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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 10, 2005

The life and art of Shige Yamada

By Victoria Gail-White
Special to The Advertiser

In 1991, Shige Yamada worked at a foundry in Oregon, refining a large clay head. The mold for the full-size bronze sculpture "Maui Releasing the Sun," below, was made from this clay model. "Maui Releasing the Sun" is on display at the Kahului Airport on Maui. At bottom, "Rainbows," another Yamada sculpture, is on display at the Stan Sheriff Center at the University of Hawai\'i-Manoa.

State Foundation on Culture and the Arts photos


Maui-born artist Shige Yamada has not had his work in the Artists of Hawai'i exhibit at the Honolulu Academy of Arts in 30 years.

It is not because he didn't submit work; sometimes the jurors (usually professionals from the Mainland) didn't accept his submissions. This year, after retiring from teaching, being designated a Living Treasure by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission, having won numerous other awards and large state commissions, he's back — as one of four invited sculptors (including Sean Browne, Fred Roster and Frank Sheriff).

Q. Is this the first time you are an invited artist to the Artists of Hawai'i exhibit?

A. Yes. Thirty years ago, when I lived in Honolulu, the work was judged on site, and I was in the shows fairly regularly. When they started judging the work from slides, it became a lottery. I have submitted slides but did not get in. I've juried shows, and it's almost impossible to judge work by slides because there are so many nuances and subtleties. As a juror, or as an artist, I wouldn't want to jury or be juried by slides. Artists who didn't get into this exhibit shouldn't feel chagrined; the juror should.

Q. How many pieces do you have in the exhibit?

A. Three bronze models for the major state commissions I have done: "Maui Releasing the Sun," "The Gift of Water" and "Rainbows," along with studies and preliminary models and sketches. All together, 12 pieces. These state Public Art Commissions were selected by competition — both statewide and semi-national. The work on display, which includes photos of the on-site installations, shows a progression from the starting point to the final result.

Q. What is it about monumental sculpture that intrigues you?

A. There isn't much opportunity to work on such a large scale. Usually, artists can't make something that big unless they are commissioned. Many ideas never evolve to that size. My large bronze sculptures are controversial, but they allow me to put in monumental scale the ideas that reside in most artists' minds.

Q. You are proficient in different media — watercolor, prints, glass-blowing, computer art and oil painting as well as bronze and clay sculpture. Do you have a favorite medium?

A. I have a creative mind. A medium is not that important to me. The idea is. I enter a world with parameters and restrictions when I start using a medium. Ideas don't have restrictions, but the medium does. When you paint, you are working on a flat surface tied to a two-dimensional world. I explore media to see how they will allow me to explore my ideas.

Most people are medium-oriented. I am idea-oriented. That's my basic nature. However, of all the art materials I have explored so far, Adobe Photoshop is the best art tool I have come across. It is a vast territory to explore.

I feel like the first human being to step onto Asia. I could walk for the rest of my life and never see a fraction of it —there's so much there. When I work at the computer, it keeps up with my imagination. The waiting time is brief. It's all happening before my eyes, and it doesn't take a year of preliminary sketches or models before execution.

Q. I read that your artwork is more influenced by literature than by current affairs. What are you reading now, and what book has influenced you the most?

A. I just finished "Many Lives, Many Masters" by Brian Weiss. It's fascinating. However, I read the "Tibetan Book of the Dead" in my early 30s and still feel it's the most profound. I couldn't help but be influenced by it. Essentially, it states that which is important is not the material object but the spirit that it embodies. When I look at art, I am looking to see the spirit that was put into it by the artist. If there is power in it, it comes storming out at you. I want that power in my sculptures. How does an artist get that? The ancients did.

Q. Your creativity seems to be a living, energetic flowing phenomenon. How do you nurture your creativity?

A. By looking at myself and by observing others. Many artists are creative for a brief time and then become redundant and don't recognize it.

Creativity is the most wonderful gift we are born with, not to understand it is a tragic waste. I first became aware of nurturing my own creativity, when I was an undergrad in college at the University of Hawai'i.

I didn't follow instructions well. I did what I wanted to do, regardless of some dictatorial teachers.

I hid my creativity from them and pursued it on my own. All my large works were done after I retired at age 54. You need to talk to your creative spark to keep that spark lit. I am approaching 72. I think that my creativity keeps me young.