By Lora Mathis
In these turbulent times, tuning in to our needs has become an imperative anti-burnout tool; a necessary defense against the constant flow of painful events on the news. Yumi Sakugawa’s work is a window into her traversing through vulnerability, and an honest look at what healing can look like. The Los Angeles cartoonist, zinester, illustrator, and author shares practical tips, beautiful drawings, and poignant messages in books, zines, on Patreon, and on her popular Instagram account. She has explored befriending our demons, disconnecting from external sources, tending to creativity, connecting with the universe, and developing your own sense of self. Sakugawa’s work is a friendly hand offered as we dive further into the oceans of ourselves.
Artists who create work on mental health are often cast into the role of guide, which often places them on a pedestal. Do you feel as though you are put into this role? If so, how do you navigate it?
I don’t think so. I always see myself as an artist sharing my particular experience. [In a way it’s] a universal experience with other people who are more or less on the same journey as I am. So, I have zero desire to be placed on a pedestal. And I am happy to share what I have learned and am learning through my books, my workshops, my Instagram, and my Patreon blog. I think we are all equals on the same journey.
What role has creativity played in your becoming and unbecoming?
Creativity helped me find my voice during the years of childhood when I felt too scared, shy, and intimidated to use my actual physical voice and take up space with my actual physical body. Drawing and writing stories were my way of expressing myself, taking up space, articulating what was important to me before I learned how to do that with my physical voice and body. Creativity also reminds me that narratives, paradigms, worldviews, identities about myself can always shift, change, transmute -- because that is the nature of the creative force itself that gave birth to this universe. Things are always in flux, things are always becoming and unbecoming, being born and being destroyed to make way for the new as it becomes the old and dies again.
There is a page in your book “The Little Book of Life Hacks” which offers tips for beginners to meditation. How has meditation assisted your connection to yourself and creative process?
Meditation is my daily anchor I can’t imagine living without. I meditate for twenty minutes every morning, and it is something I must do every day as a way of acknowledging that I am not my thoughts, I am not my mental state, I am a far more infinite being and I am a crest of a wave in an infinite cosmic ocean. Meditating every day helps me connect with that intuitive, present, flow energy where things manifest with more ease and joy. I think that is how it is supposed to be once you remove and transmute your inner mental blocks.
The term “expired pain” has appeared in your work. This term heavily resonated with me. At what point would you say pain has run its course, and is no longer serving its carrier?
Healing has its own non-linear timeline that works more like a spiral that dips into the past, present, and future, not a straight line from point A to point B. Sometimes, it feels like it has its own intelligent logic independent of the person being healed. I know for myself, the most I can do is to be soft and compassionate and non-judgmental to myself, and to give myself permission to feel all the pain and sadness and anger fully as a way to honor my hurt feelings, and to give myself permission to take all the time that it needs, and to trust that the universe will allow for me to shed the pain when I am ready while being open to the possibility of no longer being in pain. It’s all very mysterious.
What causes a series of your work to be made into a book? Do you typically begin a body of work with the intention of it being a formal collection?
Usually, no. My first books came about accidentally. They were originally self-published blog posts that turned into a self-published zine, or a web- comic that I made for my own pleasure with zero intention of them becoming published books. I released the work out into the world, and then a series of coincidences and synchronicities brought the work into published book form. The universe knew better than me how to turn my work into published books.
The Internet is a tool for connection and communication, which allows artists to share their voice in ways they choose. At the same time, social media feeds a disconnection from our daily lives, distraction, and sometimes, unrealistic expectations. Your work often brings up the importance of being present and intentionally disconnecting. How do you slow down, and find a balance with social media?
I have specific activities during the day that are strictly offline mode. Waking up first thing in the morning. Unwinding before going to bed. Going on outdoor walks. I also like to make a habit of turning my phone off and hiding it in my underwear drawer for hours at a time. To remind myself that my default state should be offline punctuated by occasional, intentional forays into the online world, instead of the other way around.
Of course, this is all easier said than done and takes a lot of practice. I still can’t eat a meal alone without watching something on Netflix.
You are a prolific artist who has multiple published books, as well as many zines and also has a regularly updated Instagram & Patreon. At the same time, you have talked about how the expectation to constantly produce is unrealistic and unsustainable. How do you draw the line between meeting deadlines and paying the bills, while also allowing inspiration to come organically?
I think you have to proactively plan for containers of time that prioritizes your creativity and your pleasure, instead of waiting for time to free up after you have done your bill-paying work. So, in the creative handbook THE ARTIST’S WAY, author Julia Cameron emphasizes the importance of doing morning pages every morning (writing three notebook pages’ worth of stream-of-conscious writing) and at least once a week going on an Artist’s Date-- a date with yourself where you go out on a solo adventure to recharge your creative muses, whether it is going to a museum or a concert or a cool thrift store. I think you have to fold into your life daily and weekly habits that are the creative equivalent of flossing or brushing your teeth -- you do them because it keeps your muses happy. So, in my case, I absolutely have to meditate every morning, go on daily walks, write my morning pages, go on artist dates, regularly feed my mind with new inspiration, and work on passion projects in tandem with deadlines and paid work. Those activities are not things I do as an afterthought or as a luxury I have to earn after doing bill-paying work, they are things I absolutely must do in order to stay sane, grounded, and inspired.
