Recorded at Picture Farm Gallery January, 2016. Published in Sumi & Shu Catalogue, 2016.
Y = Yuri Shimojo T = Toddy Stewart
Y: My name is Yuri Shimojo. In Japan, my name is Shimojo Yuri, so it’s very different than my name Y-U-R-I. You know we don’t have R and L difference. So my name is not Yuri, I’m more like “Yudi.” I was born and raised in Tokyo. I was kind of the Tokyo girl, like party girl. (laughs) I first lived in New York and London starting in 1988, but settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1995. I left the south side of W’burg in 2014 and I moved to Kyoto. People asked me, “Oh, Yuri, are you going home?” Yes, I’m going back to Japan, but, this is something different. I’ve been living in Kyoto for almost two years now, on a mountain in the city, which is very special. And I’ve been painting, writing, and dancing – which I always do in my life.
T: You always say you’ve been dancing since you were three years old. You were probably dancing before that, before you can remember. But you come from a very specific lineage, you come from a very specific place. You’ve said that your family was very traditional, but also in some way because it was so traditional it was very unconventional, which is such an odd…
Y: Well, first of all, my whole family passed away before I was 30. I was a complete orphan by 30. But that was I guess my fate, my life. This has been a very important factor of my life, of course. Yes, I grew up with very unique family members. Have you seen the Hollywood movie The Last Samurai? Tom Cruise? (laughs). Well, I think they don’t really say specifically, but they are talking about my ancestors’ clan – which is called Aizu Clan. They were the last samurai clan in the history. So I’m a little bit more authentic than Tom Cruise’s Last Samurai. But I’m also such a bohemian, so I call myself the Last Samurai Bohemian. I have practiced traditional Japanese dance since I was 3 years old at the National Theatre in Japan.
T: So your life has been full from the get-go with the performative aspect of creation.
Y: Yes. So my father was a dentist, a second generation dentist, who wanted to be a Vaudeville comedian. My mother was one in the first generation of professional hair stylists in Tokyo. She was also modeling – because she was charming. She was a social butterfly. That’s how she met my father – at a dance hall in Tokyo in the late 40s early 50s. But both had the past, of course. And both already had children. And 10 years later I was born between them – in the year of the Fire Horse. A very dangerous year! (laughs) Every 60 years in the Horse Year, it is Year of Fire Horse. The women who were born in the Year of Fire Horse were traditionally thought to be too powerful and they eat men. (laughs) I think I’ve never eaten men in my life. My upbringing was like a Fellini movie set in Tokyo. My parents were so into those traditional performing arts, but not in an academic way. But a flamboyant cultural party scene, I would say. My mother’s daughter with an ex-partner – my half-sister – lived with us since I was 4 years old. Chi-chan was mentally handicapped. She was 12 years older than me, but she was born as a premature baby, and had an issue with her brain. She was very slow, someone like a Forrest Gump. Of course she was a character, and I used to draw and play a lot with her. She had a big influence on me. Our relationship was so natural, almost mystic, you know? But my family was very much like a roller coaster. My parents managed their situation – their environment – very extremely. We traveled here and there and hosted big huge parties – on the boat or in our house. Once, my father rented out a big movie theater in Tokyo and premiered “The Godfather” as a big party for their friends. They curated their lives. Classic party people.
T: And you were part of that curation.
Y: I was. I didn’t want to be the part of it though, you know? I was just a child. And I say to everybody that I’m the most conservative and normal, generic person in my family. (laughs) Everybody was too unique but I had to be in the curated scene, because, you know, I couldn’t choose.
T: So you’re always surrounded by this… circus.
Y: Circus. Yes. Circus. Exactly. Fellini circus. Japanese Fellini circus in 1970s in Tokyo. (Laughs) But that is not easy. Just emotional ups and downs were hard, but most importantly, I needed to protect my childhood realm. So I had to draw and paint to have my own reality. To stay there, yeah. That’s why I’ve been doing this since I was a child. One time this psychic reader person – or seer lady – in Hawaii told me “Yuri, you have to pursue your art genuinely how you want. You’re father is telling you that.” I had his diary that he kept as a child until he died. And this diary is 20 notebooks or more, called the Silver Diary.
T: You’ve read it?
