Looking back, looking forward in 2017

2016 was an incredibly challenging year for many, and my husband and I were no exception. In February, I was 9 months pregnant and our baby boy was stillborn just weeks from his due date. The loss was shocking after a perfectly healthy pregnancy, and devastating beyond anything I have experienced before. We have both spent much of the last year learning how to carry our grief as we move forward with life. The support and compassion extended to us by our families, friends and colleagues has been beyond anything we could have imagined. We would not have survived the past year without it.

I took time off before returning to work- I was in the middle of writing and illustrating “When the Cousins Came,” with Holiday House, and beginning my grandfather’s picture book bio with multicultural publisher Lee & Low. I also was in the planning stages of a mural about gun violence and reconciliation with Vito Valdez in Detroit. There was work to be done, but it took time to get to a place where I could actually do it. My editors, Grace Maccarone at Holiday House and Louise May at Lee & Low were beyond patient and supportive. There was no rush. My first mentor wrote me a letter and told me about how when his wife passed away, he was in the midst of a book with a significant deadline, but how making the work helped him learn to process and carry his grief. I was so grateful for that letter and found the same to be true for me.

The little bedroom that was to be our baby’s room was transformed into a small studio for me and I was able to stay home and work near the little shrine that we had made for him. There was an ease to working at home, where I could ride out the waves of grief as they came. So, from those months at home, in the quiet of the recently converted studio, the work for “When the Cousins Came” came into being.

I was also lucky at that time to be working with my good friend Kien Nguyen at Philadelphia Mural Arts on the design for a project that will go on the opposite side of a wall we painted at Smith Playground in 2014. Our project manager understands more than most the struggle of learning to live with grief and she truly helped me kind of pace myself and be easy as it was a time like no other. After MANY drafts and design reviews, we finally finished that mural design and had it approved just a couple of weeks ago.

The greatest blessing of a project this year came from a collaboration with the Women & Justice Project and Hour Children. I had a great feeling about the project from the email I got from Tamar, Jaya and Miyhosi at WJP and will be forever grateful to them for finding me. I wrote extensively about this project in its portfolio under the “Work” section of my site if you care to read about the details.

I was able to work with about 20-30 formerly incarcerated women and their children on a project that explored the idea of “Transformation.” These are women who have faced some of the hardest, most unspeakable hardships this life has to offer and every day they are devoted to making life better, making the world a more just place for other women and children. They know, better than anyone I’ve ever met, trauma, grief and suffering. But the lives they are living are lives of healing, support, determination, optimism and honesty. Being around women who shared so deeply, cared so much and spoke so much truth was incredibly healing for me and I will forever be grateful that this project came around when it did. Without knowing it, the women I collaborated with on this project helped me learn how to be brave again.


I also felt so fortunate to come across Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, the fearless leader of Hour Children (www.hourchildren.org) during this project. She reminded me of my Catholic Worker grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my mother . . . all the people who taught us that being a good person in the world, whether Catholic or otherwise, just means being guided by love and doing the work. Working with Hour Children and WJP just felt like being home when I needed it most.

With this project and so many others, with our loss and with our grief, I thought so much about interconnectedness. Maybe some of you remember that last year I did a project with Amnesty International about a woman in El Salvador named Teodora del Carmen Vasquez who had been sentenced to 30 years in prison after her baby was stillborn in her 9th month while she was at work. She was charged with the aggravated homicide of her stillborn baby. When I painted that mural, I was 7 months pregnant. I was enjoying what seemed to be a perfect pregnancy. I was healthy, energetic, joyful with the new life of my son growing inside me. I identified with her as a human being, as a woman, as someone who was pregnant . . . but at that time, never could I have imagined her loss and her punishment. Still, to this day, I cannot imagine her experience. When our baby died, we were enveloped in love and support- from the medical team around us, to our friends, family and community who somehow knew just what to do in an impossible situation. I can only begin to imagine the devastation of her loss, where instead of support, she received recrimination and punishment for her deepest tragedy. It is unimaginable. I think of her often. I think of the other women incarcerated in El Salvador for the same thing. I worry about reproductive rights for women around the country and world- the sickness of her sentence is symptomatic of a country that does not believe in the reproductive rights of women, nor do they provide prenatal healthcare for anyone beyond the very wealthy. It is dangerous, tragic territory to tread.

For most of the last year, I could barely speak about that project. The irony of losing my baby after painting a mural of a woman who suffered the same loss at the same time was too acute. But I also think there is a beauty in the interconnectedness of all of our suffering, all of our joy. You never know what people have lived through. You never know what it takes for anyone to go out into the world and be brave and stand up for the rights of others. I learned that from the Women & Justice Project and the women of Hour Children. I learn that with every project. I also have heard so many stories since our own loss that remind me that we share so much with so many and it’s so important to have a platform to tell our stories.

