Sandra Yagi: Life, death, and le petit mort

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Sandra Yagi’s art is equal parts offensive, macabre, beautiful, playful, and profound. That’s pretty perfect, if you ask us. She set aside time to discuss her work.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: You picked up art later in life than a lot of professional artists. How did that happen and how do you think it has affected your art and how you approach it?

SANDRA YAGI: Even though I was always drawing from the time I was 4 or 5 years old, 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 of their experience. They strongly discouraged me from studying art, and insisted that I focus on something practical. Therefore, I obtained my MBA degree, and 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’.” It almost seemed that he was directing that statement at me, as I worked at Bank of America. 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 spent 20 years working both at a day job and at the studio, and gaining exhibition opportunities as time went on. I left my career in banking in 2008 to be a full-time artist.

SCINQ: How did science and art come together in your work?

SY: I’ve always loved science, especially biology. I love anatomical imagery – skulls, skeletons and musculature – as well as imagery of nature: animals of all types, sea life and microscopic lifeforms. I draw much inspiration from naturalists who illustrated their discoveries. My favorites are John James Audubon, Maria Sibylla Merian, and John Gould. I’m also inspired by the anatomists of the renaissance, such as Vesalius and DaVinci.

I use anatomy in symbolic ways – exploring, for instance, using it to portray the thin line between animal and human nature. 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.

In another series, I’ve painted hybrid/mutant creatures of imaginary, exotic, unexplored realms, and they are done in a style that honors the old naturalists. Before the advent of photography, scientists and naturalists were required to be good at drawing, and their studies have become works of art in themselves. They were the first to really combine art and science.

SCINQ: Human beings are often on the receiving end of some abuse in a lot of your work. Can you explain that?

SY: Recently, I completed a series inspired by Hieronymous Bosch, and in these images I’ve portrayed humans being punished for greed, cruelty and environmental destruction. For example, I have a naked bullfighter being tormented by a bull, a pelican devouring a man with Malibu burning in the background, and a trophy hunter being displayed by creatures typically hunted by trophy hunters. It’s my way of getting retribution for evils inflicted by humans. I’m also angry about the current political environment and how certain upper-class politicians seem to get away with unethical actions without any consequences. Several of the pieces portray such politicians in hell, as a fitting punishment for their actions.

SCINQ: Skulls and skeletons figure prominently in your images. Why? What do they symbolize?

SY: In many cases, the skeletons represent mortality. Modern society generally deters discussion of death and most people try to avoid the subject. It’s important to realize that we are not immortal, I think it makes us appreciate life and make the most of our time in this plane of existence. In some of my paintings addressing environmental degradation, the skeleton represents the death of nature at the hands of humanity.

SCINQ: Your work is full of tensions. For example, the interplay between human and skeletal forms; life and death; the subservience of the carnal. Can you discuss them?

SY: In one series, I painted skeletons in sex positions. It was a play on the French term Petit Mort, little death (or the feeling of post orgasm likened to death), and also the contrast between death, symbolized by skeletons, and the act of sex, which is necessary for bringing in new life. Death in the overall scheme of the universe is natural and inevitable, but is also part of an ongoing cycle. I also did a series of BDSM figures with skeletons as the Dom player in the scene. The feeling I had at the time was that Death was the ultimate Dom in charge. This is not necessarily a negative thing, since death is part of the natural order of things, and can bring about positive change. Also, in BDSM, the Dom has to be caring to the sub, and there has to be an understanding between both parties before going through the scene. So we as humans just need to recognize Death and understand its role in life.

SCINQ: There is a distinct medieval representational feel to your images. Where did this come from?

SY: I am inspired by old masters, including the artists that worked on illuminated manuscripts. Their craftsmanship is incredible, and not easily replicated. I also am interested in the myths and bestiaries they illustrated in illuminated manuscripts. My current project is a series of small watercolor/acrylic paintings of iconic contemporary/modern movie monsters, illustrated in the style of medieval illuminated manuscripts. The monsters include many from science fiction and horror masterpieces, such Alien, Godzilla, American Werewolf in London, Jaws, and Pan’s Labrynth.

SCINQ: Your Conjoined Twins series is wonderful. It’s grim, macabre, and playful at the same time (which makes it even more macabre). It evokes the Danse Macabre genre in the best way. What’s the story behind both series?

SY: Many years ago, when I first saw a photo of the conjoined twin skeleton at the Mutter Museum, I was horrified but also fascinated, but then felt a great deal of sadness for the poor children who died so young, and with a serious congenital deformity. Questions went through my mind, such as, why does fate select those individuals to suffer? Why, through a twist of nature, must someone suffer so much? Then I wondered if I could portray them doing things that normal people can do. The first few skeletons were dancing twins, which focused on their intense coordination and connection as twins, and I translated this connection into dance moves. In my Circus Twin series, rather than being the subject of the freak show, the twins are star performers of incredible feats of acrobatics. In my latest series, the Olympic Twins, they are undertaking Olympic events, using superb strength and athletic prowess. The twins exhibit a “can do” attitude that exists within all of us.

I find the infant skeleton to be quite cute and adorable. The skull has large eye sockets and a natural smile, and large head in relation to body. Additionally, I love the juxtaposition of a congenital deformity with the concept of the ideal Olympian body. I enjoy the challenge of giving them a grace and movement, despite their deformity and the complication of them being connected and top heavy.

SCINQ: What influences your artistic worldview?

SY: Contemporary culture and world events feed into my worldview very heavily, though it gives me a great deal of sadness. I’m most concerned about the environment and the extinction of plants and animals. I question the viability of capitalism, and I feel it really needs to be drastically modified at the very least so that we don’t have to rely on endless economic growth. Above all, I love science and nature, and though I am terrible at mathematics, I try to stay up to date on scientific discoveries. Art and science are two ways to explore the world, and they truly overlap.

SCINQ: What is next for you creatively?

SY: I’m pondering further exploration of bringing out the truths that are contained in mythology. The use of anatomical imagery combined with mythical subjects give the scenes a sense that there is real flesh and blood behind the mythical image. I’ve done some of this in the past, such as painting the minotaur as a flayed beast that is anatomically correct, to emphasize its mutant heritage.

For more information on Sandra Yagi, visit her website. You can also do @sandra_yagi or her Facebook page.


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