In the Arms of Fierce Mother Ocean

Joyce Yamada is a Brooklyn-based artist working in both painting and multi-media installation. An intuitive painter using complex imagery, she is profoundly interested in science, ecology, and the environment. She probes the relationship between humans and nature, the deep history of life on earth, and our possible futures.

What I remember most from childhood are family vacations to the forests, mountains, and ocean of northern California and beyond. Because my father was an amateur photographer and watercolorist, we spent much time in beautiful places; his camouflage was trout fishing. He laughingly said that curious people will invariably stop and talk to you unless you are doing something obvious, like fishing.  He was actually doing a form of meditation.  Though I didn’t know it, so was I.  Ever since, I have felt a strong kinship with old trees and clear streams.

I was intensely introspective as a teenager. Journal-writing and freeform thinking led me to existentialism, Jungian psychology, and poetry. It was excellent to sift through received beliefs and begin to think for myself.  However, to formulate a world view at the age of 17 is impossible and by the end of high school I realized I could wander endlessly lost in the labyrinths of my own mind– that I needed to live rather than to think un-tethered from experience. I was obsessively trying to write several poems; one day I realized that I did not love words. I was reading D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers  and realized that his rich, emotionally evocative descriptions and love of language were totally beyond me.  It was an epiphany; I needed to PAINT the images in my head, not write them.  Ever since then, artwork has been my purpose in life.

I decided to earn my living outside the art world; I did not want to teach or to illustrate. I was looking for work that had a clear purpose, training, and protocols, and that could be done part-time.  By near-accidents of circumstance, I was accepted to medical school and became a doctor; I then did a 4-year residency to become a board-certified diagnostic radiologist. I had always enjoyed science classes so this felt congenial. In college I had, in fact, briefly played with the idea of becoming a scientist.  However, my brother is a research scientist, and through his example I realized that science is a passion like art, and that I couldn’t do both.  Medicine among other things is applied science, with protocols and accepted methodologies, and I thought I could do both it and art.  Because I was afraid of losing my connection to artwork,  I kept painting throughout my training. By the fourth year of medical school I had saved up enough vacation time to paint for a full month; after a bit of struggle I finally got in a good art-making groove.  The best result was Oxygen, coincidentally my first Ocean painting.

Oxygen, acrylic on canvas, 40×16 inches, 1978

For two decades I worked as a general Diagnostic Radiologist, with specialization in body and vascular ultrasound. The majority of that time I job-shared with a partner in order to make time for artwork. Those were stressful and intensely frustrating years; as an artist I engage a non-rational part of my mind that is totally different from what is required for medical work.  It took at least 3-4 days to make the switch from medicine to art.  I would sleep and read until, by some mysterious process, I would wake up one morning and know I could paint again. I could find absolutely no way to speed up this transition. During that time, scientist Stephen Jay Gould was writing an article for every issue of Natural History magazine. I loved the magazine and through his work I gained an interest in evolution, and an appreciation of the grand, quirky sweep of life’s history. Reading is what kept my mind engaged during the long days when I was unable to paint.  I loved the science, which has fed my mind and artwork ever since. Having had my teenage experience of deep introspection, I also felt firmer ground under my feet with science. It does assume some form of reality “out there” about which one can argue, but nonetheless, investigating that reality with scientific rigor seems to me a safeguard against unhinged ideas and wandering in the dark.

