You know how it goes in New York. Sometimes friendship origin stories are Type II fun (they spilled coffee all over your shirt on your way to a meeting, or maybe you said something when they slid past you in line for the bodega register but it turned out you skipped them–and now they’re your ride-or-die), and some seem like they were always meant to be.
Imagine this: you’ve been living in the same neighborhood for years, frequenting the local park and admiring the chalk drawings in the park for just as many years. All your neighborhood friends also love the artwork and you all look out for it when you’re at the park, but none of you know where it comes from. Your personal theory is an adventurous art class at a nearby school, with a fantastically talented teacher, until one day you go to the park and see a lone artist with a kneepad, moving between tiles to continue the drawing.
You may be thinking: well, that got specific fast. And so it did: the “you” in that scenario is Elena, the park is Battery Park City, and the artist is Youkee, a friend of the tearoom since that meeting. Youkee usually draws alone, though children sometimes join in–or “little angels,” as he refers to them. The first time Elena and Youkee spoke he described how his work evolved just in that day: the design on each tile, the change over the morning, how one child’s contribution influenced the shape and pattern of his drawing. It was one of those quintessentially New York interactions where you get to peek into someone else’s world for a few moments–a colorful undertaking, as anyone can attest–and feel grateful that there’s a place for so many characters in the city.
We wanted to share his work because it’s great, yes, but also because Youkee has such a distinct sense of joy when discussing his artwork that we couldn’t resist asking if he might show some work in the tearoom. Lucky for us, he said yes.
Youkee and Seiko
You can’t introduce Youkee without introducing his life partner and wife, Seiko. When we met up with them to discuss this piece, she was a font of stories and information. For instance, Youkee has not one, not two, but three degrees (this is how you know he was always destined for NYC): a law degree he earned in Japan–he doesn’t practice–and two MFAs in printmaking and lithography, one from the Otis Art Institute and the other the Cranbrook Academy of Art.
Seiko is vivacious, direct and practical but with a sense of humor at life (this is how you know she was destined to be a New Yorker) while Youkee is more quiet and reserved. When they met in Los Angeles in the ‘70s, she was concerned about how he would survive in the US being so reserved, but then Youkee began working in restaurants and became more vocal. La fin.
But beyond the stories, Seiko was a key part of Youkee’s move to New York. She’d been working for a Japanese company in the city for a little while as he’d been trying to work on his art in Los Angeles, and she told him: “New York is where you can really be yourself as an artist. And when you become the only Youkee Nishita (his artist's name) in New York, you can be the only Youkee Nishita in the universe.”
Working with found objects
When Youkee was still in art school studying lithography, he spent all his time working on technique–a mistake for an artist, as one of his professors was quick to tell him. That feedback led him to working with his first set of found objects: images and colors leftover on the aluminum plates from previous lithograph printing.
Chalk drawing is a little similar. When Youkee started working in chalk in LA, the street space was often uneven and cracked. Where other artists would sketch their design on paper and then look for a nice even, flat space on the street to copy down the work, Youkee incorporated the unevenness and flaws into his chalk drawings, basing his work on the space itself instead of a preconceived idea. At times he copied his chalk drawing from the street onto paper once he finished, but they never looked as good: no flaws, no life, as they say.
That’s still true of his chalk drawings these days. When he’s not working in chalk, Youkee likes working with commercial papers like flyers, menus, and packaging paper, incorporating the colors and shapes already present into his art. For Youkee, working on a canvas that already has information–whether that’s an uneven street surface or a commercial paper–is where he finds his creative process most lively.
Youkee’s art practice
Any artist reading this has been asked the inevitable question: so what kind of art do you do? And naturally, we had to do our due diligence. And although Youkee’s work may fall into a few technical categories (pen and chalk drawing), he said it was more like Buddhist practice: expect nothing, accept what life gives you, and you’ll find happiness and joy, life will be smooth.
When he was younger, for instance, he had dreams to become an UN ambassador, an architect, a famous lithograph printer in Tokyo. But there was too much pressure to execute, especially with the first two, so he couldn’t continue in them.
But these days, Youkee feels like those dreams did come true in a way. Through his chalk drawings in Battery Park City, Youkee gets to meet international visitors to the city and connect through his art instead of the UN. In his day job as a gardener, he gets to do a little landscape architecture in the park. One of the main things he’s learned there: do not expect the plants to grow to plan based on how you plant the seeds.
Youkee says his life is like running water, running into obstacles and changing course, and then again. One example he gave was his attitude towards his artwork and whether you can keep it. Years ago he was so concerned about saving particular artworks (and you can imagine how difficult that might be if chalk drawing is one of your mediums), but these days, when his work in the park might be washed away by rain after only hours, it doesn’t bother him. In fact, Youkee is curious about it: where the rain washes it away, how that might affect patterning, and so on.
Ten years ago, Seiko suffered a stroke, which led her to begin a meditation practice to help with her physical and mental recovery that she maintains up to this day. Meditation is one area where they find common ground. Youkee’s meditation happens in the middle of the night when he does his drawing (this is another Seiko story: how Youkee does his art between 1am and 7am before work and goes to bed when most people eat dinner). For her, meditation practice is about accepting things as they come and letting them go: “You cannot change your life, you have to accept your life. And whatever comes, you can just go for it – your dreams, your hopes, anything. When you have good energy, you should just send it to other people. That’s our life.”
Youkee's Tearoom Exhibition
163 West 10th Street. New York, NY 10014
10/14/22 ~ 10/27/22