For Taylor Yingshi, making art is a tandem act of preserving heritage and promoting awareness.
The 18-year-old Issaquah High School graduate recently earned a major national art award for her sensitive portrait of Minoru “Min” Yasui, an Oregon attorney and orchardist who spent more than half his life challenging the legality and constitutionality of the U.S. incarceration of people of Japanese descent during World War II. Yasui died in 1986, still waiting for his case to be heard in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In her illustration — her first using a digital-collage technique — Yingshi centers an older Yasui against a backdrop of his family’s grassy orchard in Hood River, Oregon. The greenery is illustrated in ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating or sorrowful world) style, a Japanese artistic technique of intricately layering colors and textures to depict a scene from everyday life, and famously used in Japanese woodblock paintings like Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.”
Yasui wears a sienna-toned suit made up of a collage of headlines, photos and newspaper clips. Near the bottom left hem is an image of hands filing papers to symbolize Yasui’s interest in the law.
Prominently stitched into the heart of the suit are protest signs, including one with the motto, “Never Again Is Now,” which continues to reverberate during the anti-discrimination protests of today.
Yingshi’s portrayal of Yasui won the $6,000 grand prize award in the ArtEffect Project national student-art competition, sponsored by the Kansas-based Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes.
The Columbia University-bound artist plans to use her prize money to support her education. She’ll also donate a portion to organizations that fight persecution and prejudice against Asian American and Pacific Islander citizens.
Issaquah art teacher Mark Moody, who has mentored Yingshi for the past two years, said Yingshi’s work has become “deeply focused on visual expression about race, culture, history and gender.”
Yingshi said she believes that even though the Pacific Northwest has a reputation for racial inclusivity, “Yasui’s story caught my eye because I wanted to explore how that false front belies a dark history of Japanese exclusion and disenfranchisement trailing back to World War II.”
She said she went “down the rabbit hole” of law journals, court documents and historical materials to include accurate references in her portrait of Yasui.
“As a Chinese American, this research process highlighted how I can stand in solidarity with other Asian Americans who, despite originating in different homelands, share this common plight of ‘yellow peril’ and xenophobia here in the U.S.,” she said.
Yingshi said she hopes the portrait helps to educate people about the influence of Asian American activism in the U.S. “In a time fraught with discrimination, Yasui not only courageously fought for Japanese rights, but also the rights of African American communities, extending his advocacy to all peoples facing wrongful treatment,” she wrote in her ArtEffect entry essay. “I hope to shed light on the complex, oft-forgotten history of injustice and reform experienced by the Asian diaspora.”
For Yasui, that history began on Feb. 19, 1942, a few months after the Pearl Harbor attack, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the mass incarceration of more than 120,000 of people of Japanese ancestry in the U.S., citing Executive Order 9066.
In March of that year, Yasui — the first Japanese person to graduate from the University of Oregon School of Law, first Japanese American member of the Oregon Bar and first Japanese attorney practicing in Portland, according to the Oregon Historical Society — was arrested in the Portland Central Precinct after deliberately violating a Japanese American curfew.
“Now, to me, this is certainly an infringement upon the rights of American citizens, and definitely I could not accept it as being a valid, legitimate order,” Yasui said of the curfew In a 1983 interview with Densho, the Seattle-based Japanese American Legacy Project.
A judge declared that Yasui had renounced his U.S. citizenship when he briefly took a position in 1940 as an attaché for the Consulate General of Japan in Chicago. The judge found him guilty of violating the curfew and ordered a $5,000 fine and year in prison. Yasui spent nine months in solitary confinement in a 6-by-8-foot windowless cell in Multnomah County Jail, according to Densho research.
Yasui was released later in 1944. He never stopped appealing his wartime arrest, arguing that the curfew imposed was racist and unconstitutional. Upon his death in 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the case was moot and dismissed it.
But Yasui did not die fighting in vain. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to pay reparations to the Japanese people imprisoned in the U.S. during the WWII era.
On November 24, 2015, President Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Yasui, presenting it to his daughter, Laurie Yasui. The Oregon Legislature designated March 28 as Minoru Yasui Day.
Yingshi said she’s proud to join other artists, like Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, who are raising awareness about the diaspora of other untold or lesser known Asian histories and stories.
The emerging artist wants to continue telling these stories through multiple artistic mediums. She said she’s “very pumped” to give the Columbia printmaking and woodworking studios a shot next year.
Yingshi recently earned the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction “Superintendent’s Choice Award” in the state-sponsored annual student art show for her oil painting titled “Parallels.” The work features two young Chinese figures, one dressed in a traditional changshan robe, the other in ripped jeans and a cropped top.
“In creating this painting, I do not seek to glorify or demonize either path,” she said. “Instead, I aim to validate the decisions of each generation through a lens of cultural relativism, releasing them from their fraught categories and broadening the definition of Asian America.”
Yingshi’s work, mostly created either in her bedroom studio or school’s art room, has been shown at the Wing Luke Museum, Building Bridges Art Exchange in Los Angeles and the U.S. Capitol via the annual Congressional Art Competition.
“It is uncommon for students to make a lot of consistently high-quality artwork amid all the other school-related things that still need to be done,” Moody, her teacher, said.
In her virtual award presentation from the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, Yingshi told the competition jurors that she’s interested in working in art and museum education to ensure historical narratives are accurate and accessible to people.
Yingshi said: “Especially now, making sure that people are aware of what actually happened in the past in order to better inform their decisions in the present is just so important [as is] looking back and reflecting on our decisions as a nation, as a world, as a people.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that reparations were extended to heirs of people who were incarcerated.