In the early 1990’s I made a fateful trip to a radiology conference in Seattle; the airplane flight over Oregon was shocking as was the drive from Seattle to the Olympic rainforest. The extent of clear-cutting was horrifying, the rapacious destruction mind-boggling.  Entire forests were razed; the clear-cuts were stark patches and huge rectangles of bare earth, the logging roads like twisted worm holes.   This experience led to my Truncated Landscape series.  I felt I had finally hit my stride. Environmental concerns and the findings of ecology have remained central to my work ever since, and have also caused me to question the relationship of humans to the natural world. (This aspect of my work is explored in a recent interview with Art Spiel  (  https://artspiel.org/joyce-yamada-contemplating-the-human-species  )

In 2015 I turned my mind from land to the ocean. As a land-based human I realized that my point of view had been extremely narrow.  Knowing that the oceans cover more than 70% of Earth’s surface, that ocean and land are deeply interconnected, that life originated in the oceans eons before it made its way onto land, and that the ocean is essential to life on earth—if only for its water, its oxygen and its effect on climate–I wanted to paint it.  I have snorkeled only once (it was awesome), and am neither a swimmer nor a diver. My experience of the ocean is looking at it from afar and spending time in aquariums, especially the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Other than that, the ocean– especially the deepest ocean– felt like a very large, very blank book.

I had used ocean and beach imagery before, as in Jellyfish Invasion, from 2008, both a comment on climate change  (jellyfish are enjoying the warming oceans) and a reference to human evolution through an ancient fish lineage, inspired by the book Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (there are subtle fin and finger patterns in the sand). However, once I began to deliberately work on the Ocean series, I realized that I needed a new ocean-based, ocean-curious point of view.  I struggled to get a grip on the subject. I didn’t want to use the ocean as just another topic for human-centric art; I wanted to reveal the ocean with respect and awe.

Jellyfish Invasion, oil on canvas, 44×68 inches, 2008

One of my first Ocean paintings, Ocean on Fire_The Purse Seine, was a bridge from my forest-based environmental work to deliberately ocean-based work. The depicted seascape was familiar to me from my parent’s small vacation house near the beach, from which we could see the coast from Santa Cruz to Monterey, especially haunting at night with the pale twinkling lights of human habitation set against the heavens.  The poet Robinson Jeffers, considered an icon of environmentalism, lived and wrote in this region of California, which was once a huge center for sardine fisheries. Jeffers’ poem, The Purse Seine, suggests that we humans are now like shimmering fish, caught and dying in nets of our own devising.  I was contemplating some of the destructive human effects on ocean ecosystems—oil spills, over-fishing, pollution.

Ocean on Fire_The Purse Seine, oil on canvas, 42×60 inches, 2015

After struggling through several more paintings I found that what I most enjoy is painting ocean creatures and ocean ecosystems, so different from our own.  People  call ocean creatures aliens because they are so unlike us in form, but they are completely native Earth creatures that have been living and surviving on Earth for eons. It is we humans instead who are a new rambunctious and often destructive species, poorly integrated with Earth’s living systems, and deeply ignorant of the workings of our planet.  We seem distanced now from direct feedback from nature, frequently blinded and misled by irrational beliefs. Scientists and explorers have, thankfully, been exploring and imaging the oceans, including some of the deepest, most remote ecosystems, and there is now accumulating information, undersea photography, and videography.  I am grateful for these sources and depend on them.

The past 4 years, 2017-2020, have been disrupted by politics, threatened tyranny, and irrationality.  I rarely feel compelled to paint in political protest, but could not help myself. However, the importance of climate change and of controlling the accelerating destruction of Earth’s ecosystems is bringing me to a new approach.  Though protest remains part of what I feel, so is connectivity to Earth’s creatures, gratitude for Earth’s beauty, and a feeling of responsibility.  I am inspired by indigenous peoples such as Robin Wall Kimmerer, the botanist and indigenous woman who wrote Braiding Sweetgrass, and by all those who are calling for a new approach to thinking about Earth and our relationship to it.

Following are brief notes on the included Ocean paintings. I plan to keep painting land and ocean creatures and ecosystems, celebrating what still exists and what still can be.

In the Arms of Fierce Mother Ocean  depicts humans cradled by the ocean and its creatures, primarily and most importantly its plankton, which are the base of the oceanic food chain and which supply much of the oxygen we breathe. Microbial ocean life preceded us by billions of years and may be a requisite for the evolution of oxygen-utilizing multicellular life.

