Like the origin stories of many creative types, Yukari Sakura has been making artwork since she could pick up a pencil. A bright young woman who cares deeply about animal welfare and environmental stewardship, Ms. Sakura is intensely articulate (if a bit loquacious). She is bursting at the seams with facts and anecdotes and will gleefully spring some on you when you least expect it. Her stories are often elaborate, told in enthusiastic and breathless run-on sentences, peppered with encyclopedic detail on a variety of subjects, ranging from Greek mythology to obscure knowledge about minor characters in a Godzilla remake.
Ms. Sakura is a promising young artist at Creativity Explored, a studio for adults with developmental disabilities located in San Francisco’s thoroughly gentrified Mission District. Creativity Explored, or CE for short, serves approximately 150 individuals and has been around for over 30 years. During that time, the population of artists has changed dramatically, from formerly institutionalized senior citizens (the oldest are pushing ninety) to fresh youthful faces as young as 22, barely aged out of high school transitional programs.
"MS. SAKURA HAS DEEPLY INGRAINED HABITS AND BECOMES ANXIOUS WHEN HER CAREFULLY ORCHESTRATED ROUTINE IS INTERRUPTED. I’VE COME TO COMPARE WORKING WITH HER TO A CHESS GAME, WHERE I PLAN OUT HOW TO INTRODUCE A NEW IDEA FOR THREE WEEKS, DROPPING HINTS ALONG THE WAY. WE HAVE DEVELOPED A MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIP, ONE MOVE AT A TIME."
During our interview for this piece, Sakura’s gift for storytelling is evident. It is as distinctive as it is remarkable. Her mind seems to zoom a mile a minute to fantastical realms I can barely fathom — one moment dropping knowledge bombs about endangered Siberian tigers, and the next spinning a fanciful love story between a winged elk and a fictional autistic woman. Fantastic creatures including unicorns, fairies, mermaids, and centaurs make regular appearances in her tales. Her excitement is infectious but sometimes makes her tales hard to follow. Throughout our dialogue, I notice that she often provides a magnificent “how” but struggles to give a satisfactory “why.” This is endearingly summed up for me when our conversation turns to The Da Vinci Code, a film from 2003 starring Tom Hanks. When I asked her what it is about, she tells me she has forgotten the plot and can only recall the details.
Born as an only child, Sakura grew up in San Francisco and currently lives with her parents and her dogs (whom she adores). She graduated from transitional programming after high school and now attends Art Reach and Creativity Explored. She informs me that as a Japanese American, she is influenced by both European & Japanese artists like Hokusai and Leonardo Da Vinci. She also mentions Frida Kahlo, whom she describes as a Mexican artist who “painted portraits based on her feelings and how she suffered.” We discuss the idea that artists make work that draws on their emotions. She mentions Pablo Picasso’s infamous Blue Period and explains that it came about as a response to his sadness over losing a good friend. I mention black American musicians and the creation of the blues, a musical style that expressed their sadness about how they were (and are) treated in this country. She politely acknowledges my attempt to connect ideas before proceeding to her next thought.
Ms. Sakura states of her work:
“I have been drawing since I was [three] years old. I draw things that I like. I really like all animals. I like foxes, cats, dogs, birds, turtles, and most of all horses. I make stories with the things I draw. My earliest stories were about dinosaurs right after seeing many dinosaur movies. Years later I created more and more stories that I based on movies I had seen. My interest in animals has also led me to make animations based on documents I wrote. For example, my favorite animal, the horse, has a tail that is like a very long brush. And then there is the unicorn—who looks like a horse with a horn, has a long mane, and a tail that looks like a rag doll’s hair. Turtles and snails carry their houses on their backs. Birds have tails that could look like a fan like a peacock and butterflies their wings are like beautiful ‘flower’ petals. These are some of the things I like to draw in my art.”
Dave’s (or Dave Bowie’s) Goblin King of the Labryinth Pie, Yukari Sakura, 2016.
