Professor Yuriko Yamaguchi: A hidden master

Professor Yuriko Yamaguchi’s name precedes her in the art world, with multimedia pieces prominently displayed in many of the nation’s most prestigious museums.

But dressed conservatively – and wearing a fanny pack – in her Smith Hall studio, the 60-year-old’s status as a groundbreaking minimalist sculptor is relatively hidden.

Yamaguchi teaches “Sculpture I” in room 314, offering her years of experience to some of GW’s burgeoning artists. Her background includes studying with Anne Truitt, one of the most influential American minimalist artists of the mid-20th century, and exhibiting work in locales ranging from Tokyo to New York.

Yamaguchi came into the American art scene in the late eighties, after leaving her native Japan and moving to Oakland, Calif. She pursued art throughout college and graduate school but focused mainly on painting.

“I really tried to avoid going into sculpture,” Yamaguchi said, sipping hot tea in her office. “(Sculptures) were always made of heavy stone or metal, and I just didn’t think I could do it.”

It was friend and colleague Martin Puryear, now a respected name in American minimalist art, who introduced Yamaguchi to the idea of using wood.

This relationship likely led to her quick success in the art world. Her pieces were praised for their sense of balance – their capturing both nature and technology, mind as well as body – influences from old-world Japan and her new life in America.

The craftsmanship and realism of her pieces were recognized – displayed at Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn and American Art Museum, as well as permanent pieces at Smith College and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

It was after these accomplishments that Yamaguchi applied for a teaching position at GW. In 2002, Yamaguchi joined the faculty, teaching courses on mixed media, creative concepts and, finally, sculpting. Now, Yamaguchi focuses solely on sculpting, which she said keeps her attention on her own work as well.

Some students said they are unaware of how experienced she is – perhaps a result of her modest disposition. Many are aware, however, and as a result flock to her courses to reap the benefits of learning art from an established artist.

“I saw her sculptural work in the Atlanta airport,” said Merrill Kassan, a 2008 GW graduate.

Kassan said she quickly realized the benefits to having a professor like Yamaguchi. “It is one thing having a professor comment on your work, but it is incredible having a world-renowned artist critique your work,” Kassan said.

While Yamaguchi has surely influenced the techniques and perspectives of many of her students, they in return have also influenced her work. While helping a graduate student with her thesis, Yamaguchi was introduced to materials she had never considered before – poly-resin in particular.

After experimenting with rubber and resins for some time, Yamaguchi created “Messages,” a piece that resembles a spider’s web, consisting of plastic tubes that are filled with text messages. The inspiration came from students in her class, she said. The messages reflect comments students made to each other during class about texts, some praising the convenience of text messages, others cursing the day that electronic break-ups became a thing of reality.

Yamaguchi is currently working on a new exhibition for the coming year. The source of inspiration this time? Bubbles.

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