Mark Yungblut has been creating art for the past fifteen years, and has had his paper cuttings and pencil drawings displayed in Japan, China, Toronto, Kitchener- Waterloo, and many other locations around Southern Ontario.
He began by drawing mostly Japanese castles and temples in pencil, and continued to do so until he was introduced to Yasuyuki Okamura in April 2004 during a trip to Japan.
Mr. Okamura is a kiri-e artist and teacher (kiri-e is a Japanese method of paper cutting), and taught Mark the basics of this art form. Mark has continue to learn from Mr. Okamura during subsequent trips to Japan. For the past ten years Mark has been focusing mainly on kiri-e, and having been to Japan several times during that period, creates works from pictures that he has taken while there. He also creates paper cuttings of Canadian architecture, wildlife, and other subject matter in custom orders.
I had been following Mark's Facebook page for a while so it was nice to meet him and chat with him about his art.
1. How did you get to where you are as an artist?
In high school is where I discovered I was any good at things. My last year of high school I started drawing for fun on the side. I was in art classes, but nothing I did there really stood out to me or anyone else, but the drawing I was doing on the side of Japanese architecture, those turned out really well. I just enjoyed it and the fact that they turned out well gave me the motivation to do more. I drew in pencil for about five years and then I met my now wife, she's Japanese, her family is still in Japan, so we've gone there a number of times. The first or second time I went, she showed my drawings to her friends and coincidentally her friend's father teaches paper cutting, so he introduced me to it. I didn't like it at first, but I came back a few times to it, and he really encouraged me and pushed me to really try it, so I did. For a while I was doing paper cutting and pencil drawing, but this just kind of took over. For whatever reason, I really enjoyed this medium. Part of it would be the reception from other people. Everyone's seen a pencil drawing, but this is a lot more unique. Most of my spare time is now spent doing this. When I first started, I never would have dreamed that things would be where they are now.
2. What is your typical day like?
I do have a full time job, so there's the day. When I get home, it's either cooking dinner and/or taking the kids to their programs. Usually around 9:30 I have some free time, so on average about four to five days a week, from then until I go to bed, usually about two hours, I work on art in some way, shape or form. The kids are getting older, so there are pockets of time where I can sneak in a couple of hours during the day sometimes, but it's pretty rare, so it's usually at night when they're asleep.
There was a time when I really pushed myself. Sometimes it was because of a deadline, or just me wanting to get as much stuff done as possible, but it took its toll on my mental health so I realized that even though it seems like you're wasting time when you're relaxing or watching a movie or working out or something, you need that. I learned the hard way to pull back a bit and do what I can in moderation.
3. Who or what inspires you?
There's a few paper cutting artists I'm connected to on Facebook. Sometimes they'll do things that I never would have thought of or things that I couldn't do, or wouldn't have thought to do that way. There's an artist in Japan that makes a living from doing this, so just the idea that that's possible is a big inspiration to me.
Artistically, I do try to study wood block prints as much as possible in terms of how to lay out the composition. It's so much harder than I ever thought it would be figuring out what to keep, what to put in and how to make a good composition. My natural inclination is to do as much as possible. In the back of my mind for whatever reason I think that the longer it takes, the better it'll turn out. That's not the case. I still struggle with that. You can do something that takes 30 hours and it'll turn out bad, or you could do something that takes 10 hours and it'll turn out a lot better. I'm learning a lot from Japanese woodblock painters. I just keep trying to get better. There hasn't been a piece that I've made up to this point that I've been completely satisfied with. It's good because it gives me the motivation to keep going. If I was completely satisfied with something, or if I was satisfied on a consistent basis it would be a bit harder to try to get better.
4. How long on average does it take you to complete a piece?
Depending on the piece, on average 15-20 hours. I draw them out first. I draw on top of pictures rather than draw on top of a blank sheet of paper. A lot of times I include things that are in that picture that I could either move around or take out or add something that isn't there. The drawing and figuring out the layout, that's the hard part. The cutting itself I'm getting a bit faster at. Adding the coloured paper after that takes the least amount of time.
5. What first attracted you to Japanese art and culture?
That's a tough one. I know what attracted me. Why, I don't know. I can vividly remember the first thing that really hit me, that got me started with art. I was reading a book and there was a picture of a Japanese castle and for whatever reason, it just hit me like a slap in the face. I don't know how to explain it, it was like I'd seen it before or something in a past life, I don't know. Something about it...I just stared at it for ten minutes. At that point I hadn't been doing any drawing for fun, but I needed to draw it. I just got out a piece of paper and started to draw and it turned out really well. From then on I was just obsessed with Japanese castles. That was the initial big draw. From there I read quite a bit about the history and culture of Japan and it grew on me.
