Japanese artist and BYU students bring felines and legends to Provo

Shu Yamamoto stands next to his painting "Catshington Crossing the Delaware," based off of Emanuel Leutze's famous painting. (Sara Bitterman)
Shu Yamamoto stands next to his painting “Catshington Crossing the Delaware,” based on Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting. Yamamoto’s work is on display at a free art exhibit. (Sara Bitterman)

The Utah County Arts Council’s new Japanese art exhibit for the month of April takes classic art and puts it in a category all its own.

The exhibit features the work of Shu Yamamoto, a Japanese native who currently resides in Sandy. His work takes classic works of art, like “Washington Crossing the Delaware River,” and replaces all the humans with cats. Yamamoto was inspired when his son, who at the time was in middle school, was working on an art assignment in which he was recreating one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits. Instead of drawing a human, his son drew a cat.

“I saw that, and it gave me a chuckle, so I tried it,” Yamamoto said.

Yamamoto started painting in 2007 and since then has recreated more than 60 paintings, copying the original style of the artists. With the new version of the painting comes a new name that includes a cat pun. For example, Botticelli’s “Primavera” is Pawticelli’s “Primeowvera.”

Yamamoto and his wife have two cats, Molly and Neko, who sometimes provide him with inspiration.

“When I finish one painting, we need to pick a new one,” Yamamoto said. “I flip through the art book, and sometimes the cat will insert her paw on a picture. Sometimes I will go with her suggestion.”

Many have approached him and asked if he would ever do similar art featuring dogs. Yamamoto has said no. “A cat is more attractive to look at,” he said.

Yamamoto does include dogs in his paintings, but they always play the bad guy or servants. In the cat version of “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” Napoleon rides a brown poodle, and in “The Singing Butler” by Jack Vettriano, the servants holding umbrellas are dogs.

While Yamamoto’s work is less known in the United States, his work has been published in Japan for three years now. After the 2011 earthquake in Japan, Yamamoto asked himself what he could do to boost morale in his native country, according to Alf Pratte, member of the Utah County Arts Council. He approached a publisher in Japan and published a book of illustrations. Now he brings his morale-building art to Provo.

“This is a fun thing for students,” Pratte said. “If you aren’t into Monet or Picasso, here’s the same paintings with cats.”

Josh Cotton (left) and Jesse Draper (right) pose next to their art at the exhibit. (Sara Bitterman)
Josh Cotton (left) and Jesse Draper (right) pose next to their piece “Frog and Toad: Assassins.” (Sara Bitterman)

While Yamamoto’s work takes viewers on a journey through art history, the accompanying exhibit by BYU students Jesse Draper and Josh Cotton gives visual concept art to the legends of the Ute Indians.

In contrast to Yamamoto’s art, Draper and Cotton’s work is done mostly digitally. Their goal is to show a historical side of Provo.

“Here a lot of people think Provo’s a suburb, but Native Americans used to live here,” Cotton said. “We wondered what menace and magic had occurred here.”

Both Draper and Cotton are graduating with BFAs in illustration with an emphasis in animation, and their work reflects that style. They described the process of creating their art as “sculpting with clay in a computer.” Cotton said it takes them eight to 12 hours to create their pieces, but they also do extensive research on the Native American legends before starting.

Some of the more notable legends they’ve told include the legends of skinwalkers and water babies. Draper said skinwalkers wear their bodies out over time and, as a result, must steal someone else’s body.

“The skinwalkers are someone who has been cursed to walk the earth forever,” Draper said. “According to the Utes, he must find a new body, and hopefully it’s not yours.”

Draper said the legend of the water babies was a way for mothers to keep their children away from the water. While some say it’s just a legend, there are many who believe that water babies are real.

“Others would say that they heard babies crying by the lake, and they go and find a water baby instead, and it pulls them down to their watery grave,” Draper said. According to his research, the last sighting of a water baby in Utah Lake was in 1920.

Cotton said many people go to Europe and talk about how old the land is, but Provo holds a history just as rich.

“The ground is old here too,” Cotton said. “What I didn’t think about much is how the ground is old, but there are stories that are old that we don’t tell anymore. We’re trying to tell those stories.”

The exhibits run through the month of April at the Provo Health and Justice Building. Admission is free.

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