Now, when I am making new work, I am always thinking about my son. He is in every illustration, in every mural, in every brushstroke and pencil mark. He lives with me always. The shock and trauma of the loss will be there as long as it needs to be, the grief is here to stay, but that’s okay. I read somewhere that grief is just learning to live with death. That is what I am working on. It’s the most painful lesson to learn, but I’m so blessed to be able to share this grief, this pain with my amazing, compassionate husband, our loving families and community. Together, we are all learning to gain some acceptance of, and maybe eventually surrender to, the simple truth that there is so much mystery in life, so many things so far beyond our control. Like everything, that understanding is a work in progress.

As I look into 2017, I look forward with an open heart. I am regaining my optimism. I have projects I am excited about, collaborating partners who thrill me. I have a new agent who believes in my stories and my work. There is, indeed, so much to look forward to . . . so much to be thankful for.

Thank you for reading this, the most personal piece I have ever published. I wish you and your beloveds the very happiest and healthiest in 2017.

Catching up . . .

It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I’ve written a post, so here goes . . . If you have a chance, please check out the new projects posted in the “Work” section of my site- there, you will find many new photos of recent work.

In December, I was excited to be invited to Amnesty International’s Art for Rights event in New Orleans, where I focused my work on a campaign to free Teodora del Carmen Vasquez in El Salvador. At work one day in 2008, in the 9th month of her pregnancy, Teodora tragically suffered a stillbirth. She was then arrested and charged with “aggravated homicide” and has been sentenced to 30 years in prison. Amnesty is working to free her, and you can learn more about her story and how you can help here.
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At the end of last year I also wrapped up a long project at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. Tired of the lack of safe and affordable exercise facilities in their community, the hospital and neighborhood worked with me to transform the first 3 floors of their massive stairwell into a wellness and exercise facility of sorts. See more in my gallery! Both the planning and installation were massive team efforts and I so loved working with the Lincoln family. My dear friend Eric Okdeh even came up from Philly to help install. Hopefully in the next year or two we will take the mural all the way up to the 12th floor.
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Currently, I’m working on a couple of books and a couple of murals in their early stages.

Vito Valdez, longtime Detroit muralist and dear friend of mine, and I won a Knight Arts Challenge grant to create a mural in Southwest Detroit, centered around peace and non-violence. We will be working with many families, members of law enforcement, and other community members who have been personally impacted by gun violence in the SW community. We are painting on a wall where an Aztec shield was painted in the early 90’s, an effort to halt gang violence by rival members. The project wasn’t finished then, but we intend to do so. We are currently fundraising for our matching grant and beginning to have community meetings. Any leads on fundraising for this project are more than welcome!
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I’m also back working with Philadelphia’s Mural Arts program. A couple of years ago, my friend Kien Nguyen and I created this mural with a team of young men in various detention facilities in and around Philadelphia. IMG_1926 Now, we are going to paint the other side of the wall and have begun meetings with the local community about the concept. The first mural, “Heavy Blanket,” reflected a still moment of contemplation and identity. The central figure considering his identity within the context of our nation’s “heavy blanket” of racial and ethnic discrimination. For the opposing side, we intend to utilize similar visual motifs, but focus on lightness and motion, and how the youth of the Smith Playground community see themselves as active, healthy beings. Design coming soon! Here’s the crew from an early design session. IMG_0730

Caleb Neelon and I have also done a couple of new projects, both at Welling Court in Long Island City, Queens. Last year’s was about Kalief Browder (please read). This year, we did our project related to the Flint Water Crisis.

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Finally, I’m working on some books! “When the Cousins Came,” is wrapping up and most of 2016 has been devoted to this project. Inspired by my own giant family and cousins from diverse backgrounds (racially, culturally and geographically!), this is the story of cousins visiting for the weekend and learning more about themselves and their own identities by spending time just being kids and having fun. Soon, I’ll be working on my grandfather‘s biography for Lee and Low, and more to come after that!

Here is a sneak peak of some collage works-in-progress from “When the Cousins Came.” Coming soon from Holiday House!
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Thanks for taking the time to catch up with me!
Love,
Katie

Spring-Summer Wrap-Up, 2014

It’s been such a long time since I last posted! 2014 has been a whirlwind of a year, full of eye-opening new projects and experiences. The year got off to a great start because I was able to sell two books that I’ve been working on for a very long time. One is a story called “When the Cousins Came,” that I sold to Holiday House, the publishers of “Fish for Jimmy.” The story is inspired by a lifetime of experiences with my own cousins, from every culture and urban/rural corner of the country, and is set to come out next year. The other story, “YAMA,” I’ve literally been working on for at least 10 years. It tells the story of my grandfather, architect Minoru Yamasaki. I’m publishing that story with Lee and Low and am beyond thrilled and humbled to be able to share his remarkable journey with children everywhere.