I met Yukari in 2014 when I started working as an instructor at CE, but it wasn’t until 2015 that I was able to negotiate the chance to work with her for half a day once a week. I saw an opportunity for her to develop her draftsperson-ship and observational drawing skills. It was slow going. Ms. Sakura has deeply ingrained habits and becomes anxious when her carefully orchestrated routine is interrupted. I’ve come to compare working with her to a chess game, where I plan out how to introduce a new idea for three weeks, dropping hints along the way. We have developed a meaningful relationship, one move at a time. It is slow and satisfying, gaining her trust. We build our own rituals and routines, which supplement and edge out older ones.
Detail from Dave’s (or Dave Bowie’s) Goblin King of the Labryinth Pie, Yukari Sakura, 2016.
We work on the basics of painting portraits. I show her how to use a grid technique to understand spatial relationships between elements of her work, but she soon tires of the technique. She is highly perceptive but the force of routine is strong. She has a kind of formulaic approach to some of her work that I try to challenge. It’s a delicate process. She is gifted at drawing and painting from her imagination but struggles to pay attention to what she sees, to trust her eyes and not let her brain fill in gaps. She has a curious habit of encircling most of her subjects (and objects) in ungainly, cartoon-like black outlines. It has a way of killing her colors. I ask her one day if, when she looks around, she sees objects and people outlined in black in real life. I am rewarded with a rare chuckle when she sees my point. I’m a strong proponent of learning the rules before you can break them. My job as her teacher is to provide her skills that she can leverage to achieve her artistic goals.
Like many people, she becomes frazzled when too many new ideas are introduced at one time. This is especially true with regard to constructive feedback. She is stricken with intense anxiety when she makes what she considers to be a mistake. She wants everything to be perfect. She is rigid in this way, but also extremely fragile. I tell her that mistakes are often assets, as they are almost always how we learn new skills. She is determined to grow and improve her skills and, when framed this way, the idea seems to gain a bit of traction. Introducing the concept requires a delicate hand, though. She benefits from gentleness, patience, and many generous helpings of encouragement.
The Red-Crowned Crane's Justice, Yukari Sakura, 2016.
"HER MIND SEEMS TO ZOOM A MILE A MINUTE TO FANTASTICAL REALMS I CAN BARELY FATHOM — ONE MOMENT DROPPING KNOWLEDGE BOMBS ABOUT ENDANGERED SIBERIAN TIGERS, AND THE NEXT SPINNING A FANCIFUL LOVE STORY BETWEEN A WINGED ELK AND A FICTIONAL AUTISTIC WOMAN."
She is wholly preoccupied with death and dying, and particularly interested in raising awareness about endangered species. She makes a point of telling people she eats meat when she discusses her advocacy. I’m still unclear about how she reconciles this with her fanaticism for saving animals but I don’t press her on it; Ms. Sakura is full of mysterious contradictions that make her as interesting a conversation partner as she is an artist. With her art and activism, she hopes people will see her work and see how beautiful the animals are when they’re alive. Her scheme is to win people's hearts in order to “stop the poaching.” She informs me that she fully intends to ban all hunting and poaching as well as all traditional medicine that makes use of various endangered animal parts. I am curious about how she plans to gain the authority do this and alarmed by her last assertion. I try to make connections that will help her empathize: What if people practicing traditional medicine see the way we treat and eat livestock in this country and think we should be banned from doing so? Isn’t that a similar thing, I ask. She briefly acknowledges my query before she dives right back into her advocacy spiel.
Kou's Crane of Justice Cake, Yukari Sakura, 2016.
She really wants to prevent endangered species from “going the way of the dodo,” including tigers, rhinos, lions, the bald eagle (which, she informs me, was removed from the critically endangered list in 2007), and giant pandas (also “recently” removed from endangered species list). She takes her rhetoric a step further, stating that she wants to “exterminate” the trophy hunters. I point out how harsh that language is and she recants, saying she wants to catch them and put them in jail and maybe teach them to farm or wash dishes. There is much I’d like to say but, as is the case with many of our conversations, I decided to pace my feedback.