Y: Well not everything – because I can’t. The contents are very, very powerful. And most of them are very X rated. (laughs) But, well, that’s why my mother actually sealed it. My father died when I was 13. She told me, “Yuri, this is your father’s diary, but don’t open it. I sealed this, because this is too explicit.” So I thought, sure, I don’t want to read my father’s diary like that. But when I moved to Kyoto, I cleaned up my family’s stuff from Tokyo and I checked it out a little bit. And wow, that is some very interesting evidence. A real voice of this very fragile, sensitive, artistic young man, who was becoming 17. But that’s when Japan was starting to become very involved in World War II. He really wanted to pursue art, especially performing art. He was a member of this famous Vaudeville performing company and he wanted to pursue his path in that way. Not follow his father’s – my grandfather’s – path, which was a dentist. He wanted to become an artist and thought about girls all day. He was just writing about why he can’t keep his freedom and how he just wants to pursue art. And besides those diaries, he left a lot of porn novels he wrote based on – I think – his life. But it’s like his fantasy, you know? Very, very interesting. Like raw material of an adolescent human in 1940.
T: Obviously he – his vibe – colored your whole life. But you never read it until you were older. Do you feel – in some way – that you were reacting to that?
Y: He had this sketchbook that he kept since childhood that I was allowed to see. And those – his childhood drawings, kind of cartoons – really inspired me. Comically, always great cynical sense of humor. He was an artist already, but he had to give it up. He had to follow his father’s path. In the end, he was one of the biggest dentists in Tokyo. But he became very depressed. When he died, they said it was an accident. It was three days after my 14th birthday. He had been drinking, and I was actually sleeping in the next room – a curtain away. But I’m not sure it was an accident. That was quite a traumatic experience for me for a while, but I had to accept it. I think what helped me – saved me, maybe – was how my mother, my father and of course my sister had quite a sense of humor. And they didn’t hide things from me when I was a child. They are very raw and real, always saying to me, “Yuri, I’m sorry I’m not the perfect mom, I’m not the perfect dad, but this is a human being, and you know, this is life.”
T: Later on, you’d go onto studying energy work – and kind of shamanism in that way.
Y: Yes, my mother and sister and family went to the other side, much earlier than my friends. So I’m used to that kind of conversation with the other side. That’s the only way to communicate with my family, especially after all of them had gone. Supernatural had become very natural to me. But I’m not a so-called psychic at all. But I am sensitive. I very much believe in those indigenous spiritualities. That back in the days – in the ancient time – people were speaking with animals or spirits. In a very natural way, right? I strongly believe that all humans have that ability to communicate with spirits – and not just verbal conversation. And we all know that, right? You can all talk to your dog, and things like when you are thinking about somebody and the phone rings and that was the person. There are many inexplicable things. Through those shamanic practices I started to reconfirm that, “Oh, this is very normal.” And this convinced me that moments when the leaf fell – yeah, that was my dad. That little bee, that was my sister. Butterflies are usually my mom.
T: So this is something fundamental that concerns you about life? This communication?
Y: Yes. Im very concerned about invisible things. Not only those in the spiritual realm, but also those unconscious or conscious… Sharing emotions, appreciation. Those invisible things which inspire me.
T: It’s interesting because in Japanese ink painting – using the Sumi and Shu in this extremely traditional practice – it’s more about the brush stroke. More about the expression of the feeling of the thing, than the actual thing itself. It’s not about the anatomy of the horse. It’s the sense that the artist – via the most discreet and minimal brush strokes – is able to evoke the spirit of the horse. Your work, especially, gives the sense that you come from a very traditional place. Just kind of genealogically. Almost energetically. And your Sumi and Shu paintings are so expressive with the content of energy, rather than its vessel. And it’s yours and it’s not traditional. But it connects so exactly to this traditional practice of seeing a thing for what it feels like – rather than what you would like to say is objectively correct. You’ve been making these specific series of paintings from 2000-2015. Some of them span a little while. What are these paintings about? Where do they come from and why do they look the way they do?
Y: Sumi is the Japanese black ink stick made from the charcoal soot of pines or other natural elements. Shu is the name of the color – like vermilion red – which is also ink that comes from cinnabar. These are very traditional mediums for painting, but I didn’t study them traditionally. Yes, I have practiced those Japanese traditional arts since I was 3 – especially dance almost for 20 years. And I’ve been part of many traditional tea ceremonies, sleeping on the laps of geishas when I was a child while my parents were partying with them. But at the same time, we traveled abroad so much. I went to a British-style Episcopalian girls school in Tokyo. I also grew up in 70s, which was a very rich culture – with the colors and everything. So I had lots of exposure. My parents wanted me to become sort of international person. I grew up used to speaking with foreigners, which was not common in Japan. Now – in these days – yes, but back then there were not so many foreigners living there. So from my upbringing, I had those two combos on my own plate always. Two extremely different elements.