This year has also been exceptional because, I had a final art show with my 4th-8th grade students at Ballet Tech, The NYC Public School for Dance. I’ve been a teacher there since 2000, and have decided to take this year off from teaching because of other work demands. We had a wonderful end-of-school-year exhibit, and this fall was the first year since I was 3 years old that I did not go “back to school.” And as much as I miss my students (A LOT!!!), the extra time has been really important so far this September.

Here are a couple of pieces from the end of the year with my Ballet Tech kids. Their work is always so inspiring!

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I also wrapped up the teaching year with my Continuing Ed. class at the School of Visual Arts. I had an incredible Spring semester with amazing students and guest speakers. One of my students from that semester sold the book she was working on (and got a two-book deal with a major house)! Another student also sold her book to an educational press and another student is waiting to hear how about her project after signing with one of the top agencies in the city. It was an amazing semester! I’ll be back at SVA for the winter semester with the same class, “Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books.”

At the end of the school semester I got to go out to the Japanese American National Museum for a “Fish for Jimmy” book signing and event. It was wonderful and I am so thrilled to be returning to JANM from Oct. 15-Nov. 15 for a mural project! Painting at the JANM is truly a dream come true for me- it is a site so special to my family and JA history. We’ve been planning the project all summer and I can’t wait to get out there in a few weeks!

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IMG_4228 Fish for Jimmy friends and family making their fish crowns at the museum.

 

 

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IMG_4204 My new wall!!!!!

The summer also brought the conclusion of an amazing project with Philadelphia Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice program. I partnered with Philly artist Kien Nguyen and teaching artist Ellissa Collier to work with incarcerated teens at a couple of detention centers in and around Philadelphia. Please read more about that project in the portfolio/murals section of my work page.

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Also, big thanks to my friend George Gardner III for helping me out and being such an incredible model for the project!!

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This summer also brought about the incredible good fortune of a trip to Basque Country, Spain, where I was one of 13 artists invited to participate in a mural event that explored women from rural societies both in Basque Country and globally. It was a fascinating place- totally unique in my experience. Please check out the work I did with the community of Azilu (population:30, seriously). I also had a chance to spend some time with my Spanish muralist friends, especially my friends Eva Mena and Veronica Werckmeister in Vitoria. Amazing! What a joy to be able to travel around and see the great work that is going up by muralists (and lots of women muralists!) all over Spain. I even saw a beautiful piece by the wonderful Philly muralist Michelle Ortiz.

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IMG_4626 3 Amazing pieces by the Werckmeister sisters/organization!!

Mid-summer, I got to go back to Boston to work with my good buddy Caleb Neelon at Tobin Elementary in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. It’s amazing the ground we can cover in 3 days 🙂

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So  . . . it has been a time of a lot of work and personal growth. 2014 has been full of blessings, most simply by being able to share and collaborate with friends, family and expanding communities all over. My gratitude abounds. I’ll try to keep things updated as the future projects unfold, particularly the mural at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown LA, October 15-November 15!

Love, Katie

 

 

 

 

Catching up!

Hi! Thanks for visiting. I haven’t updated this blog since the website was built in the beginning of the year, so there is a lot to catch up on! It’s been an exciting year- “Fish for Jimmy” was released, I attended a public art event/mural conference in Argentina and painted several murals over the summer in Detroit. For more pictures and stories from the work below, check out the “Work” section on the site which I have also, finally, updated.

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Early in the year, I was invited to participate in an international mural conference in Cosquin, Cordoba, Argentina, to paint alongside about 50 other artists from around the world. I painted 3 murals in Argentina but the highlight from this trip was connecting with Sabotaje al Montaje and my other friends from the Canary Islands, to be able to paint with them all over Cordoba. The collaborative process continues to stun me as a way to open yourself up to images that may not have otherwise ever come out, had it not been for the collaborator. This is one of the favorite paintings I’ve ever done, on the riverbank of the Rio Cosquin, with Sabotaje al Montaje.

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I’ve been anticipating the release of “Fish for Jimmy” for some time now, but I could not have anticipated the amazing support and enthusiasm that has surrounded its release. Friends (new and old), family, children of all ages and my Japanese American community have come out in such strong and loving support at every signing  and reading I’ve had. I’ve been invited to schools, bookstores and conferences across the country to share this story. When I was growing up, frustrated by the complete absence of the Japanese Internment from any lesson in school, I wish I could have told my adolescent self that it was coming. I feel so blessed every time I share this story with a child or group of children.

