By Joe Ferguson
In Ray Bradbury’s Skeleton a man descends into abject terror when he realizes that below his skin, the very structure of his body rests on the gothic symbol of death. Like most of Bradbury’s stories, it becomes a parable. The man seeks the services of a very dubious physician who removes part of the man’s skeleton, reducing him to a jellyfish-like creature unable to receive his wife’s affection. The moral of this story? We must make peace with our natures.
Sandra Yagi is a San Francisco-based artist whose work reminds me of that story. Like a piece of Bradbury fiction, her paintings and drawings explore the human psyche while evoking classical, romantic aesthetics--hidden within their macabre beauty are questions, even warnings. Ms. Yagi spared some time for a brief interview.
JF: What areas of science inspire your work?
SY: I am drawn to biology, especially zoology, anatomy, and astronomy. I am only a science layperson…I love to go sketch animal specimens at the natural history museum and the zoo. I maintain a membership at the California Academy of Sciences--they have a study room where you can borrow bones and taxidermy animals for close observation and sketching. I also have numerous books on insects, fish, mammals, reptiles, and birds. I gain much inspiration from naturalists who illustrated their discoveries. My favorites are John James Audubon, Maria Sibylla Merian, and John Gould. I have always loved science--when I was a kid I had a cheap microscope for looking at pond water, and I enjoyed observing copepods, rotifers and paramecium. I also had a small telescope for examining craters of the moon, and the planets.
For me, art and natural sciences are not in conflict with each other; they are two approaches for exploring and understanding the world. A scientist is looking at nature in a very disciplined manner, testing hypothesis to gain knowledge of the natural world. An artist does this examination in a more philosophical and subjective manner. Nature is a muse to creativity.
JF: What are the main ideas or themes that you want to communicate through your work?
SY: A number of my works are “psychological” anatomy studies--cutaway skulls that depict a psychological or metaphorical anatomy instead of the literal organs and structures…These paintings are the product of my curiosity about how much of our behavior is driven by this primitive part of the brain. I wonder if our violence, war and greed come from our inability to override this primitive brain with our higher human rationality and altruism…We need to recognize that this is part of our nature, and overcome these violent primitive impulses.
Another part of my body of work is concerned with the environment. The paintings feature endangered or extinct animals interacting with a human skeleton. The skeleton symbolizes death--in this case--permanent death of an entire species. Yet the birds are not resentful--they almost seem to welcome death. But I also see the skeleton as being us--in a state of regret. To me, the skeleton looks wistfully at the beautiful bird perched on his finger. My hope is that we will save places on this planet for our fellow creatures, but at the current time, we are in the beginning stages of a mass extinction of animal life.
JF: Your background, particularly in banking, is a bit unusual for an artist. What motivated your transition to full-time artist?
SY: My path to becoming an artist was indirect with some unexpected turns. My parents, who had been detained in relocation camps along with other Japanese-Americans during World War II, were very risk averse as a result. They strongly discouraged me from studying art, and insisted that I focus on something practical. Therefore, I pursued a career in finance/commercial banking. I was inspired to return to art after meeting an older woman sculptor who advised me not to wait until I was too old and no longer had the energy for art-making. Shortly thereafter, I heard David Hockney say in an interview “I have never heard of an artist on his deathbed say ‘Gee I wish I had been a vice president at Bank of America’.” I believed he was directing that statement at me! I realized that I needed to find a way to become a full time artist. I cut my hours back at the bank and signed up for continuing education courses in drawing and painting. I devoted one day each work week plus the weekend to studio work, which helped me retain my sanity. I left my career in banking in 2008 to be a full time artist.
JF: What are you working on?
SY: I’m working on a series of paintings that are about endangered animal species, for a solo show at Bert Green Fine Art in Chicago, Illinois, that opens in May.
For more information about Sandra Yagi, and to see more of her work, click here.