You talk of the muse and the importance of feeding them, as well as listening to them. What are methods you use to nurture your muse?
I meditate, I write my morning pages, I leave a bowl of water as an offering to my muses. I make an effort to experience something creatively new every week. I do a lot of walking. Sometimes I hike in nature or take long walks by the beach. I honor the needs of my body: getting ample rest, eating healthy food, taking breaks. I also love connecting with my constellation of creative friends who are all doing amazing work as musicians, writers, cartoonists, healers, and more. So being able to talk to other friends about the creative process and the obstacles we have been going through also recharges and re-energizes me.
There is a James Baldwin quote which reads: “The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” What do you believe is the role of the artist, in their own life and in the public?
I can’t speak for all artists, but for myself, I believe my role is healing through vulnerable authenticity and reminding people through all my different mediums of the infinite cosmic magic that we are all connected to, and how we can truly heal ourselves and this world once we realize this inherent connection.
A piece of your writing where you articulated that there are No easy answers stuck out to me. Too often people assume that an artist was born with inherent wisdom, when much of the time, that knowledge and wisdom came from a commitment to being in conversation with themselves. What has the process of finding your creative voice, and learning to listen to yourself, looked like?
There are many layers to this process, and of course it is ongoing. So in my twenties, I did anything to get my work out into the world. Doing an art show because a friend was curating a group art show in a coffee shop, doing live painting at community events, putting together a zine for a zine convention, illustrating event flyers, and so on. Doing a lot of different things. Also: meditating, learning astrology, learning tarot, ending a ten-year relationship, reading a lot of self-help books, attuning to my own desires, practicing saying no to people and honoring my boundaries, finding new ways to express myself through fashion and make-up.
Another topic addressed in your work is that of non-hierarchical joy. You encourage others to enjoy the mundane and rather than believe excitement can only be found in accomplishments and rare moments, cherish the simplicity of everyday encounters. What are tools you use to slow down and to appreciate each moment?
I meditate every morning. One simple thing anyone can do is to take three slow breaths -- inhale and exhale mindfully. That, and listen to the sounds you hear in the present moment. Also, gratitude is an underrated practice. Being grateful for the abundance in my life helps me slow down and appreciate all that I have.
There are times when self-improvement becomes presented as a never-ending project of fixing, rather than a lesson in acceptance. You have articulated that we should stop seeing ourselves as flaws to be fixed. In what ways do you think accepting ourselves as we are can change the process of growth?
You can’t self-hate yourself into a happier person. It’s the difference between a parent who screams at her child for not being good enough or trying hard enough, and a parent who hugs her child and says I love you and you are capable of doing anything you set your heart on.
I saw you’re being featured at the Portland Zinefest this July! I am set to table as well. What is on your creative horizon? What projects are you working on? Is there another book coming to fruition?
I just released my first iMessage sticker line, TEA WITH DEMONS, which is inspired by my favorite chapter in my book YOUR ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO BECOMING ONE WITH THE UNIVERSE. It’s on the App Store and you get a set of 81 illustrated stickers for $0.99 which you can message to other iPhone users. (Sorry, non-iPhone users, I hope to eventually have my work available to everyone!) So, I hope that this will be the first of many iPhone sticker lines to come -- it’s interesting to think of how new visuals expressing specific inner states that can’t be found on the traditional emoji keyboard can transform the way we communicate with one another.
I am also putting together the finishing touches for FASHION FORECASTS, an art comic zine about futuristic Asian American intergenerational fashion, that will be released by Retrofit Comics this year.
I am also working on a new book and a screenplay. But those are kind of a secret. To be continued!
What self-improvement projects-- art related or not--are you working on?
I have been slowly easing my way into deeper dives with my creative practice. The term I came up with for myself is “deep sea pearl diving.” How can I go for longer dives underwater in the process of creating my work instead of skimming the surface? How can I go for longer dives underwater with my life in general instead of skimming the surface?
I have also slowly been working my way through Julia Cameron’s creative handbook THE VEIN OF GOLD, which is about different creative exercises we can do to tap into our personal vein of gold in our creative manifestation while being playful and intuitive and exploratory. So I’ve done a lot of really interesting exercises because of this book. Like, make a mask, make a collage series of my life in five-year-increments, draw on a T-shirt, and so on. Right now, I’m in a chapter that is all about attuning to sound and silence, and expressing your inner emotional states through sound therapy, so I’m really excited to be working with a completely different genre that is very much out of my comfort zone which I know nothing about.
Where are you finding joy these days?
I find joy in the simple, quiet life I have right now in Los Angeles. I work on projects that excite me, I spend time with friends I love, and I have many opportunities to share healing practices that have worked with me with complete strangers all over the world. I love the mundane days of working at home, and then the small pleasures of being able to walk to a neighborhood cafe or sometimes spontaneously going on a drive at night with a girlfriend to walk along the ocean shore.