In a quiet, well-lit Dunbar home studio, a tiny new universe is about to make itself known. Filled with surreal and captivating images of faces, hands, eyes, and cosmic wonder, this nascent world is the unified vision of Tucson artist Yu Yu Shiratori.
Shiratori, a geologist by trade, has been hard at work building her world. Illustration serves as the backbone of her aesthetic, and she has translated it into many forms—jewelry, prints, fabric and embroidery.
Those familiar with Shiratori's work—she released a line of clothing and bags several years ago, designed fabrics and clothing for local band Prom Body during their heyday, and has made myriad prints—know that she is capable of producing work in a breadth of styles.
"I had too many things going on," she says of her artistic past. "Now I'm able to focus my attention and develop my voice a little more."
It's not that she has fewer projects now, necessarily, but all of her work feels of a piece.
"That's the thing about doing art and becoming more versed in your own ideas—you create your own universe. And that's what I've been harvesting," Shiratori says. "I feel like I'm getting deeper in my own universe. I'm able to tap into the things I want to create and actually create the way I've been visualizing. I'm manifesting the things I want to see."
Part of delving into this universe requires having the self-discipline to stay in it. Shiratori worked a paleontology gig in Wyoming for a couple of months this summer, and treated her free time there like an artist's residency, making headway on the time-consuming embroidery pieces that epitomize her new work.
"My boss was probably like, 'what are you doing?'" she says. "It's proper cowboy country. Double-barrel shotguns mounted onto every truck."
In many ways, Shiratori has continued her residency back in Tucson. She wakes up at 6 a.m., heads into the studio, and works until about 6 p.m., allowing herself an hour for lunch and a couple of small interspersed breaks.
"I'm treating it like a job because at this point that's what I need to do," she says, adding, "It's zen as fuck. It's really relaxing. I'm not outside digging holes for twelve hours. You get into the groove just like any job."
It's true that her work doesn't require a hard-hat and vest, but her casual attitude belies how challenging that level of dedication truly is. Her work ethic has, however, allowed her to reach a point where her art is cohesive and true to her vision.
"The important thing, I'm realizing, is the more time you spend on your craft or developing your voice, the more comfortable you become," she says. "It's fun to keep nurturing that."
Creating a universe is more than just establishing an aesthetic through line—it's building a home, literally and figuratively. She has made the back half of her house into a studio, and she spends a lot of time in it.
"Going out has its pleasures, but doing work, being at home harvesting my ideas, I cherish more," Shiratori says.
After her time in Wyoming, building a home became a more abstract and pervasive concept for Shiratori.
"Coming back from Wyoming and questioning what home is, I realized that I could make it. I don't have to buy jewelry. I can make it. I don't have to buy clothes. I can make them. It's important for me to express myself through creating things rather than buying things," she says. "It filters into everyday life. I don't want to consume things, I want to further develop my own ideas."
Living in a world generated by those ideas is empowering and comforting.
Shiratori's large embroidered pieces, the flags of her empire, are a powerful statement of this streamlined idea.
"The embroidery is an ongoing experiment. I've never translated my illustrations into this medium. I was doing strictly screen printing for awhile, but I identify with this texture," she says. "Screen printing has always been too flat for me."
While she still works in multiple mediums, including printmaking, illustration ties everything together. Her jewelry pieces are wearable line drawings.
"These are just doodles in practical form. I drew a hand on a receipt or something," she says of a pair of hand-shaped earrings.
But the hands are wonderful in their simplicity, in the way they mirror hands in her prints and flags, in how her style shines through and connects them to other shapes and pieces, faces and teeth and waves and droplets.
Shiratori's world is her own, and yet it is not alienating. Rather, she makes work that specifically reaches out. In addition to jewelry, she is working on a line of handkerchiefs, stand alone screen-printed pieces that she admires for their practicality as well as their role in creating an experience. She plans to wrap pieces of jewelry in them.
"In Japanese culture, whenever you give a gift or buy anything, they wrap it up proper. I want to maintain that insanity of packaging with jewelry," she says.
Buying a piece of her jewelry is more than a standard transaction. You are buying a piece of her world, and such careful attention to detail ensures that it feels that way. The trade off for Shiratori is the satisfaction of seeing her vision spread.
"I feel incredible having powerful women wear my jewelry," she says.
Starting a business is likely the next step for Shiratori, though she has been taking her time.
"I have no idea how to run a business. It's just another learning curve, just like all of this," she says. "It's a matter of creating first. I have to create a bunch of work that I would want to present, and then approach the business aspect."
For now, her work can be found in shops around Tucson and on her Etsy page, as well as at her upcoming How Sweet it Was show, which opens on Saturday, Sept. 2. Prints and jewelry will be on display alongside larger embroidered pieces in the cozy and stylish vintage shop.