charlie Chaplin. To me, his work is similar to the greatest symphony; it just seems to encompass everything. Not just funny or just sad, but all of it simultaneously. His work covers the whole range of human emotions that we experience.

Q: If you could work with any artist (past or present) who would it be?

A: I’m not sure that I would like to work with another artist, but I certainly would love to sit and have tea with a few people. Erik Satie comes to mind because I feel his music is so liberating and beautiful. Another person in the music realm that I would like to spend time with is the great pianist Ivo Pogorelic. And I love the Russian animator Yuriy Norshteyn’s work. I would love to just sit in his studio quietly and watch him. (That sounds creepier than I meant it to be.)

Q: What inspires you?

A: I’m inspired by the beauty found in nature and also by the artworks of great masters. These two things can speak to you directly without the need for explanation or context.