T: Extreme tradition, and extreme liberal exploration?
Y: Yes. I was interested in uniqueness of everything. So they taught me not to be afraid of breaking the rules. That was their fault. (laughs) I didn’t really care that I didn’t know any of the Japanese traditional painting techniques. But further you travel from where you’re from, the closer you get to your roots. Every time I go back to Japan, of course I go to the art store and I see what’s different from New York and other places. Living in this cosmopolitan melting pot of so many different cultures makes me pay more attention to my Japanese-ness because I’m ”Oh, that Japanese girl Yuri” or “Hi, konichiwa” or you know, “Can you make sushi?” I think that happens to everyone. “Oh you’re from California, do you surf?” You know. (laughs)
T: And when that happens, it’s like going beneath the ocean. The further down you go, the more pressure squeezes you. It means you’re further away, you’re further down underneath the water, but the density of the things around you becomes such that it squeezes you and squeezes you. And it’s almost like the further away you go from where you’re from – from where you grew up, or where you’re used to – the further you go afield from there. The pressures squeeze you into yourself even more.
Y: Big time. Big time. So, those Japanese materials definitely inspired me more than those acrylic paints that I used to use. And I also realized I love papers. I love the kind of texture – the feeling of the paper absorbing those watery liquids. Ooh, I love it… (laughs) So, it’s kind of perverted. Then, I was wondering why I like those lines. Why are these lines so comfortable to me? Why this line came all the way from across the paper but stopped here. Why? Why did I make the space in between these two objects, and why does it make me so ecstatically happy? This is all – I realized much later – somehow related to my dance. Dancing that Japanese choreography for 20 years – unconsciously, that choreography is deeply rooted in my body. Like, even when you walk, Todd, you kind of have the same groove that you paddle, right? That’s you, because you’ve been doing that for a long time, so your body remembers that in some comfort zone, right? I just discovered that. But that was not my initial concept.
T: Certainly. All of your paintings have a certain dance, a certain physical quality to them. Very much. There’s something that’s transferred to them. That you can almost sense the way in which they are created. It’s almost like one can see the movement of the wrist, the shift and the pull of the brush.
Y: It’s kind of like the very subtle… breath? Or some little off tempo rhythm. But the interesting thing is what made me realize this was New York. I don’t think I ever would have this if I stayed in Japan. When I started to live in Brooklyn – those late 90s, early 2000s – I was involved with this street art scene – The Barnstormers – and it was the essential era of the NY street art scene. And my friends – some of them are graffiti artists, some of them are printmakers – they’re all from different cultures, different backgrounds. But then I learned about this thing called “Wild Style” where the form of those letters are related to dance – breakdancing, or that kind of physical groove. That definitely internalized my idea that my line comes from my dance too.
T: Right, because you know when you’re doing big graffiti, it’s physical. It’s as much a physical exertion as it is the line you create. Because the line you create can be created by your whole body, shifting left to right, or up and down to make that line. To create that thing.
Y: So physical! We’d have so much muscle ache the next day, every time we were up on the walls. So yeah, it’s physical. But that’s the interesting thing. I realized, “Oh, ok. My abstract lines – those shapes – come big time from my upbringing… dance.
T: A very fundamental, elemental, central piece of who you are.
Y: When I did a show in Kyoto, this very academic looking old guy – he looked like a Japanese hermit with a long beard – was really examining my work. I was like, “Uh oh.” And then after that, he came to me, “Where did you study?” And I said, “Well, I really didn’t learn things at art school. I learned everything from the street. Everything from my people who were around me in the culture. So I told him I never really studied the Japanese traditional art or those painting techniques. I’m self taught. And then, “Ooohh, but you have a very good brush line and brush stroke.” And he mentioned about how I breathe, how he could see my breath in my paintings. Actually, that yoga breathing technique – you know, Pranayama – helps me a lot. Sumi and Shu is not only the technique, but also my physical and philosophical thing too. And like you said earlier, the elements are not just a physical body move – those smells, some kind of sound – are my memory of dance, and that influenced my work. My dance practice was actually stage theatre, not just regular dancing in the studio.
T: It’s a performative… was it the Noh?
Y: Yes – it’s Noh, which I practiced from 3-7 years old. And then Nihon Buyo, which is literally Japanese Dance. Which you see at the Kabuki theatre. So that comes with all the elements: the makeup, the hair, the wig, the scenery, the background painting, the music, the band. So of those things, my most favorite was the very sensual smell coming from backstage – the fragrance of the make up. That was my favorite since I was maybe… 5 or 6. And those musicians tuning sound rather than the real performance. And people’s conversation. Those kind of layers of dimensions.
