Looking at the grizzly bears, bisons and eagles in Yoko Isami’s prints you could be forgiven for thinking she was of North American descent. In reality, Yoko is a Japanese printmaker with thing for Scandinavian design, living in the north west of England. She originally came to the UK to work as a language teacher, so how did she discover lino printing and how did Meadowlark Prints begin? We talk to Yoko to find out…
Can you introduce yourself?
I’m a Japanese printmaker living in the north-west of England. I make linocut prints as Meadowlark Prints.
What’s your background?
Before I started printing, I was a language teacher teaching Japanese here in the UK, but I’ve always loved drawing and interested in art and design in general. I was doodling all the time as a kid and continue to do so as an adult too. So when I had less teaching work, I took the chance to do an art foundation course, then went on to university to study textile design, specialising in weaving. After graduating, I carried on my art as a hobby until I had the courage to stop teaching all together and focus on being creative.
Where does the name Meadowlark Prints come from?
Sometimes people think it’s a made-up name, but Meadowlarks are real birds, native to North and Central America. Since I use animals a lot in my design, I thought using an animal as my name was a natural thing to do. I liked the idea of using a bird’s name as I like what they represent to people. One of my favourite songs at that time was called ‘Meadowlark’ by Fleet Foxes. With a bit of research, I found out that they are small but striking bird with a yellow and speckled black body and a distinctive birdsong. My mind was made up.
When and how did you discover linoprinting?
About five years ago handmade craft was making a comeback through pop-up events and specialised markets and I wanted to be a part of that. The problem was, I didn’t know what to sell! I’d been painting and drawing in my spare time, but I felt I needed to explore something else. I had never really done block printing before but when I tried it, I soon realised it suits my drawing style and I enjoyed the hands-on nature of the printing process. I was looking for something that would work at local markets and online too, and linoprinting fitted the bill.
How would you describe your style?
Simple, clean cut and minimalist, with strong colour combinations.
What or who inspires you?
I’ve always lived in big cities and like a lot of city people I dream of wilderness. Rugged nature and wild animals are constant sources of inspiration as a subject matter. I love looking at other people’s work, especially other disciplines such as paintings, graphic design, photography, illustration, crafts or even conceptual art. I don’t look for particular things but I often learn new ideas about layout, techniques and colour. I don’t know if they actually influence what I do, but they always give me fresh perspectives.
Are there any artists or designers you particularly admire?
It’s not particular artists or designers, but I do admire Scandinavian homeware designs for their strong shapes, colours and functionality. Their designs from the ’60s and ’70s are beautiful and timeless.
Can you talk us through your creative process?
I usually have a lot of fragments of ideas in my head – they might come from photographs, books or music I’m listening to. When I start a new design, I usually have a subject in mind and start thinking about other elements that might go with it. I think how they could work together and try out a lot of sketches on paper. I really enjoy this creative phase, but it can be quite hard work. Sometimes, however, the whole picture comes together really quickly and these often turn out to be my best designs – I’d love to have more of them!
Once I’ve a finalised sketch I have to turn it into a template for the print. I have to consider how to use negative and positive colouring, patterns, layout etc to make the print dynamic. But I also need to make it practical so it can be cut into the lino block. Once all that thinking is done, I enjoy the practical aspects of carving the lino and printing the picture – and finding out if the final result looks how I expected!
Do you work from a sketchbook?
I keep my sketchbooks mainly for doodling, but when I am playing around with a design I also use sheets of paper, so I can cut them up and play with the layout easily.
Have you got any drawings tips you can share?
I can only give a tip as a printmaker, but I focus on outlines and shapes right from the start as they are fundamental to the final print.
Can you describe your workspace/studio?
I use a spare room as my working space. It’s not huge but it’s a good size room and if I was a tidier person it would probably be a perfect size for the sort of thing I do! I keep the one part of the room for storing materials, tools and other bits and pieces, and the side with good light is my creative area. I keep this side relatively tidy, but that all changes when I start a new print. I keep my sketchbook by my side and scatter all the drawings around me as well as printouts, colour samples and inks as I develop the ideas and finish the printing. During that time the space really becomes ‘the artist’s studio’ that people imagine!
What’s your favourite thing about living in the UK?
Lots of things, including fish and chips and the first cup of tea in morning! But as a maker of things, I think art and design is really strong in the UK. When you go traveling to other countries you realise how good graphic design is in the UK, even for everyday things like packaging or book covers. The UK has such a wide cultural diversity with historical and contemporary design elements from all over the world.
Is there anything about Japan that you really miss?
Probably books and magazines. I love reading and I used to spend hours in book shops browsing though novels and photo books when I was in Japan. I enjoy reading books in English now as well, but when it comes to pure enjoyment and ease, it’s hard to beat something written in your mother tongue.
What’s your proudest achievement so far?
That I had a go at something I had wanted to do for a long time, and five years on I’m still doing it and still enjoying it!