In the Arms of Fierce Mother Ocean, oil on canvas, 60×48 inches, 2015

Ceratium ranipes is a particularly engaging plankton species—looking a bit like dancing humanoids, growing chloroplast-filled fingers with which to capture light during the day, retracting the fingers and sinking at night. I celebrate these creatures in two recent small paintings. (My source for imagery is The Plankton Chronicles Project.)

Plankton_Ceratium ranipes_Dancing, acrylic on canvas, 11×14 inches, 2020

 

Plankton_Ceratium ranipes_Fingers to the Sun, acrylic on canvas, 11×14 inches, 2020

Glowfish, Quarks, and Quasars is a riff on life in the deep ocean, particularly those creatures that use bioluminescence. Included are lantern fish near the top of the painting (perhaps the most numerous fish in the sea), an anglerfish on the right using its luminous faux bait, and a stoplight loosejaw fish on the lower left, one of the only fish that sees and emits red bioluminescence; because most of its prey cannot see red, it is essentially hunting by invisible flashlight.

Glowfish, Quarks, and Quasars, oil on canvas, 60×44 inches, 2015

 

Glowfish, Quarks, and Quasars, Detail of Lanternfish

The right lower panel of the four panel Neptune’s Elephant features squid (including several vampire squid), octopuses, on the left a Greenland shark with the typical parasitic worm living in its eye, and on the right a whale fall which is a fascinating ecosystem created by a whale carcass that falls to the deep ocean floor, supporting an entire succession of animals for decades including, finally, bone worms which eat up the skeleton. In the end the entire whale is consumed, transformed into other creatures. I was inspired to research whale falls by biologist Bernd Heinrich’s book, Life Everlasting: the Animal Way of Death.

Neptune’s Elephant, (right lower quadrant), oil on canvas, 48×36 inches, 2015

Bubblenet Panic is a celebration of the humpback whale bubble-net feeding technique, which is a learned, communal behavior.

Bubblenet Panic, oil on canvas, 60×88 inches, 2015

Ocean creatures’ survival mechanisms are fascinating, for instance bioluminescence as escape mechanism in Fish Defense and Twilight Zone Squid, camouflage by mimicry of less attractive prey as in Squid Mimics Siphonophore wherein the young of at least one species of squid, hunted as tasty protein-rich food, mimics the low-food-value siphonophores. I am particularly taken with cephalopods—octopuses, (as in Cephalopod Rapture), squid, and cuttlefish—complex, intelligent, sentient, even emotional creatures, and am working on a new series that will feature more than a few cephalopods.

Fish Defense, oil on gessoed rag paper mounted on panel, 10.5×14.5 inches, 2015

 

Twilight Zone Squid, oil on linen mounted on panel, 8×10 inches, 2015

 

Squid Mimics Siphonophore, oil on gessoed rag paper mounted on panel, 11×14 inches, 2015

 

Cephalopod Rapture, acrylic on canvas, 14×11 inches, 2020

That absolutely all things are inter-connected is a worldview well understood by many indigenous peoples. This concept is being re-formulated and re-discovered by many today in our own culture, something that could stand us in good stead as we search for sustainable ways to live on our planet.  We need to seek understanding of the interrelated workings of our planet’s ocean, land, and atmosphere, and deeply question our own role as humans.  One of the things that most impressed me from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s writing is that contrary to what many young environmentalists believe (i.e. that nature is best left alone because humans are pure poison), some humans have in the past been intimately involved with their environments in a positive way. Indigenous peoples have practiced some of the best-managed sustainable forestry; these forests are highly productive and intensively managed, but remain in essence healthy old growth forests.  Limiting fishing to preserve wild stocks of valued fish is also working, though much of what we are unintentionally doing to the Ocean is much more complicated and will require much more work and sacrifice.  All is not lost yet, however. There is much we can still do.

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https://joyceyamada.com/home.html

All images copyright and courtesy of Joyce Yamada

 

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