In the Studio with Tempe Artist Yuko Yabuki

Lynn Trimble
Yuko Yabuki inside the Tempe home she shares with boyfriend and fellow artist Thaddeus Mace Wike.
What happens in the studio shouldn't always stay in the studio. Studio Visit is a periodic series that profiles artists in their studios. We ask them questions, they provide answers, and then we have a nice discussion about their work. This month: Yuko Yabuki, whose work incorporates elements of fantasy and spirituality.

Tempe artist Yuko Yabuki has spent much of her life moving between two worlds.

Born and raised in Japan, she’s lived half her life in the United States. She earned a graphic design degree from Tokyo Women’s Art College, but now prefers drawing and painting free from the demands of commercial design.

Attracted early on to fashion, her artwork once focused on shoes and other things she deems material rather than spiritual. Today, her work is infused with spiritual themes — often incorporating dragons and other mythological elements. You'll see plenty of cats, too. And nods to her other interests, including punk-rock subculture.

click to enlarge Yuko Yabuki works displayed inside the hallway of her Tempe home. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Yuko Yabuki works displayed inside the hallway of her Tempe home.
Lynn Trimble
Yabuki rents a small house in a quiet Tempe neighborhood, and it has an art studio situated in the back yard. She’s resided there for many years, along with her boyfriend and fellow artist, Thaddeus Mace Wike.

Last year, Yabuki opened a second studio inside Grand Avenue's La Melgosa building, which gives her greater visibility and extra space for working on larger-scale projects. Despite that, she's working on a 17-foot-long painting in her Tempe studio now.

Typically, she gets just two days of studio time during the week. More often, she works at various Whole Foods stores, making the sushi that helps her feel connected to her Japanese culture. But you wouldn’t know it by exploring her Tempe studio space. Its walls are lined with works in progress, including several slotted for upcoming shows.

click to enlarge Yuko Yabuki works on a dragon drawing in her Tempe studio. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Yuko Yabuki works on a dragon drawing in her Tempe studio.
Lynn Trimble
Until recently, a small dragon she drew for the “Heart of the Dragon” exhibition at {9} The Gallery sat atop her desk. In coming months, she’ll have work at the Hell City Tattoo Convention, the Chaos Theory exhibition at Legend City Studios, and a Scottsdale Public Art exhibition at the Scottsdale Civic Center Library.

“My art is very personal,” Yabuki says of her work. “It’s about fantasy and mythology.”

It’s rooted in something she calls the “universal subconscious,” which is the idea that everyone’s minds are connected somehow.

“Our brains are remembering ancient memories that we don’t notice, but they’re there,” Yabuki says.

Dragons, and other symbols found in both Eastern and Western cultures, are prevalent in Yabuki’s work. She’s working now on a 12-part series titled “Heaven, Hell, and the Earth.” For Yabuki, hell represents pain, negative energy, fear, and uncertainty. Heaven, on the other hand, represents happiness, understanding, and love. The earth symbolizes being human.

click to enlarge Artist Yuko Yabuki working on a large-scale painting in her Tempe studio. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Artist Yuko Yabuki working on a large-scale painting in her Tempe studio.
Lynn Trimble
“I’m trying to paint something spiritual, beyond the body, and beyond material and physical things,” Yabuki says.

It's a sentiment reflected in several of her answers to New Times' questions, which you can read below.

Tell us about your work in haiku format.
High sky, swim with dragons
Deep forest, dream unicorns
Dive abyss, find light

What artist(s) are you really into right now?
Alexander Grim. The Kono schools artists.

What are you reading?
The Whale (Moby-Dick) Herman Melville. I didn’t have a chance to read this old novel, and it is about time. I just started reading, because a giant white whale is in the list of my future paintings. This story might help me to understand about the whales.

What's the last TV show, film, or video you watched?
Wildest Africa. Planet Earth. Any wildlife shows are most exciting for me now. How wildlife survive in the environment that they chose to live in, migrate long distances for what they need, and evolve themselves to the most successful way to survive is just amazing and most beautiful.

click to enlarge Yuko Yabuki sorts through several of her works inside her Tempe studio. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Yuko Yabuki sorts through several of her works inside her Tempe studio.
Lynn Trimble
If you could collaborate with any artists, alive or dead, who would it be? And why?
Since I am a painter, I would love to choose a collaborator who creates environments and spaces such as James Turrell. I love his futuristic surreal installations. If I could add images to his piece, I would paint in mythological themes, with the show concept being “Carry on to Spaceship to Mars.”

I have also always wanted to show my art among archaic ruins, or rotted-out old buildings. If I could find such artists, I would love to collaborate with them. That show title would be “Legacy of Human Race."

If I collaborated to complete one painting, William Morris might be the one. When I paint portraits, I come up with my main subject first, then the background comes to me later on. I sometimes wish someone else could take over the background part to finish them up. If I could have his ornamental botanical designs in the background or even frame design that goes with my painting, that would be beautiful.

What was the last exhibition you saw and what did you think of it?
"Samurai: Armor from the Ann and Gabriel-Mueller Collection" (Phoenix Art Museum). Art is like time travelers, or like wines. They came from the same land I came from and they have been existing much longer than I have lived on this planet. They witnessed between life and death for real, then after the long period of time, they showed up in front of my eyes. Its beauty and high craftsmanship is no doubt, but the time, story, and energy they contain within is massive, so it was a spiritual experience to me more than an art show.

Jeff Koons or Marina Abramovic? And why?
Jeff Koons. He is so different than me, I can’t imagine art like he does. I appreciate difference that helps me to see things from another angle. I have a tendency to get too serious, but his colorful and playful art is childlike. His art makes me smile and happy.

click to enlarge Getting a look inside Yuko Yabuki's Tempe studio. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Getting a look inside Yuko Yabuki's Tempe studio.
Lynn Trimble
What's the best advice you've ever received?
“You have to be happy” for general life advice. Everything starts from there. “Record the most beautiful line you can find from what you see” — that is what my art teacher said in high school, and I still remember it.

What are you currently working on?
Multiple things. Misty Dragon of “Heaven, Hell and Earth” series. This one is seventh image of 12. Line work for portraits. Sketching for a group show by Scottsdale Public Art at the library this September.

What's your most valuable tool as an artist?
First, imagination. Then, pen and pencil.