"I SEE HER SIMULTANEOUSLY ATTRACTED TO AND REPULSED BY THE CONCEPT OF DYING. EVERY TIME THERE IS A FRESH NEWS STORY ABOUT THE LATEST POP OR PUBLIC FIGURE’S DEATH, FOR EXAMPLE, MS. SAKURA WILL PULL ME ASIDE TO ASK IF I’VE HEARD THE BAD NEWS. "
Philosophers from time immemorial have admonished us to consider death at some point in our lifetimes. It is a profoundly human activity to think of what it will be like to “go to sleep and never wake up,” as Alan Watts puts it. It allows us to assess our values and calibrate our goals based on our priorities. Ms. Sakura seems to spend copious amounts of time contemplating the subject, albeit obliquely. I see her simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the concept of dying. Every time there is a fresh news story about the latest pop or public figure’s death, for example, Ms. Sakura will pull me aside to ask if I’ve heard the bad news. She is compulsively drawn to natural and manmade disasters as well.
Themes of death and dying are the threads connecting the breadth of her work. Most recently, she’s worked to memorialized popular figures who’ve passed away, painting the likenesses of Alan Rickman, Christopher Lee, and Gene Wilder, to name a few. I notice that she generally expresses grief, sympathy, and tenderness for old white men who’ve passed. I wonder if this a reflection of her media consumption or an amalgamation of messages she has received from other sources. I struggle a bit to get her to paint a portrait of Prince. I imagine that part of why she consented is that the work was to be submitted to After Pop Life, an exhibition at Minnesota Street Projects this past fall.
The Portrait of Prince, Yukari Sakura, 2016.
Prince’s memorial dedication dessert: The Crying Dove Purple Candy Rain Cake, Yukari Sakura, 2016.
The Twin Atomic Fire Mushroom Cream Pie, Yukari Sakura, 2016.
She’s even gone so far as to create a series of “memorial dedication desserts,” a wonderfully weird mashup of pastries and commemoration featuring a broad range of late greats. These dulcet offerings are often accompanied by a portrait and a short hand-written description. They bring an entirely novel, oddly delightful meaning to term “sugaring the pill.” When asked about what spawned the idea, she mentions the movie Waitress, a 2007 dramedy about a woman stuck working tables in a pie diner who dreams of better life. It was directed by the late actress Adrienne Shelley, who was tragically killed before the film premiered. The series, loosely organized around the themes of death and desert, is dedicated to those whose talents she appreciated and also “the ones who were helpless,” like Hiroshima victim Sadako Sasaki or the late singer Selena Quintanilla Pérez. It’s a poignant way to memorialize people who’ve passed away and to share their stories. Most of all, she wants to remember them the way they were in life.
Kou's Crane of Justice Cake, Yukari Sakura, 2016.
Ms. Sakura draws inspiration from myriad sources. She is as energized by medieval tapestries and books as she is by the films of Warner Brothers, Blue Sky Studios, and Hayao Miyazaki. Most of all, though, Ms. Sakura is enamored with Walt Disney. In a culture obsessed with youth (and immortality), I find an interesting (if not easy) connection between her attempts to defy death and her preoccupation with Disney’s glossy sheen over reality. Disney is practically the brand name for fairytale happy endings, where real life is contorted beyond recognition into simplistic morality tales with coherent, linear trajectories and nominally satisfying endings. Evil is vanquished and the damsel is rescued so we can all be safely lulled back to sleep. I see a connection between this Disney-fied straining and Ms. Sakura’s early struggle to learn how to handle her paint. Some of her figures are simultaneously simplified and overwrought, which gives a distressing quality to the work. I assume this is unintentional, so there’s something slightly tragi-comic about it, like the plastic covers that suffocated my grandparents’ couches. There is a yearning to control, to keep things pristine that can’t be satisfied in the real world. I savor the near perfect tension between the grisly realities of life and death and the sickeningly sweet amnesia of the Disney lens.
