This month we have the pleasure of working with a very talented and driven artist named Yellena James. In this interview we learned that her work for Biosynthesis stems from a deep place culturally, physiologically and even physically. Her drawings and paintings stimulates the mind and imagination to discover “a place they’ve always wanted to go”. As you read on, take a look at some of the new works that will be exhibited at Gallery Hijinks this November and December.
Gallery Hijinks: Describe to me what biosynthesis means to you.
Yellena James: I think that biosynthesis (a process by which cells get together to create complex chemical products from their own various substrates) is a good metaphor for how art is born of an artist’s own more-abstract substrates, such as their experiences, perceptions or beliefs.. not to mention blood, sweat & tears.
GH: What is your greatest influence in constructing these recent creations?
YJ: My muse guides my hand so it’s always hard to pin point specific influences. I just get to work, pick up my favorite pen, a nice piece of paper, stare at it for about 15 minutes and then I attack. Sometimes I look at my previous work and see some intriguing elements that I might want to explore deeper. Balance, symbiosis and interconnectedness is something I strive to project.
GH: Your recent works for “Biosynthesis” give me the tranquil feeling of swimming deep through the Great Barrier Reef. Have you ever done any scuba diving, or studied the ocean?
YJ: I’ve never been scuba diving. I did love visiting the Adriatic Sea coast as a child, and in Florida I lived an hour from the ocean. I also lived right on the Pacific coast for a few years. So, the ocean was always near, but I don’t consciously focus on aquatic elements in my work. In fact, I’m pretty scared of deep water, but I am also fascinated by the ocean and deep sea creatures. I know there is this whole beautiful alien world underneath the dark surface of the water.
GH: How have your experiences in Sarajevo impacted your art?
YJ: I started going to an art high school while the city was still under siege. It was a small group of students with only one art teacher. It’s hard to put it all into just a few sentences and try to explain what making art meant to me at that time. Lets just say it was worth running past snipers and ducking through trenches to go draw every day. I lived right on the front line for almost 3 years. We would sit at home and the bullets would pierce through our apartment, and very often grenades and mortars would hit our building. Once, I was in the kitchen having lunch with my family when a tank missile blew our living room to a fine powder. When your life is in constant danger like this, you are constantly aware of everything around you and all of your senses are turned up to high. Everything you feel, you feel to a maximum degree – good and bad. When I got out of that environment and was thrown back into ‘normal’ life, my perception of the world was pretty messed up. Continuing to do art made the most sense as a way to connect with everything around me, and I really wanted to bring some beauty into the world.. still do.
GH: Growing up and attending art school in Sarajevo, Bosnia, must have allowed you the opportunity to work with varying artistic resources. What other mediums did you explore before finding your niche within pen and ink on paper, and acrylic on wood panel?
YJ: Our resources were incredibly minimal during the war. We had pencils and we barely had enough paper to draw on. My teacher had this strategy to have us perfect line work first and so that’s what we did for months. Older students had the privilege of working with colored pencils, ooooh fancy. Sounds kind of boring, but the work that came out of that school was so amazing. When I came to the US I continued to study drawing with some great teachers, but also got to do printmaking, ceramics, photography, graphic design and painting.
GH: How has Portland impacted your art and/or processes?
YJ: I’m pretty new to Portland but so far I really like it. There are some impressive talents living and working here. I recently had the pleasure of doing a group show with some lingering favorites of mine, APAK, Betsy Walton and Jill Bliss, all of whom are now local. It was an awesome experience. We all worked on the same pieces, often side by side, and it was neat how relaxed everyone was and how we all brought a different perspective and approach to drawing and painting. Aside from that, Portland has history, culture, great music, great food, friendly people and a million things to do, rain or shine. I hope to be even more involved with the art scene here as time goes on.
(Collaboration piece with Yellena James, APAK, Betsy Walton and Jill Bliss.)
GH: Do you have a favorite space you like to work in, or be in to think, create, eat, play, etc?
YJ: Yes, my husband just recently finished renovating my new studio. We actually bought our house primarily because it has a 1000sq foot space in the back. Half of that is now my studio and we’re hoping to fill the other half with a silkscreen operation, letterpress, kiln and a bunch of other art equipment. I’ve been spending most of my time in there lately. Just me, my supplies, lots of coffee and lots of Arcade Fire.
GH: What do you hope for people to feel when they look at your art?
YJ: I want them to feel something pure and beautiful, positive and uplifting, and I want them to see something new and intriguing but vaguely recognizable at the same time. I want them to look at one of my pieces and disappear for a moment to a place they’ve always wanted to go. That’s what it feels like for me. It takes a lot of time, effort, thinking, solving, adding etc. to get it right and sometimes the process hurts even physically but then it always rewards me with something new and inviting and every time I get into my work I am reminded how much I love what I do.
GH: If you could work in any medium despite price or accessibility, what would it be, and what would you do?
YJ: Tough question because I would love to explore so many mediums. I think mainly I want to make a documentary. I’m really just waiting for the right moment to start that project. I do believe anything is achievable if you really want it.
-Interview by Karanina Leigh