T: So those things are in your paintings.
Y: Definitely. Not just the colors. Not just the lines. Those atmospheres, those universes. Yes.
T: So let me ask you this about Sumi and Shu. I mean, there are between 17-18 works in this collection that you’re showing at Picture Farm. Do you start with a painting, do you start with a concept, do you start with a line, with a gesture? How does it start, how do you know when you’re done?
Y: I generally don’t do sketches. I just follow what comes out of me. I used to be an illustrator in Tokyo. My name started to be in publications very early, when I was still in high school. And by the age of 18 I already had been on the regular pages of the popular magazines. A kind of pop art, illustration scene in end of the 80s to the beginning of 90s. And yeah, I was on TV shows and I had a lot of fun. It was like Wayne’s World (laughs). And then with that kind of reality, I couldn’t keep the balance anymore. I chose to come to New york, leaving Japan, because I really missed the kind of rawness of humanity. And also the cool universal identity, the sense of humor, the kind of – you know – groove of the street. That is essential for me. And then when I came to New York, I wanted to restart myself – mainly how I expressed my art. So I wanted to restart my work because I was doing commercial art in Tokyo – making art for somebody else’s story, not my own story. You know, doing someone’s album cover, or somebody’s cover of a novel, or making this orange juice look delicious or something. I realized, wow, when I looked at the white paper, it started to intimidate me. Wow, I cannot draw anything how I used to. I had to have some assignment or some motif or deadline. And then – when I realized that – I really wanted to change. So I changed. I started to paint something totally unknown, just what came out. Like what I used to paint when I was a child. Then I got into Outsider Art. Those people who are really into making something without being asked by anybody. And then, they had to do it, thats why they have that kind of motivation and energy.
T: So with your Sumi & Shu paintings, you just start? You just start by mixing the ink and placing the brush on the page or the paper?
Y: I think around 1998-ish that big circle came out. When I start to paint even some small ones, or sometimes start big ones, it makes me feel safe somehow. Then I started to do the surrounding. Then the movement started. And sometimes I saw something that I really liked – the shape that came out on the paper. You know – sometimes you smell some really yummy food and then that inspires you. But that’s not a visual thing, but it still comes onto the paper.
T: You have some interesting names of your Sumi and Shu paintings. Is it all of a sudden there, is it apparent? How does that feel to name them?
Y: I put the title at the very end. I can still change the names if I like. My very important concept is I don’t have a concept, that’s my concept. And I do want the viewer to have their own interpretation of my work. “This sheep looks like a gigantic iguana.” Fine. Of course. “Wow, I thought that was an empty refrigerator.” Really?? Did you think my sheep looked like an empty fridge? Wow, that’s so cool. What kind of thing is going on in that person? I’m interested in that. So I just name them as simple as possible. But that’s interesting too. Like, wow did I paint my experience of that? Wow, I never thought that would come out like that. So, I started to title related to that experience, but not get too specific. I want to have the big open space for the viewers.
T: So, you were in Brooklyn, for what, 20 years almost? Working on all these different forms, different people. Now you’ve returned to Japan, not to Tokyo, to Kyoto, which is an even more ancient, imperial city. Even more like fundamentally Japanese in a funny way to me. And you’ve just completed a new house there, a new home. How is that? And I mean you went back after the nuclear reactor meltdown, after the flood. You went back at an interesting time.
Y: Yes, when everybody was leaving.
T: Yeah. That move to that specific place, Kyoto, and specifically continuing that work, how is it affecting you? Where do you feel like it’s taking you?
Y: Very good question. I think 9/11 had a huge impact on my life. Not just my art. My life. Watching two towers collapsing in front of me on the beach front… on the East River. I was watching when it was happening, right there, right? That changed all our individual lives. That changed the whole world. And one way it changed me was I started to realize – oh, there are, this world is so un……. I forgot the English.
Y: Yes. Fragile. And then also the very… you cannot justify everything… justice or fundamental rights of humans or nature cannot work all the time. And…
T: Or not the way we assumed it would.
Y: Exactly. Because we never experienced a war. And then, we heard about the story of war, we watched movies. But at that time I really felt, wow, war is something really close to this. And that made me keen on more about that. Do the right thing. Basically… I’m not talking about huge scale, political or…
T: You’re not talking about morality…
Y: No. Right, right. At that time I saw, wow, New York is a really beautiful place to be as a human being because we see that kind of spontaneous collaboration – spontaneous helping each other, spontaneous expression through art. Or through just our regular daily basis. 9/11 really taught me a lot about that fragility of the individuals and that power of the – it sounds corny – but it is the true power of the people. So many different characters, different backgrounds, people…
T: It’s this big theatre of emotion and reality and ethics and creativity.
