Kensuke Yamada’s ceramic figures — sturdy, child-like, encircled by inner tubes or accompanied by rabbits — both push and pull the viewer. Lidded eyes, barely expressive features, invite speculation. It’s an exercise in what the UA Little Rock professor calls ma, a Japanese term for the activation of space between viewer and viewed. So to “guide you to connect,” he said in an interview in the studio at the Windgate Center for Art and Design, his figures use simple gestures, or closed eyes, to be interpreted personally.
Yamada puts lots of space between him and his work. When it leaves the studio, “it’s not mine any more. … What’s the point in having my piece here?” He also puts space between himself and the viewer: “I don’t go to my own openings,” he said. “I didn’t even go to my thesis exhibit.” He can’t make small talk — “I didn’t grow up here, so I can’t talk about American politics,” which is apparently the banter he’s encountered most. Nor does he want to get between viewer and viewed, altering whatever ideas they have about him.
Yamada, 40, a native of Japan who earned his degrees from Evergreen State University in Washington and the University of Montana at Missoula, joined the UALR faculty in fall 2018 after numerous residencies and visiting artist positions across the country. Those included a stint as visiting artist at UA Fayetteville from 2013-16. Little Rock, he said, is “not too big, not too small,” a place where he spends his time making art, which is his profession, and making art, which is also his hobby. He’s lucky, he says, that his hobby is his work.
Yamada paints, rather than glazes, his stoneware, refiring with each application of color; the work usually requires five trips to the kiln. The result is a sculpture of complicated, matte texture, with streaks of color, sometimes muddied. His favorite work at the moment is a piece that was exhibited at Boswell Mourot Fine Art in the Heights neighborhood earlier this year, “Diver.” The figure is seated with arms extended and is studded with cast rubber duckies. “Some people told me this looks like a tumor,” he said of the ducks. It didn’t sell. “I don’t know. I just love it. I don’t know why people don’t get it,” he said, smiling, which he does a lot.
The ducks represent migration, he said — reflecting his own peripatetic career in Montana, Pennsylvania and Kentucky and travels all over the country for exhibitions, lectures and demonstrations. The diving imagery — children holding their noses, wearing inner tubes, dressed in swimsuits — is about his own feelings of fear and excitement on the precipice of change.
Then there are the rabbits. “In Japan, we don’t see rabbits everywhere, but here, you see rabbits in your backyard,” Yamada said. “It’s really interesting. You sit outside on your porch and there’s a little light and the rabbit shows up. There’s the beauty of not catching it. It’s not possible. It’s a weird distance … the beauty of that staring.” Ma.
A Q&A with Kensuke Yamada
Where are you from originally?
Kamakura, Japan, south of Tokyo.
What is the best thing about making art in Arkansas?
It’s possible to [afford] a studio here. Little Rock has quite a bit of art community. There are artwalks happening every month. I hope the art community gets bigger.
What’s the worst thing about making art in Arkansas?
I don’t see any bad part. We don’t have the art that a big city offers. This is a little far away from [big cities]. That’s not a complaint. When I lived in Philly, I went to New York. But to me, that’s too much. Also, it’s really hot here. I don’t want to go outside to fire!
What jobs do you hold besides making art?
I teach. Fulltime maker would be fun.
How do you relax and recharge so you can keep making art?
I watch movies. I like hiking. When I was in Northwest Arkansas, I went to the Buffalo River. But, I’m busy. Tomorrow [Saturday] I’ll be here [at UALR]. I paint at home. But, usually, I go home, pass out.
What galleries do you visit?
Exhibits make me anxious. I’m a maker. Even though I have favorite works, I probably don’t end up going to see them. I’m never going to beat them. I never get better than those! I’d rather be in my studio, making.
Name an artist whose work is not getting the attention it deserves.
My work! There are probably so many artists we haven’t seen. That’s very interesting, but at the same time a little scary. All artists deserve attention. They’re working hard, trying to make their life, trying to express themselves. They have a message they want to deliver.
How long will you be in Arkansas?
A long time, hopefully. I’m on a tenure track. Arkansas is great.