Artist's satisfaction discovered in self


POSTED: Sunday, August 23, 2009

Shige Yamada's artistic motivations have never sprung from external influences. They take root in a mind that “;always tended to work differently than others. From early on, things that attracted or inspired me were not what other people were inspired by,”; says the Maui artist.

Yamada's unique perspective didn't provide for a necessarily easy path—“;Hardly any teacher suited my temperament, so I conformed to the teachers' needs, not my own”;—but it did better arts education for thousands of Hawaii students. For that contribution, as well as long and impressive careers as an art teacher and fine artist, Yamada is being honored in the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce's 31st annual “;Commitment to Excellence”; Art Exhibition. The show comprises juried works and contributions from 21 invited artists, as well as works from Yamada.

Yamada, raised on Maui, earned teaching and art degrees at the University of Hawaii-Manoa and taught art in California and Japan before becoming an art research professor at UH's College of Education for 18 years.

His art is part of collections at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., Museum of Art and Design in New York, Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, Honolulu Academy of Arts and Hawaii State Art Museum. In 1993, Yamada was selected as a Living Treasure of Hawaii by Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.





        » On exhibit: Through Aug. 27

» Place: Academy Art Center, 1111 Victoria St.


» Gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays


» Call: 532-8741




One of the biggest impacts Yamada has made on the local art community came during his stint at UH.

He developed an art curriculum guide for teachers by “;doing a lot of reading and looking around. I also brought in my own philosophy about art and what artists are,”; he recalls.

“;In studying the field, I found that artists come in all stripes. There are those, like me, who lean toward the extreme left, and others who are conservative and produce decorative art. To teach art, one must consider that students' psyches run the spectrum. How can all students find their comfort zone? It's tricky.”;

Yamada took over the art curriculum at the UH Lab School and figured it out.

“;I gave students a great deal of freedom of personal expression in whatever form they wanted, and they had all the art materials they needed. And within a couple of years, I abolished grades. Creativity is an experience, and you don't grade an experience.”;

In the end, he says, students were happy, discipline was great and the work was “;incredible. In some instances, it was graduate-level work. That's what happens with no restraints.”;

Yamada hasn't kept up with the lab school's curricula since he left in 1988, but he says he still sees former students who remember their arts education with fondness.

Yamada became a full-time artist on Maui after leaving UH, and his work has been diverse. He calls his most personal art, some of which no one but himself has seen, “;surrealistic,”; and in those pieces he refuses to compromise his vision. But he understands that a professional artist must consider various factors when producing art for the public eye.

“;Most of my public commissions come through competitions, so there's some compromise. I do try to meet the public halfway. But I still push it a little bit,”; he admits.

Yamada is most well known for his large-scale sculptures at the Hawaii Convention Center, Kahului airport and along Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki. Then there are his paintings that document local sites.

“;I've produced watercolors that are in the vein of a reporter reporting, but I've applied my own technique. I enjoy creating those kinds of works from time to time, but it's not in my psyche to do that all the time. It would drive me crazy,”; he says. “;I'm more comfortable doing odd-looking art. It's the most natural thing for me.

“;I once made a sculpture with a couple of heads. It was egg-shaped with a mouth coming out. People were scared, and one art teacher scolded me for making her feel bad! But that piece catapulted me nationally. It was selected by a gallery in New York.”;

Yamada has continued nurturing his artistic inclinations over the years through a variety of media. Currently, he's working in computer art. And despite his early experiences of feeling misunderstood, the artist has garnered appreciative followers among the upper echelons of Hawaii's art community.

“;His contributions to the arts in Hawaii have been steady and diverse, and he continues to develop and change even at this stage in his career,”; says Carol Khewhok, former director of the Academy Art Center and juror for “;Commitment to Excellence”; this year.

“;Shige really, truly is a living treasure,”; says art consultant Greg Northrop, another juror. “;He's the next generation from that earlier wave of artists like Bumpei Akaji, Tadashi Sato and Satoru Abe.”;

YAMADA SAYS the years when he was a young artist were exciting times in Hawaii.

“;Before statehood, everyone exhibited a lot,”; he recalls. “;The art never sold, yet artists participated to show what they were doing, to be among peers. I grew up in that period.

“;After statehood, the State Foundation was started, and that's when art started being purchased. Art was legitimized by the government, and the public followed suit.”;

But for Yamada, his art has never been governed by commercialism.

“;I've never worked in a popular style. I create art that satisfies me ... and flows from me naturally,”; he says. “;Through art, I recognize who I am and what I am. And that has made me a very happy person.”;