6. Do you ever receive any negative feedback about creating traditional Japanese art because you're not Japanese?
The short answer is no. It is something I've always had in the back of my mind though, the cultural appropriation. If I had received some negative feedback or push back from Japanese people I don't know where things would be today, but it's almost always been positive. The gentleman that taught me the art form In Japan, I can never repay him for how much he's done for me. He takes me all over the place over there, does what he can to get me set up with displays, teaching me new techniques, taking me to places to buy paper, introducing me to other artists, and every time we go somewhere people are fairly nice to me. The other part of it is that it is a traditional art form and not a lot of young people that we know of are taking it up, so he's just really happy that someone is taking a big interest in it. He teaches a class in Japan and every time I go there are about 10-15 people there, but they are all in their 70's. There's no one really under 40 taking an interest in it. I think for him, seeing someone interested in what he's passionate about goes a long way.
The Japanese people here are always really interested and supportive. For better or worse it does help me out in Japan to have someone non Japanese interested in it. It just has that added level of curiosity. In 2015 my name was placed on a list of Japanese Cultural Craftspersons maintained among Japanese embassies and consulates in North America. Obviously this went a long way in terms of feeling like my art was officially appreciated and accepted by the Japanese community.
7. How did your art come to be featured worldwide on a line of Origins Skin Care products?
That just kind of came out of nowhere. They came across a blog post of mine from three years ago and asked if they could use the image. I thought it might be in one store in one place, and even then I would have been honoured, but it ended up being part of a large campaign across the world. It was used for their Chinese New Year promotions, so on the Canadian website there was just one box, but on the Chinese website it was everywhere. I was taken aback that it was being used so widely over there.
8. What other events in your art career would you consider a highlight?
The Japanese Cultural Canadian Centre in Toronto let me have displays there a few times along the way and helped get me an interview on a Japanese program early on. They've always been really supportive since the start. After that, it's been going to festivals and things like that. You never know who's going to be there. I had a display at the Japanese Cultural Canadian Centre and coincidentally a Japanese gentleman from Chicago was there and invited me to a Japanese festival in Chicago, so I've been there a couple of times. Doing the workshops at the Art Gallery (KWAG) and Clay & Glass Gallery have been milestones. Being on TV in Japan was definitely big as well as having a display there. The biggest milestone is coming up in this year in August. I'm having an exhibit in Tokyo.
9. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists or creatives?
Don't get discouraged. For me, I have been discouraged a few times, but I just never stopped making artwork. Regardless of whatever is happening you want to always practice, always make more things. If what you're making is good quality, someone somewhere will find it. Pretty much all of the opportunities that have come to me have been from people seeing my work in one way or another. I haven't done a lot of applying to things or going out of my way to find opportunities. I guess that people find what I'm doing interesting enough to be involved in whatever display or program or show they are having.
Do as much as you can. Obviously you'll get better as you go and also build up an inventory of work. If you are getting really good at something and you're not getting any opportunities it's easy to get discouraged that nothing's happening, but say someone does come across your work and wants you to exhibit next month, you're not going to be able to get a bunch of stuff done in that time. Work as much as possible and be ready in case something does come up.
Another big thing for me has been not quitting my day job. If I had gone into graphic art as a career I don't know if I would be enjoying it because I'd be doing stuff for other people that I might not necessarily want to do. Having another separate career has allowed me to just go at my own pace, do what I want and get better on my own time. It's allowed me to keep enjoying it. Obviously it takes longer and it's a slower process, but I'm fairly stubborn so at least I'm able to do it my way.
10. What's next for you?
The show in Tokyo in August. It'll be on for about a week. Right now it's getting as much artwork as I possibly can done before then because it's a pretty big gallery. Then working out the logistics of buying frames, etc. In May I'll be doing Anime North in Toronto. I've been before and had a booth and gave a little talk. It went really well so I'm going back this year. There have been a couple of other things that have come up that I may or may not be able to take part in. I'm going to be the Folk Artist in Residence at the Joseph Schneider Haus in 2020. That opportunity also came out of the blue. That will be a really good opportunity. The ultimate goal is to make a living off this.
Interview by Glodeane Brown
All photos provided by Mark Yungblut
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