If a regular picture is worth a thousand words, then what is a 2500-square foot mural visible from a 14-lane highway in New York City worth?
Whatever number that may be, what is perhaps more impressive is the response such a project can generate. Just ask Katie Yamasaki '99, who, along with 13 female high school students and recent graduates, recently finished just such a mural and was featured in The New York Times this past August. Their topic of inspiration? Women in the military, the war in Iraq and the wartime exploitation of low-income and inner city youth by our government.
The mural was part of an ongoing project funded in part by the Groundswell Community Mural Project along with the National Foundation of the Arts, and other private and public donations. Yamasaki and the 13 young women involved in the project paint under the auspices of Voices Her'd, a group that gives young women of color a voice using large-scale public art as their medium.
The commissioned murals through Groundswell are a way for the young women to communicate about themselves by choosing and painting about issues that matter to them, explained Yamasaki, a Studio Art major while at Earlham and an art teacher at Ballet Tech, New York's public dance school. The issue of military recruitment was of particular interest to the students who developed the mural. But it wasn't chosen out of a sentiment of anti-war or anti-government.
"A lot of the kids were considering enlisting as we began this project," Yamasaki said.
As the students researched military recruitment and women in the military, and spoke to female G.I.'s their views on the military began to change. They began to see the military not as a choice, but as the only option, particularly for the underprivileged youths recruiters seemed to target in their high schools and late at night in the subway stations.
As Yamasaki put it, "If other good options are unavailable, then the military isn't really a choice. It is essentially a poverty draft."
The startlingly high percentage of female soldiers who report incidences of rape, sexual assault, and harassment while in the military also shaped the students' outlook.
And so the mural began to be discussed. All through the winter the young women and Yamasaki researched and talked about their own feelings on women in the military. The results of those sessions were compiled into a picture by Yamasaki and approved by the students. Finally, it was ready to be transferred to their wall using a grid and the painting could begin.
The final product of this process is now situated where 14 lanes of traffic can see it as they drive or walk to work. It features facts about women in the military and recruitment practices, and images of female G.I.'s floating down to the ground on parachutes and being helped to their feet by civilian women. A large red banner running at the top of the mural reads "We are not government issued," while the largest of the white parachutes reads "Keep your illegal war off…" and smaller parachutes fill in "Our Schools," "Our Dreams," "Our Taxes," to name a few.
Although this is Yamasaki's fifth year as the head artist for Voices Her'd, and having painted murals in Detroit, MI; Tennessee; New York; Richmond, IN; Cuba; and elsewhere, Yamasaki's artistic interests span outside of mural painting.
"If murals are all I do," Yamasaki said, "then my life has no balance."
While at Earlham, Yamasaki became passionate about children's book illustration. Her first book Honda: The Boy Who Dreamed of Cars, was published this past September. As the title suggests, it chronicles the rags-to-riches story of Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motor Company. Two other children's books illustrated by Yamasaki are forthcoming, including one she worked on while at Earlham with Professor Emeritus of English Paul Lacey.
When she left Earlham, Yamasaki earned her Master of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York City and began painting murals to earn money. Soon after, she became a teacher.
"I thought, I would teach until I could get my illustration career started," Yamasaki said.
Nearly six years since that moment, Yamasaki's attitude has changed, "If you were to put a title on my career I guess you would say 'Artist and Teaching Artist.'"
In the spring of 2007, Yamasaki had her first solo exhibition, Tarjetas Postales de Nueva York (Postcards from New York), in Santiago de Cuba.
For more information on Katie Yamasaki, or to see her murals, paintings, or books, visit katieyamasaki.com.