Y: It’s beautiful. So then, I saw a lot through art. Artists express a lot through that experience. Or not even directly. Indirectly everybody was affected. So it’s interesting to see, wow, there are the many things that art can do. But when 3/11 happened (the tsunami and nuclear meltdown), I realized the way to approach a Japanese audience is different from way to approach let’s say, American people. Or I would say, cosmopolitan, mixed race people. Japan is very much an island. A very Far East island. I thought, “Oh, I might still have something I can do in Japan.” So, I packed up my lovely sacred apartment on South 2nd in Williamsburg, and moved to Kyoto. Because I wanted to create something from Japan in Kyoto where there is a lot of authentic classic aesthetic and spirituality and indigenous culture. I am very interested in Japanese “indigenousity”.
T: So are we entering the Yuri Shimojo Japanese period?
Y: I don’t know. Well, I still go back and forth between there and here. Imagine you go back to your country for the first time in 20 years to start to live again. And I am totally “gaijin” which is “foreigner” in Japanese. And people think – people even say, “Wow, Yuri I’m impressed you remember how to speak Japanese!” (laughs) So I’m really kind of in between, as usual, in the extreme. I introduced myself in the beginning: Yuri Shimojo and Shimojo Yuri, right? So, if you Google me, there are two different people, two different names, and when I go back to Japan people remember me from the old Tokyo days.
T: And do you feel like you’re returning to the Tokyo days a little bit, or are you refashioning it in some way?
Y: Refashioning it. That’s something that I had to deal with, or something that I always in my theme: those two extreme different elements. In my lifetime, I’m trying to find my core thing. Is it possible that I can be grounded in one place or is there anywhere – or maybe nowhere – that is more natural? I don’t know. At the very end, I want to share something that I didn’t tell you. One of the interesting things that I realized about Sumi and Shu. The forms don’t just come from my physical memories, it’s also a meditation. The painting process, even the grinding Sumi ink, is a part of the process of that whole journey. One time, this auntie in Hawaii – the people call her medicine woman, or in Hawaii it’s called Kahuna – taught us while we were picking herbs from the sacred woods. She taught us that Hawaiians always show appreciation before they receive. You can give them some offerings – which is called Ho’okupu – or chants – which is called pule or prayers – before we receive. And you can make medicine with this herb even without doing the prayer or chant. But she said without the process, it’s just application. That inspired me a lot. I want to intake my art practice. I practiced Reiki at the same time those indigenous shamanic practice. It’s not because I wanted to be the Reiki healer. I wanted to practice Reiki as a tool of a human being that everybody can do, you know just a healing hand. Like a grandma who used to touch your tummy when you had a tummy ache. Something like that. And I wanted to believe the power of the human hand, which I use for my painting, so that’s one of the big reasons that I practiced Reiki. So that kind of shamanic practice, like Aunties message, I’m taking to my art practice. You wouldn’t know from the title of a painting, but something like that is very important to me: the process of the painting. And those very intricate lines, the people ask me sometimes, “Do you make mistakes? Do you pencil line first and follow over it?” No, and yes. I do make mistakes, which I stopped calling mistakes. In Sumi and Shu, I’m painting lines in a whole flow, and I’m supposed to stop there. But – oops, I sneezed, but oops, my Rudy – my dog, my mentor – bumped into me or something, whoops! So, the unexpected line, happens. And – oh, I messed it up. Oh, I should have not put it over here so I should have not put this big circle here. But you know, it’s not acrylic or oil painting. I cannot erase, I can go over it. So working on the paper with the watercolors or especially those Sumi and Shu series, you cannot erase what you do. Everything is alive. So that told me as a life lesson, “Yuri, there is no mistakes. You think that’s a mistake, but that mistake might go to the second journey, which is totally unexpected, and which usually becomes much better.” So, you know what I mean? So that really, helped me, that process, that practice. I’m saying that Sumi and Shu is my practice of life, not my practice of technique. It’s my way-of-thinking practice. There’s no mistakes. I don’t need to be scared, making mistakes, or making unexpected things. This is what it is and go with the flow and accept it and make something out of it. Something beyond what I can control.
T: Thank you. Y: You’re welcome. T: I think that’s it. Y: Yeah.