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Picturing the life of Yayoi Kusama

April 23rd, 2018

An illustration by Ellen Weinstein of Yayoi Kusama painting at a table in a room covered in red and white polka dots.

Image courtesy of Ellen Weinstein and the Museum of Modern Art.

One product flying off the shelves at shopAGO is the children’s book Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity. A bright and beautiful look at the life of Yayoi Kusama, the book teaches kids about the power of creative expression and the courage to pursue your passions. Less than six months after being published, the book has already gone through a second print run.

New York-based illustrator Ellen Weinstein worked with Museum of Modern Art curator Sarah Suzuki on the book, and Weinstein will be at the AGO from 2–4 pm on Sunday, April 29 for a book signing.

We spoke with the illustrator about why she loves Kusama’s work, and why Kusama’s story appeals to kids.

A close up of illustrator Ellen Weinstein.

Illustrator Ellen Weinstein.

AGO: When did you first discover Yayoi Kusama’s work?
Ellen: I was familiar with Kusama’s work but completely fell in love with it during her exhibition at New York City’s David Zwirner Gallery in 2013, I Who Have Arrived in Heaven. The immersive quality of her work is so powerful in person. The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away [now on view in Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the AGO] was completely different from anything I had seen before.

AGO: What about her story appeals to children?
Ellen: Her story is incredibly interesting and inspiring, beginning with her childhood in Japan. Since childhood, Kusama has been extremely determined, dedicated to her work and fiercely independent. It is remarkable to consider her journey from (her birthplace in) Matsumoto, Japan to New York and her return to Japan and how prolific her output remains. She paints in her Tokyo studio everyday even now.

AGO: How did you research or prepare to make this book?
Ellen: I read Kusama’s autobiography, Infinity Net, watched video interviews with her and spent considerable time studying her work. I worked with the manuscript written by Sarah Suzuki, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Sarah distilled Kusama’s life into a story that children can follow and relate to, and we collaborated really well on coming up with pieces, scenes and images we wanted to include.

An illustration of Yayoi Kusama looking down from a tall building at the crowded streets of New York City.

Yayoi Kusama in New York City. Image courtesy of Ellen Weinstein and the Museum of Modern Art.

Ellen Weinstein's illustrations Yayoi Kusama in her installation Narcissus Garden, and her 1994 public art installation Pumpkin in Naoshima.

Yayoi Kusama in her installation Narcissus Garden (also on view at the AGO), and her 1994 public art installation Pumpkin in Naoshima, Japan. Image courtesy of Ellen Weinstein and the Museum of Modern Art.

AGO: How did you try to merge Kusama’s work with your own visual style?
Ellen: I wanted to capture the essence of Kusama’s work though colour and pattern. I work in a vibrant colour palette myself and it was fascinating to immerse myself in Kusama’s work and study it closely. I’m very proud that Kusama approved our children’s book and it now is a part of the library in the Yayoi Kusama Museum in Tokyo.

The cover of Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity.

The cover of Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity. Image courtesy of Ellen Weinstein and the Museum of Modern Art.

AGO: What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about Kusama?
Ellen: The range and depth of her work is astounding. Most people are familiar with her Infinity Mirror Rooms but her full body of work includes paintings, collage, performance art and sculpture.

AGO: What’s your favourite Kusama work?
Ellen: Every time I experience the work in person, I have a new favourite. At her recent show at the David Zwirner Gallery, Festival of Life, I was taken by Kusama’s recent paintings. I’m looking forward to seeing Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the AGO and coming away with new favourites.

Don’t miss Ellen’s book signing on Sunday, April 29 at shopAGO (where you can also pick up a copy of Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity). If you can’t get to the AGO, you can also order it online.

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