Carrie Oyama's Work Transcends the Canvas

The fashion label Agnona's collaboration with Creative Growth Art Center, means you can now take the artist's work with you, anywhere you want.

by Scott Indrisek
Oct 4 2019, 10:00am

The artist Carrie Oyama traces her love of art to the pictures she would make as a child with her Japanese-American father. “He bought me watercolors, and we’d draw and paint together,” the artist, now in her early seventies, tells GARAGE. She recalls their subjects were fantastical: “dream mansions, with fancy aspects,” if not idiosyncratic—“a swimming pool with chocolate syrup in it, a sad cat.” As a child, Oyama struggled to communicate with those around her, and for portions of her life she was essentially non-verbal. “I experienced my life as a movie,” she explains. “I was watching things all the time. People would come and try to talk with me, and I’d just stare at them. I knew that they wouldn’t want to hear what I had to say. I was tremendously shy, and I didn’t have my voice yet. Art gave me self-expression —feeling like, at least on paper, I was in the world.”

Her creative streak was rewarded early on; art-making “really saved my life in high school,” Oyama says. In 1968, she enrolled at the School ofVisual Arts in Manhattan. “I pretty much went my own way,” she says.“I know somebody else who went to art school and they followed it to the letter. People would look at her things and say, ‘Wow, you are so gifted.’And my things were always what I felt like doing. I didn’t always follow the teacher’s suggestions. I was just lucky, I guess, that I squeaked by.”(“Plus,” Oyama adds, her instructors “were all stoned.”)

In the late 1970s, Oyama moved from the East Coast to Berkeley, California. Beginning in the ’80s, she would become a regular fixture at the Creative Growth Art Center, in Oakland, which has been dedicated to helping those with disabilities find their artist voice since its founding in 1974. Through therapy, Oyama began talking more regularly. At some point during these years, she was introduced to a novel method of mark making; although right-handed, she began drawing with her left. “I get bored, draw-ing with my regular hand. It always comes out predictably,” she says. “Using the other hand, there’s always something to be discovered.”

Carrie Oyama Creative Growth Art Center Agnona
Oyama’s Egon Schiele-esque drawings are made with the artist’s non-dominant hand. "Untitled (CO 052)," 2016, Mixed media on paper

Oyama’s lively portraits are made up of nests of colorful lines that recall the emotional tension of Egon Schiele. The subjects “come from my imagination, but they’re mostly people I’ve known,” she says. Her drawings aren’t meant to be faithful depictions of a person’s likeness, though.“They’re just the feeling about them. I’m trying to capture movement and gesture, rather than exactness.” Oyama is inspired by anyone who knows how to use their body, like dancers and swimmers.

For this issue, GARAGE presents a special project in collaboration with iconic Italian brand Agnona. One hundred white cashmere bags have been handcrafted and embroidered with an image by Oyama. The two companies are of like mind: Agnona, founded in 1953, collaborates with San Patrignano, an organization that provides a fresh start for those with a history of substance abuse. “The organization works to rehabilitate people on a journey of recovery through craftsmanship,”says Simon Holloway, Agnona’s creative director. “Each resident follows a course of training aimed at reintegrating them back into society.Every passing of the shuttle across the hand loom represents progress to a new life through craftsmanship.” Holloway was personally drawn to the evocative power of Oyama’s drawing. “I immediately envisioned attempting to interpret her multi-layered technique through fabric and thread, and hoped to reflect, through Agnona’s craftsmanship, the dynamism of her drawing,” he says.

For GARAGE’s special project, Holloway started with Oyama’s portrait of two figures in pink, black, and green. “I imagined taking an ivory-colored cloth woven from Agnona’s pure white cashmere—made using only the most rare and pale fibers to guarantee purity and luminosity—to form a base, or ‘page,’” Holloway says. “We took Oyama’s beautiful lines and attempted to render them in thread through an innovative embroidery technique. We then layered that work with hand-cut découpage of intensely colored silk fabrics, such as crêpe de Chine and chiffon, to mirror the shading around the figures depicted in her work.” The final piece, much like the original artwork, conjures real psychic depth through busy, kinetic lines

creative growth art center
carrie oyama