Yu Yu Shiratori, an artist based in Tucson, creates large-scale embroidery, jewelry, and illustrations that juxtapose materials to reflect the dichotomy of her bicultural experience.
How does a multicultural background inform an artist’s practice? As a first-generation American, Yu Yu Shiratori‘s ethereal work unwaveringly examines the concept of self and her sense of purpose as an artist.
“I think there’s an ongoing question I ask myself: what is my relevance as an artist in the Southwest?” says Shiratori as she sips tea at her dining table inside of a 1950s ranch-style home in the Dunbar Spring neighborhood of downtown Tucson, Arizona, where she lives and works.
Each of the bedrooms of Shiratori’s home serves a purpose. One room occupies a large-scale loom that Shiratori has future plans to master. One is dedicated to her metal casting and jewelry making. Another is an office where Shiratori sews embroidery pieces, draws sketches for new projects, and keeps books that she draws inspiration from, such as The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images.
A multidisciplinary artist who creates large-scale embroidery, jewelry, illustrations, and murals, Shiratori was raised in a culturally Japanese household in Tucson and attributes her investigative mind to early questioning of the traditions and distinctions of her multicultural upbringing.
“I think not entirely knowing my place in Tucson is why I like to work with so many different materials,” says Shiratori, who juxtaposes hard and soft materials that reflect the dichotomy of her lived environments as a bicultural artist. “My work is fueled more by philosophy and ideas, not a medium, so it’s easy for me to deliver a vision through paint, metal, or embroidery.”
Shiratori—this year’s featured visual artist of Tucson’s Hoco Fest 2022, which is scheduled to take place the first weekend of September 2022—likens her work with metal to the harsh and punishing climate of the desert. It evokes the enduring and survivalist composition of the material. Meanwhile, the color palette of her embroidery is a glittering spectrum that sparkles like the bright rays of the desert sun, while the airiness and translucence of her linen canvases symbolize the soft landscapes of Japan and how her body feels when she is there.
Growing up, Shiratori was drawn to folk art. However, she admits that she has been hesitant to liken her embroidery to folk or craft art because folk art has never been wholly validated as art by the art market and art historians.
But Shiratori’s work goes beyond practical craft. Her themes and compositions are sophisticated, even grotesque. Shiratori believes that embroidery’s small details impact the finished piece. The details also denote the time and energy Shiratori has put into her pieces. When I ask her how long one of her embroidered pieces takes to complete, she struggles to estimate the hours but approximates around two weeks off and on.
Embroidery serves many purposes for Shiratori. It’s a meditative practice and a way to commit herself to a project. Shiratori says it becomes a manic space for her to occupy. She gets lost in it. It’s also rooted in domesticity and self-sufficiency. Her mother taught her to sew at a young age so that if a hem ripped, she could rely on herself to fix it.
Shiratori’s visual language traffics in archetypal symbols; delicate hands and flowers, celestial lunar faces evoking the imagery of Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon, and the fluidity of water. Hands can build the ideal world we want to live in. Flowers represent regeneration and the human psyche. And water, a life-giving yet destructive force, represents the duality of human nature.
She is attracted to the approachability of the symbols she utilizes and makes her own. She has created a vocabulary that doesn’t translate into words of any language, but for Shiratori, they express the messages and stories she wants to tell.
Japan’s collectivistic culture has instilled a need in Shiratori to deliver a sense of optimism to her community through her art. This is a struggle as she also associates being an artist with individualism.
Shiratori alludes to the fact that her parents’ expectations, which align with cultural expectations, didn’t line up with what she envisioned for her future.
“There’ve been many times where my parents would say, ‘You should become a doctor or nurse.’ And going against that means so many things,” Shiratori admits. “My family has gone through many struggles just for us to have the lifestyle we do, and pursuing art full time definitely feels like a risk.” However, Shiratori feels empowered by challenging these expectations and changing the narrative of what success looks like.
In addition to collaborating with designers Lauren Bailey and Colin Fletcher on the graphics and posters for Tucson’s Hoco Fest 2022, Shiratori will host an opening of her work in the lobby of the historic Hotel Congress on September 1, 2022. She plans to show large paintings of small, metal prototypes that will eventually construct a large-scale kimono. She chose that garment to explore her family lineage and what it means to be an Asian American in Arizona.
Shiratori elaborates that East Asian communities in the United States have internalized the practice of being quiet, almost invisible, for self-protection. By utilizing an object like the kimono, which is ornate, eye-catching, and a statement piece, she unequivocally pushes against passivism.
“I think there’s definitely a lot to unpack, the nuances of race and cross-cultural identity, it’s messy, but I feel like this project is actually a perfect way of exploring those ideas,” says Shiratori.