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Speaking of children, in the Spring, I hosted what I think was the 9th year of the Ballet Tech Evening if the Arts. My 4th-8th grade students’ work was prominently displayed in all of its glory. Check it out in the work section of my site for more pictures. There is nothing in the world like their work and their indomitable creative spirit!!

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Check out the new Boggs Educational Center mural in Detroit. My friends have put years of their lives into making this school a reality for the children of the east side of Detroit. I’m so, so happy for them. The mission of the school reads as follows: Our Mission is to Nurture Creative, Critical Thinkers Who Contribute to the Well-Being of Their Communities.” What could be better!

"We Must Believe We Have the Power Within Us to Create the World Anew." Grace Lee Boggs

“We Must Believe We Have the Power Within Us to Create the World Anew.” Grace Lee Boggs

While in Detroit, I also had a chance to do a memorial piece for Trayvon Martin. Detroiters came out in big support, with so much love and solidarity for the message. Thank you, Detroit.

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Also in Detroit, I had the chance to collaborate with the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, who developed a gorgeous new Head Start center on Gratiot Ave. 72 children, newborn -five years old now have a brand new preschool to attend, in what was a previously abandoned lot. There is a sweetness to painting in preschools that never gets old for me.

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This year, I also moved studios and had a visit from the independent booksellers from across the country who were attending the Book Expo America conference at the Javits Center. After 10 years of sharing a studio with my beloved friend Yuko Shimizu, I moved to Brooklyn, closer to home, and started subletting. I miss Yuko like crazy, but it’s great to have my own big walls to paint on and I can definitely say that the studio that we shared is like 500% more beautiful since I left and Yuko remodeled!!

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These days, I am working on some new book proposals, busy teaching my students at Ballet Tech and continuing ed students at SVA. My Writing and Illustrating Children’s Book class is an absolute joy to teach. The students, from all walks of life, are an inspiration and their stories are wonderful too! The fall schedule is a little grueling, but well worth it. I’ve been able to have amazing guest speakers come to class- Edel Rodriguez, Lizzy Rockwell, Jan Carr, Zetta Elliot, Marcellus Hall and Marcos Chin. These students are so lucky 🙂

And . . . there was the 5th year of making murals at the Welling Court Mural Project with my friend Caleb Neelon! This year’s project was particularly fun with little Lucia, daughter of my dear friends, as our star!

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Now that I know how to update my website, I’ll do it more often! Please come back for a visit soon!

 

 

 

 

 

‘Fish for Jimmy’ Reviewed by NY Times

“Yamasaki, who works as a muralist and educator, creates sweeping paintings that capture the story in a literal manner even as she makes bold metaphorical leaps. When the two boys lie in bed at night, the menacing shadows of the camp’s guard tower are imprinted on their blankets. The family stands poised on Taro’s reclining form, while the imagined torsos of F.B.I. agents loom in a forbidding muddy background. One of the most moving spreads shows Taro capturing fish in a river, each fish carrying a reclining Jimmy on its back.

The overall result is a dramatic, visual feast. And Yamasaki gives readers a reassuringly happy ending.”

– Pamela Paul, NY Times

Read the full review at nytimes.com

Talk at TEDx Brooklyn

Katie recently spoke at TEDx Brooklyn – watch the video to see her talk.

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Katie at TEDx Brooklyn

Katie at TEDx Brooklyn

Katie at TEDx Brooklyn

Yamasaki’s outfit provided by Eileen Fisher.

Children Communicate With Incarcerated Mothers Through Mural

Rikers Island Mural

10-year-old Shyzaya Louallen is using art to connect to his mother as she serves time at Rikers Island.

“I feel good about painting it because it gets me excited so when she comes out I could show her,” he said.

The mural in East Harlem is a visual dialogue between children and their incarcerated mothers. The images are based on messages and drawings sent to the kids by their moms.

– Jeanine Ramirez

Read the full article at ny1.com

Rikers Moms Connect With Children Through Art

Rikers Island

White cinder block walls with steel security gates line the hallways at Rikers Island Correctional Facility. The women’s jail at Rikers contains a large percentage of inmates who are mothers, including Safiyah Tate.

“I love my children and I just feel guilty that I put them through so much pain in being away,” Tate says.

Now, Tate is connecting to her children through art. She’s one of a dozen mothers at Rikers painting a mural on a jailhouse wall with images of her children. The design is based on messages and drawings that their children sent to them as part of the art project.

– Jeanine Ramirez

Read the full article at ny1.com