Sapporo – San José via PDX  

“[Loneliness] is a crucial aspect of self-discovery and understanding others’ pain. To those experiencing loneliness, it’s okay to feel that way, and remember, you are not alone.”

-Midori Yamanaka

Two years back, I kicked off this artsy journey, saying goodbye to sunny/tropical home San José, Costa Rica, and diving into the weirdness of Portland, OR. Since then, it’s been a mix of experiences, about art and personal discoveries. In the middle of it all, I have been learning that even in intense experiences, you’re never truly alone.

Being in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University is not just about art lessons for me. It has been a chance to connect with cool people from all over the world, people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.

Now, I’m excited to share a chat with Midori Yamaka, a Japanese artist and coincidentally, my cohort classmate for this art journey. We’re diving into our shared experiences– from navigating life as artists and immigrants in the United States to unraveling Portland’s weirdness. Our chat touches on loneliness, the powerful impact of socially engaged art, and the quirkiness ethos “Keep Portland Weird” vibe.

This interview isn’t just a chat between a Costa Rican and a Japanese artist; it’s a journey into how Sapporo and San José found a cultural exchange in the heart of Portland, Oregon. Join us as we explore the ties between our diverse backgrounds. 

Manfred Parrales: Midori, your artistic journey has taken you from Japan to Los Angeles, and now to Portland. Can you share a bit about the cultural influences that have shaped your artistic identity?

Midori Yamanaka: Hello! Indeed, my life has been a fascinating tapestry of cultural experiences. Growing up in Japan, studying in Los Angeles, and now residing in the eclectic city of Portland, have all played a significant role in shaping my artistic perspective. Each place has contributed a unique hue to the canvas of my creativity.

Midori at a workshop in Japan. 2016. Photo courtesy of Midori Yamanaka

Manfred: The transition from Japan to the United States must have brought culture shock. Could you share a specific moment that stood out during this transformative period?

Midori: Absolutely. One of the most surprising cultural shocks occurred in the restroom. In Japan, there’s a sense of privacy and discretion in such spaces. The openness in the United States, where people don’t mind the sounds, was a notable departure from the cultural norms I grew up with.

Manfred: Your practice is deeply rooted in social art. For those unfamiliar with social practice, how would you define it? How do you define your approach to art and social practice, particularly within the dynamic context of Portland?

Midori: I define art and social practice as the newest form of contemporary art that engages with ordinary and extraordinary aspects of our society and lives. Living in Portland has been incredibly inspiring for my social art practice. The city’s social awareness, progressive culture, and vibrant communities align seamlessly with my passion for cultural exchanges and education. Discovering the field of Art and Social Practice was a revelation, providing a fitting framework for my endeavors.

Midori in her second year in Portland, 2019. She was learning about creative reuse at ScrapPDX. Photo courtesy of Midori Yamanaka

Manfred: Portland is known for embracing weirdness. How has this unique aspect of the city influenced your creative process?

Midori: I adore the “Keep Portland Weird” ethos. It encourages creative freedom and self-expression. Portland’s acceptance of individuality resonates with me, fostering an environment where being true to oneself is celebrated rather than stigmatized.

Manfred: Loneliness is a universal experience, especially for international artists or immigrants in general. How did you navigate moments of loneliness, and what advice would you offer to others going through similar emotions?

Midori: Loneliness was a significant part of my early years in the US. Initially, I employed the survival skill of ignoring it, but eventually, I realized the importance of facing and overcoming it. It’s a crucial aspect of self-discovery and understanding others’ pain. To those experiencing loneliness, it’s okay to feel that way, and remember, you are not alone.

Midori with her daughter. Photo courtesy of Midori Yamanaka

Manfred: “Keep Portland Weird” is more than a slogan; it seems like a way of life here in Portland. Can you share a particularly quirky or strange encounter you’ve had in Portland?

Midori: One of the charmingly weird aspects of Portland is its unpredictability. I embrace the uniqueness of the city, where what may seem weird to others is just another thread in the colorful tapestry of Portland life.

Manfred: Let’s delve into these cross-cultural impressions further. When it comes to Japan, the association with order, pristine spaces, and a strong work ethic is vivid. The precision and dedication of Japanese art, like that of Rei Kawakubo, indeed commands great respect to me. There are generalized ideas of what we believe about other countries or cultures, what ideas come to your head when you hear Costa Rica or Latin America in a more general idea? 

Midori: Believe it or not, I have had the opportunity to be in Mexico and Brazil. When I think of Latin America, I think of happy people, dancing, eating, and having friends over. It’s a very positive image.

Midori with her daughter. Photo courtesy of Midori Yamanaka

Manfred: Looking ahead, what do you envision for the future of your art practice, and what challenges do you foresee?

Midori: The future is an open canvas for me. I am currently happy with the opportunities Portland has provided, and while uncertainties exist, I’m open to change and excited about potential opportunities. The world is changing rapidly, and I look forward to embracing the shifts and evolving with them.

Midori with her daughter in Portland. 2021. Photo courtesy of Midori Yamanaka
Manfred Parrales and Midori Yamanaka on the set of this interview. 2023. Photo courtesy of Manfred Parrales

Midori Yamanaka (she/her) is a Socially Engaged Designer. Midori has been exploring who she is and how to make herself and the world better. Midori thinks that It would be great if you can come across and work together. She is excited to hear your stories and your dreams. She would be very happy to help you with your challenges and share what she has. She thinks that together, we can make our world better.

Manfred Parrales (he/him) is an artist with a passion for design, art history, and social practice. Born in San Jan Jose, Costa Rica he is pursuing MFA studies in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University.

He is a passionate art enthusiast, driven by the desire to communicate and educate through the language of art. His artistic journey involves crafting innovative solutions for art communication, immersive experiences, and multicultural dialogues. Utilizing the tools of video, photography, and art history, he shapes conversations around art as potent social instruments. His expertise extends to contributions to education and cultural institutions across the United States and Latin America. For him, the core of art lies in the ability to communicate through and by art.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

SoFA Journal
c/o PSU Art & Social Practice
PO Box 751
Portland, OR 97207