Yayoi Kusama: "Art has saved my life"

anxietyrelief art therapy art workshops blog depression dot painting japan japanese art mental health new york pop art tokyo yayoi kusama May 05, 2021

For my next artist workshop on the 20th May 2021 10 - 12pm I will be looking at the life and work of Yayoi Kusama. I feel we all can learn from the incredible life and work of Yayoi and how art is a healer, even medicinal qualities to help people cope with their lives. Here’s a  short bio of the artist’s life…


Yayoy Kusama  (Born 22 March, 1929 - ) is a Japanese artist known for her extensive use of polka dots and for her infinity installations and is one of the most important artists to come out of Japan. 


She works primarily in sculpture and installation, but is also active in painting, performance, film, fashion, poetry, fiction, and other arts. 


Her work is based in conceptual art and shows some attributes of feminism,  minimalism, surrealism, pop art, and abstract expressionism, and is infused with autobiographical meaning. 


Kusama was raised in a wealthy family in Matsumoto, Her obsession with pumpkins started with growing up on a seed farm /nursery that her parents owned.


She also started getting hallucinations at a young age of 10 which she has described as "flashes of light, auras, or dense fields of dots”. These hallucinations also included flowers that spoke to Kusama, and patterns in fabric that she stared at coming to life, multiplying, and engulfing or expunging her, a process which she has carried into her artistic career and which she calls “self-obliteration”.


From a very young age Kusama would carry her sketchbook down to the seed-harvesting grounds and sit among the flowers. Her mother tried to stop Kusama from painting – tearing the canvas from her hands and destroying it – insisting that she studied etiquette in order to make a good arranged marriage. 


Kusama kept on drawing. It was her way of making sense of her hallucinations. “Whenever things like this happened I would hurry back home and draw what I had seen in my sketchbook… recording them helped to ease the shock and fear of the episodes,” she recalls.


Kusama's art became her escape from her family and her own mind. She was reportedly fascinated by the smooth white stones covering the bed of the river near her family home, which she cites as another of the seminal influences behind her lasting fixation on dots.


Eventually she trained  at the Kyoto School of Arts and Crafts in the art of Nihonga (日本画, "Japanese-style paintings") are Japanese paintings based on traditions, artistic conventions, techniques and materials dating back to over a thousand years old. 


Kusama was inspired, by American Abstract impressionism. She moved to New York City in 1958 and was a part of the New York avant-garde scene throughout the 1960s. She was heavily involved in the pop art movement but she is barely mentioned in it’s context although she claims that some of the more influential male artists stole her ideas. 


Embracing the rise of the hippie counterculture of the late 1960s, she came to public attention when she organised a series of happenings in which naked participants were painted with brightly coloured polka dots.


Her breakthrough works, the Infinity Net paintings, emerged from an earlier series of watercolours entitled Pacific Ocean, which she had made in response to watching the tracery of waves on the surface of the sea when she had flown for the first time from Tokyo. The nets she painted were made from a repetitive singular gesture of impasto in little loops, like interlocking scales; the longest canvases measured 30ft.


Since the 1970s, Kusama has continued to create art, most notably installations in various museums around the world.


Kusama has been open about her mental health. She says that art has become her way to express her traumatic childhood experiences including violence from her parents.  Her mother forced her to spy on her father as he carried out numerous illicit affairs. 


In 1977 Kusama checked herself into a hospital for the mentally ill, where she eventually took up permanent residence. She has been living at the hospital since, by choice. Her studio, where she has continued to produce work since the mid-1970s, is a short distance from the hospital in Tokyo. She says that living in the hospital has “… made it possible for me to continue to make art every day, and this has saved my life.”


“I have been painting, drawing and writing from morning until night every day since I was a child. When I arrive at my studio in the morning, I put on my work clothes and start to paint straight away, and I work right up until dinner time. I don’t rest. I am an insomniac. Even now, if an idea comes to me in the middle of the night, I pick up my sketchbook and draw.”


Book your place on my Yayoi Kusama workshop and learn to create art like her, using collage, pencil and ink.  

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