Today it is more important than ever to celebrate and create dialogue around our diversity. One woman, a SSP parent and renowned artist, is doing just that through her 80+ murals around the world, her children’s books and teaching. Meet Katie Yamasaki, whose work has been given high praise by the NYT among many other publications. She has just published her 4th book, “When the Cousins Came”, which she has both authored and illustrated. Let’s meet Katie, learn about her latest children’s book and the significance of her work.
SSP: Before we dive into who you are and how you got to this incredible place you are at, can you please tell us about your recent book launch earlier this month of “When the Cousins Came”? One review summarizes it as “A refreshing, reassuring, and honest story about family and friendship that stands out amid a sea of pat friendship stories” (Anna Haase Krueger, Ramsey County Library, MN). How would you describe this book and what it means to you?
This book was inspired by my own family, by the times shared with my cousins from our earliest days. There are a lot of us, I’m one of 27 first cousins, and we were spread across the country in both very urban and very rural areas. I had cousins who rode skateboards in Albuquerque and cousins who rode dog sleds through the Alaskan tundra. So when we would get together, there was always a lot to share and a lot to learn.
We were also comprised of many different racial and ethnic mixes, which only continues to grow in this new generation. At any given family reunion these days, you’ll find our family to be different mixes of Chinese, Indian, Dominican, Japanese, Irish, Hawaiian, Nigerian, French-Canadian, Ethiopian, etc. The lesson that we took from growing up in that environment, is the lesson that I hope to communicate in the book. It is that our differences actually bring us closer together and make our relationships stronger and healthier.
SSP: You are tremendously gifted across many different fields. A muralist, an educator, a writer, an illustrator...I’m not sure where to begin! How did your childhood help shape the path to where you are now? How did you discover your passion for art?
I am lucky to come from a very creative family who encouraged all of us to make things all the time. I didn’t grow up thinking I’d become an artist, but I did grow up building, baking, painting, woodworking and sewing. My family was full of artists and teachers on both sides and I grew up thinking I’d probably become a social worker because I loved working with people and wanted to do something meaningful with my time. When I got to college, I ended up liking my drawing class (I was awful but it was fun) much more than my social work class, so that was the path I pursued. The tricky part was trying to figure out what I’d do with the art in terms of work, making a living, doing something meaningful, etc . . . I was lucky to find children’s books and muralism in the years that followed.
SSP: Who would you say are your biggest influences?
My biggest influences are people I meet who share their stories. I’m lucky that my way of making work focuses on storytelling- either in book form or in mural form. The stories are usually the stories of others, and the art is kind of the vehicle or the platform for expression. So I get to hear all kinds of stories- stories of immigration, of incarceration, of community, of family, of loss, of visions for better futures. These stories are my greatest influences and motivate my work completely.
Artistically, there are some artists whose work I love with my whole heart. Leo and Diane Dillon, Frida Kahlo, Ed Young, Kerry James Marshall, Diego Rivera and Isamu Noguchi to name a few.
SSP: So many of us, especially in the NY area, can identify with being part of a diverse family (including myself)! We can totally relate to the curiosity and excitement that comes with learning about our family’s different cultures and celebrating our differences. This seems to be an underlying theme in your books and murals that you’ve created. What is the most important message or messages you would like us to take away from your work?
I think that across both the books and murals, I hope that people will feel empowered to share their own story in any form. Everyone has a story and we sometimes get so used to our own story that it starts to feel less interesting or unimportant. Or maybe we are around too many people who have similar-seeming stories. But they all matter and they will matter to your children and to their children. So, I hope that the work will motivate the viewer to ask questions from their elders to learn more about the stories of their people. We are in a time where the power of listening cannot be underestimated. I hope that my work will motivate people to ask questions and listen thoughtfully as a way to deepen and broaden our connections.
SSP: To date, is there a piece of work that has been most meaningful to you, and why?
I am most proud of the work I have done in different prisons and detention centers both nationally and in Mexico. A few years ago, I did a project with incarcerated mothers at Rikers Island and their children in Brooklyn and East Harlem. I worked with the kids to design a message and a mural for their moms and then painted that mural with the moms at the women’s jail on Rikers. Then I worked with the moms to design a message and an image for their children, and painted the image with the kids in E. Harlem. It was a powerful project for many reasons, but it really showed me the power art-making has when it comes to building bridges. Not only were the moms and kids brought into dialogue with each other and able to communicate in a new and expressive way, but the moms were also brought into greater dialogue with the people around them in jail- other women, corrections officers, etc. The kids, in doing a public piece of art were also brought into the light in a way that lifted the stigma that burdens many children with incarcerated parents. The ways that the communities around both the moms and kids supported the expression of their story was incredibly moving and a project I will never forget.
SSP: I understand you also visit schools and organizations, can you please tell me a little more about that and how someone can get in touch with you?
I love to do presentations and workshops with both my book and mural work for people of all ages and moments of life. I’ve presented in elementary schools, homeless shelters, churches, prisons, museums, 4-H clubs, etc. Anything goes. I can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org