Arts and Entertainment

What a Polka Dot Pumpkin Can Teach Us During the Pandemic

Yayoi Kusama paves the way for awakening the artist in all of us.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Picture yourself standing in a never-ending world of sleek white surfaces covered in giant red polka dots. You look around and find yourself deep in a maze of overgrown tulips, enveloped in the same polka dot pattern of its surroundings. The flood of cherry-red dots has engulfed everything in sight. You feel as if you have stepped into a daydream of infinite vastness. You have entered the creative mind of Yayoi Kusama.

Yayoi Kusama, at age 92, is a world-renowned painter, sculptor, and cultural phenomenon. Her artwork has taken the world by storm, with tens of thousands of fans lining up on the streets of museums, in botanical gardens, and even during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade to experience her works in their full whimsy. Some take Instagram pictures to mark the monumental occasion. Despite her recent rise to fame, Kusama struggled for most of her artistic career to carve a place in the art world because of her identity as a female artist, foreigner, and mental health activist.

Born in 1929 to a working family of merchants in the rural town of Matsumoto, Japan, Kusama had a rough upbringing. Her visions of becoming a painter were ridiculed by her mother, who wanted her to live a more traditional life by marrying into a wealthy family and being a housewife. Kusama’s mother was verbally and physically abusive to her and would steal Kusama’s art supplies to prevent her from creating art. Despite this, she continued to develop her passion for art while finding her unique voice and pursuing her creative freedom in the process.

Throughout her creative journey, Kusama has been very open about her mental health struggles. She was diagnosed with depersonalization-derealization disorder at age 10. As she describes it, she would often experience hallucinations of “blinding flashes of light and dense fields of dots” that surrounded and engulfed her entirely. These webs of color later became the basis for Kusama’s art. She began covering walls, ceilings, and even people with patterns of polka dots to mimic her hallucinations. In an interview with Akira Tatehata, Kusama says, “[My art] is a self-therapy. That is why I am not concerned with [being labeled as] Surrealism, Pop Art, Minimal Art, or whatever. I am so absorbed in living my life.”

Shunned from the art scene in Japan for her open expression of mental illness and unorthodox style, Kusama sought a way out. During her time in Japan, seeking advice as a novice artist, she wrote letters and sent watercolor paintings to her idol Georgia O’Keeffe. To her surprise, O’Keeffe responded, encouraging Kusama to move to New York and exhibit her artwork to anyone interested, but warned her of the difficulties of life as an artist. Following O’Keeffe’s advice, Kusama headed to New York City in 1958, where her avante-garde style flourished. She maintained her signature polka dots, but began to experiment with different styles of installation. These include her large-scale monochromatic paintings and her iconic “Infinity Rooms,” which were a breakthrough in experiential art design. Though her exhibitions gained traction in the art world, Kusama profited little from them.

The art of Yayoi Kusama is simplistic in concept, yet simultaneously mesmerizing, expansive, and ethereal. Though the patterns, mirrors, sculptures, and colors utilized stem from her personal struggles, her works connect to us as individuals and evoke our own emotions of wonder and joy. With one look at her magnificent golden pumpkins with black dots running up and down the shell, anyone can feel the warmth and abundance conveyed by the larger-than-life squash. In her autobiography “Infinity Net,” Kusama states, “What appealed to me most was the pumpkin’s generous unpretentiousness.” For Kusama, not only are the pumpkins a reminder of growing up on a farm in Japan, but they are also representations of positive feelings of safety, comfort, and plentifulness. Kusama would spend hours as a child drawing images of these pumpkins, which would later become a motif throughout her art.

Yayoi Kusama is living proof of the importance of self-expression and the human need to strive for creativity, especially during challenging times. More recently, research on the pandemic effects has shown a correlation between adolescents’ mental health and the COVID-19 lockdowns. Feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety have all been amplified by both the pandemic and the limited access to health resources. “There simply aren’t enough psychiatrists, developmental pediatricians, or school psychologists to care for the mental health needs of the country’s children,” reports Katherine Ellison of the Washington Post.

Schools play a notable role in the health and wellbeing of students; however, for some, recognizing the need for help can be challenging. Many students believe that accepting support is a sign of fragility, which may make them seem overly sensitive. Others fail to recognize their own internal conflicts and refuse to seek consolation from their peers. Lastly, some have trouble putting their complicated feelings into words. Whichever type of student you are, seeking help from a professional is always important. In addition to that support, incorporating art into your daily life can help with organizing your thoughts. Art is an accessible medium and outlet for a range of emotions, like stress, anger, or sadness. For some, art can be perceived as an intimidating hobby due to the pressure to be creative and have perfect technique, limiting the number of students who partake in it. On the other hand, art can be a cathartic tool to share your authentic self. Regardless of your innate talent, the artmaking process is worth exploring.

Recently, Stuyvesant has partnered with “Counseling in Schools” to host an art-based therapy group for students. Its goal is to provide a place for students to connect through topics like identifying emotions, developing communication skills, and honing in on personal strengths to overcome stress. Additionally, an Open Art Studio program is available at Stuyvesant every Tuesday and Wednesday from 3:45 to 4:30 p.m. in room 1005. Participants can use this program to create, reflect, or unwind after a jam-packed day. These resources serve as a stepping stone for students toward health and wellness.

Whether you go out and appreciate monumental art by visionaries like Yayoi Kusama or make your own, now is the time to embrace your inner artistic self. As Kusama says, “When I feel sad and low, my soul as an artist is what has kept me going.”