Lisa Pang: I first met Yuri Shimmyo a few years ago, when a mutual artist friend invited me to an exhibition opening in Sydney’s St Leonards neighbourhood. In that busy, warm, overcrowded gallery, I was captivated by one of Yuri’s etchings – for the skill of the drawing, the rendition of light, and the simplicity of black ink on white paper, but mainly for the mystery it contained. I bought it. Called Monk fish, it shows a woman concentrating on sewing what appears to be a large flat fish on her lap. I find it delightful for its sense of humour and whimsy. I met Yuri in person later to collect the work.
Yuri works as a printmaker and a painter, finding time for her practice around her other roles as a mother, an office worker, and a guitar student. On the day in October I spoke with her in an online chat, she was in her home studio surrounded by her current paintings, many of them in shades of green. When I recall her face, I don’t remember what she was wearing, but I picture her as a calm space in a meadow of finely detailed plants.
LP: What was your journey to becoming an artist?
YS: I learnt how to draw and paint at Julian Ashton Art School (1), attending classes at night after work. This gradually increased to one day a week and my final year, 2000, I did a full-time year. After that I went back to work and decided to paint on weekends. My son arrived shortly after and I am a single mum.
LP: And what was your journey from Japan to Australia?
YS: I am originally from Hokkaido, so I grew up and went to primary school there. My parents and sister are in Tokyo now, so that is where I go when I visit Japan.
My father worked for a Japanese paper manufacturing company and the whole family came to Australia when I was a child. We lived in Eden NSW, and I finished high school there. I came to Sydney after that to study at university. When my parents returned to Japan I decided to stay and finish my university education and I’ve been here since.
LP: Could you tell me about your practice and how you work as an artist?
YS: My practice is observational, and my subject is my life around me. I work at an accounting firm four days a week. Before Covid, I did one day of printmaking at Meadowbank TAFE (2) and one long day of painting at home. Because of Covid, I haven’t had access to a workshop or press, so I have been trying linocut printing at home using a hand baren and water-based inks, but it’s been a bit of a challenge.
LP: I notice that themes of fantasy and humour often recur in your works, as do portraits of yourself and your son. Also, congratulations on being a finalist for this year’s Portia Geach Prize! (3) The selected painting, Time Management, is a self-portrait in which you are surrounded by clocks. It is to me an anxiety-provoking image. Could you talk about this painting?
YS: I’m busy and I work long hours and I like to do so much with my spare time if I do have any. I just feel that there’s never enough time to do anything, so I was feeling a little bit…almost static, frozen, unable to move, and that is what was depicted in that painting. These clocks are just ticking behind me and I’m frozen and I’m not productive enough. As an artist, you really want to be producing, but at the pace I am going, I am so slow and there is so little time to do everything. That just sums up my frustration.
LP: What are you working on at the moment?
YS: Apart from my figurative work, I like to paint weeds – I have always enjoyed the sight of them growing on the side of the road and among pavements. My life now is basically between work and painting, and because of Covid (4), I’ve been walking a lot in my neighbourhood, and I notice a lot of weeds around. Using my own photos, I work from many different shots to create a composition for my painting. I don’t do a preliminary drawing, I go straight on to the canvas over an acrylic underpainting. I paint using tiny 000 brushes and I prefer oils as they give me a longer working time. The scale of my work is also dictated by the size of my studio – there’s not that much room to step back.
LP: Why weeds?
YS: Weeds just came as something that was familiar – they’re all different, they’re cute and they remind me of carefree childhood days when you can lie on the ground on your back, among the grass and weeds and look at they sky. Weeds are really interesting, and I thought I would get over it, but I can’t believe I am still painting weeds. Green is also a colour that is extremely hard to paint with, and it’s a challenge to control, technically.
LP: How do you see the role of an artist in society?
YS: I paint what I see and what is in my life. When my child was little, I used to spend a lot of time with him, and I did a lot of paintings of him running around. These days my focus has shifted to images that catch my eye, or that I imagine. For me it’s about my life, and so I just record what I see and that is my role as an artist. If people think that it is quite fun or funny and they like my painting, I think that’s great.
LP: Do you feel there are differences in the ways art and artists operate and are received within the cultures of Japan and Australia?
YS: Definitely, I think there is a Japanese way of looking at things. When I was growing up, I always liked painting and drawing, and I would look at images of Japanese art as well as Western art (in reproduction). Looking at Japanese woodblock prints was familiar to me, and I also liked looking at Impressionist paintings – it’s always been a cultural exchange and I’ve always been like that myself. I don’t feel like an insider of either culture, I feel like I am an observer. It’s interesting to be able to observe and artists naturally express what they observe.
LP: I recently saw the exhibition Another Energy (5) at Mori Art Museum featuring 16 women artists, aged between 71 and 105. Do you think you’ve had a different journey, being an artist who is a woman?
YS: Mori Art Museum is a terrific venue and I think it’s great that they always have something interesting, thought-provoking, and sometimes controversial. I’d like to keep painting and creating until the day I die. I really liked the work of the ceramic artist Kimiyo Mishima that I saw on YouTube – the piles of newspapers and trash. I’d love to see that.
LP: Given that travel has been so restricted in recent times, what do you miss the most about Japan – what would you do or taste if you were here now?
YS: Apart from seeing my family, I’d like to visit the museums to see current exhibitions. Definitely I miss Japanese fish; sushi and so many varieties of seafood that I like – and also, Japanese sweets.
As an artist, Yuri has that ability to expand upon small moments of daily life, lending them a poetic, occasionally bizarre quality. While she may say disarmingly, “It is just my life and I paint what I see,” it is those moments of intense observation in her works that open us up to playfulness and wonder. There is a joy in her introspective imagination that has perhaps been magnified by the recent time of social isolation.
Playfulness is also an approach she shares with Kimiyo Mishima, who, in the Mori Museum exhibition catalogue, says on the place of play in art-making:
“I feel like I take a whole life to play.
It’s not an imposition for me because I always feel as if I am playing.” (6)
More of Yuri’s work can be viewed on her Instagram account.
(1) Julian Ashton is a Sydney art school with a longstanding reputation for its focus on classical painting and drawing.
(2) Meadowbank TAFE is an educational institution in Sydney with shared workshop and studio facilities.
(3) The Portia Geach Memorial Award (est. 1961) is an annual portrait prize open to Australian female artists for portraits painted from life.
(4) At the time of this interview (October 24, 2021), Sydney is just emerging from a Covid lockdown of 106 days. Most residents worked from home when they could and stayed within five kilometers of their houses. Exercising was one of the few permitted reasons to leave the home, and walking the neighbourhood was a daily pastime for most.
(5) “Another Energy: Power to Continue Challenging – 16 Women Artists from Around the World” at Mori Art Museum, curated by Mami Kataoka (Tokyo, 2021–2022)
(6) “Another Energy: Power to Continue Challenging – 16 Women Artists from Around the World” Exhibition Catalogue, Tetsuro Uehara p. 249.