Erin Yoshi dreams of a world in which people can live in harmony with nature. A world that respects divergent cultures. A world where people are not afraid of violence or exploitation.
That world is captured on LA billboards through March 28. They invite everyone to visit that world and think about how we might make it flourish in our own world.
Yoshi, a painter, muralist and social activist, has created “The Land of We,” an ongoing project that she has exhibited in different forms over the past few years. In this land, ecology and culture thrive — at least until it is infected with a virus called “I” that affects foresight.
“Those who caught it could no longer see the ripples and waves that echoed from their actions,” Yoshi said. “This moment marked the beginning of the decline.”
Committed to environmental justice
In the 10 billboards that will dot the Los Angeles area, Yoshi tells stories of the “Land of We,” along with the state of the world and how we may be in decline. There is hope in education, action and visibility, however.
Yoshi has studied climate change intensely at the university as a research assistant and while working for a firm that specialized in socially responsible investment. She learned the dangers of carbon emissions and the blanket that is surrounding our planet and causing it to heat up.
“I consider myself an environmental justice organizer,” Yoshi said. “I used to work in that field and always had a connection to doing that work. As a woman of color, we talked a lot about culture oppression growing up and doing solidarity work. It has always been a part of my ethos.”
A billboard for our time
On March 10, Yoshi published the stories behind each billboard along with a map on her website, erinyoshi.com. LA residents are encouraged to drive to each one, experiencing the stories in any order.
Yoshi came up with the idea while trying to figure out a way to showcase her work in a safe and accessible manner, especially to families.
“I’m a new mom, so I like to think of ways art can be intergenerational,” Yoshi said. “It’s an activity people can do that is safe and family friendly. It can be a scavenger hunt, something that is fun and out of the box.”
Like other artists, she held virtual galleries and exhibitions, but she didn’t feel they were successful. So, she turned instead to this outdoor medium.
Telling stories with the art
Each piece was originally painted with acrylic and water-based spray paint on canvas or wood.
The pieces were magnified for the billboard, but they were already quite large when painted. Many of them are 3 feet by 6 feet, Yoshi said. Each image has a story, which is explained on her website.
“One of the images is actually dedicated to the folks we have lost due to COVID,” Yoshi said.
“That wasn’t originally in my thinking, but it is something we are all facing. It connects our community. Everyone knows someone who has had a scare or lost a loved one.”
She said she wants her art to communicate events in her community and how she feels about them. She pulls other stories from history or cultural knowledge. She looks for things that speak about current times or offer solutions to problems.
For example, “Free Diving” tells the story of the Haenyeo, Korean women who harvest mollusks, fish and seaweed from the ocean. They fish by hand.
“It is a beautiful solution to net fishing, where you can still fish, people can live off it, but it is done in a way that works in harmony with the planet rather than slaughtering fish on a mass scale,” Yoshi said.
Many of these women learned the trade when they were very young, and now they are in their 60s to 80s and still diving. The Haenyeo, which translates as “female divers,” were early feminists, most of them becoming heads of their household. It was something that created a semi-matriarchal society in the Jeju province of Korea. Women worked; men did the shopping and took care of children. Men paid dowries to the brides’ families, reversing the mainland custom.
The diving tradition was introduced in 434 A.D., but it wasn’t until the 17th century that women were mentioned as doing it. By the 18th century, they outnumbered male divers. In the 20th century, they became primary wage earners and were hired on the mainland.
“That role helped change dynamics for women’s empowerment,” Yoshi said. “They also understand the ocean. They’ve been in the ocean since they were in their teens and seen its transition. They’ve created a doctrine of how they fish. They don’t collect ones that are too small; they leave a certain amount so there are fish for the next generation. They fish in a way that is harmonious to the planet.”
“The Mighty Blue” honors the blue whale and its role as a climate warrior.
“They actually stir the ocean from bottom to top,” Yoshi said. “They dive so deep. They actually help the ocean to absorb more carbon. I like to highlight stories like that. We are all interconnected. Everything plays a role.”
Extending the artwork
Yoshi will continue to tell the story of the “Land of We” even after the billboards come down.
She recently painted a mural in Koreatown reflecting the white-naped crane. It has become a symbol of peace for Koreans. Once in danger of extinction, they have found a new habitat in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas.
“It’s a really beautiful story,” Yoshi said. “People on both sides are working in harmony with the cranes.”
After public input, Yoshi painted the cranes flying in a V formation on walls.
“Out of these workshops with the community, I find the theme and whittle something down that the community would be proud to have as well as highlighting an environmental or cultural story,” Yoshi said.
Bringing the art home
Yoshi has made her “Land of We” art available in three forms — the originals, prints and on merchandise.
A portion of all her artwork sales is donated to LA food pantries. A second-generation artist, Yoshi has been making a living with art since her 20s.
She recognizes the opportunities for women in the arts are small, and she encourages young women to learn how to organize and promote themselves.
“Nobody is ever going to discover you,” Yoshi said. “If you wait, you’ll always be waiting. Go out there and make it happen.”
If they do, they may someday, like Yoshi, get to create art aimed at changing the world around them.
“This project has been a dream,” Yoshi said.