"I SEE A CONNECTION BETWEEN THIS DISNEY-FIED STRAINING AND MS. SAKURA’S EARLY STRUGGLE TO LEARN HOW TO HANDLE HER PAINT. SOME OF HER FIGURES ARE SIMULTANEOUSLY SIMPLIFIED AND OVERWROUGHT, WHICH GIVES A DISTRESSING QUALITY TO THE WORK. I ASSUME THIS IS UNINTENTIONAL, SO THERE’S SOMETHING SLIGHTLY TRAGI-COMIC ABOUT IT, LIKE THE PLASTIC COVERS THAT SUFFOCATED MY GRANDPARENTS’ COUCHES."
During part of our interview, Ms. Sakura compares Disney’s “Maleficent” (Sleeping Beauty) to Miyazaki’s “Haku” (Spirited Away), seeing them as a yin and yang. She informs me that Western dragons — like Maleficent — breathe fire and employ wings to fly. She states that, in contrast, Chinese or Japanese dragons that don’t breathe fire usually fly magically with serpent-like bodies that cut through the air as if swimming through water. She points out a variety of ways in which they complement and contrast one another; one is female and black, the other is male and white. She tells me black represents darkness and evil, and white represents light and wholesomeness. I am reminded of a fascinating interaction we had earlier this year when I had hoped she would consider memorializing the many people who’ve succumbed to police terror over the past few years. She was initially open to the idea but our efforts are quickly shut down by forces beyond our studio walls. It remains a taboo subject for us today. I’m saddened by this, but it doesn’t interrupt our work together. I have to go back to the chess board and bide my time.
A portrait of Princess Diana by Yukari Sakura.
There is a rich history of art created to achieve a semblance of immortality that spans ages and crisscrosses the globe. I locate Ms. Sakura’s work in that long tradition. At once intensely present and profoundly preoccupied with death, she draws on an enviable amount of inspiration. There is a kind of tragic magical realism to her attempts to “freeze-frame” reality. Her work is utterly unique, surreal, and heartrending. Ms. Sakura tells me she enjoys being an artist because she relishes making animals, endangered species, and people “come back to life.” When I ask her about how she feels about her art, she says her work exudes happiness and depicts friendship, and she “always makes animals good friends.” I say that I see the joy, but it’s tempered with sadness, too. She seems worried by this so I quickly elaborate: I see sorrow expressed for the multitude of threatened animals species and for an environment ravaged by our ever-warming planet. I don’t mention the gloomy specter of death that hangs heavily over her work or the anxiety lurking behind the cheer. I simply tell her the truth: That I see a silver lining of hopefulness encircling it all. And I mean it.
Yukari Sakura (b. 1989) works with great focus on what she calls her “very own stories,” gathering inspiration from mythological tales, animated films, and video games. Sakura works primarily with watercolor, colored pencils, and paint, rendering graphic illustrations of these characters with vibrantly colored accessories. Sakura has begun working on animations based on animals and their environments, writing out what she calls “documents” and then basing subsequent drawings off her research.
In a new body of work, Sakura pays homage to heroes, daily life, and historical events. Sakura has been featured in numerous exhibitions. She recently exhibited works in a group exhibition, After Pop Life, at the Minnesota Street Project in San Francisco. She has been featured in a two-person exhibition, TV Dinner: Yukari Sakura and Daniel Green, at the Ace Hotel in New York. Her artworks have been showcased at Mission Pie in San Francisco and in the Pass Away - Dia de los Muertos exhibition at the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.
Danielle Wright is a visual artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She earned a B.A. in Visual Arts with an emphasis in Fine Arts at the University of San Francisco in 2007. Her work investigates the language of materials and the delineation between artist and viewer/participant. In addition to her studio practice, she teaches at Creativity Explored, a not-for-profit art gallery and studio in the Mission District of San Francisco.