Connecting with "Our Kids"
Jim Rouse's Best Idea for Columbia Ever

When I'm Happy I Make Art: Remembering Wes Yamaka


(All images used by permission of the artist, Wesley Yamaka--with thanks to Ken Katzen for scanning!)

Yesterday, Rosa's French class was practicing the future tense by writing little stories in the style of "When You Give a Mouse a Cookie".  Each student had to imagine the future result of a present situation:  when I go to the moon, I will see stars.  When I see stars I will get a headache.  When I get a headache...well, you get the picture.  Rosa said she had to finish the sentence, "When I am happy..."  "I actually had to think about that for a while," Rosa told us over dinner.  "I finally wrote, 'When I am happy I will make art."

How true.

The developer who planned Columbia, Maryland, Jim Rouse, was motivated by a strong belief that the design of a city could makes people's lives worse or it could make people's lives better.  He built Columbia as an experiment in better living though design.  The part of that plan that I think about most often has to do with the policy and design decisions which led to real racial and economic integration among the residents.  But the kind of human flourishing that Rouse was seeking to promote wasn't just about social equity.  He was looking to promote human development on a very personal level--he believed that given the right set of physical and social conditions, people would grow to be fuller and happier human beings.  

How would you ever test such a hypothesis?  Howard County often boasts these days about its "high standard of living" which usually refers to economic prosperity.  That's something that we can measure although I'm not sure it is really something to brag about.  How do you know that the people who live in a community are flourishing in the broadest sense of that term?  

One of the best ways I know is to examine whether the people in the community are making art.

Yamaka-Walk in Miracles

There are some great stories from the early days of Columbia about people blossoming as artists.  Two of the New City's most prominent artists, John Levering and Wes Yamaka, were key leaders in the Kittamaqundi Community, the church I now serve.  Wes Yamaka died this past week in Oregon where he had lived with his wife, Rose, for many years.  I never had a chance to meet Wes, although we did connect by email.  I feel connected to him in large part because I have lived and worked in a building that is filled with his art.  

I've learned a bit about Wes from members of my congregation who knew him and from some print material, especially this pamphlet published by the Columbia Association (passed on to me by Mary Carrington--thanks!)  Wes and his family had been forced to live in internment camps during World War II, along with many other Japanese-American families on the West Coast.  It was a degrading experience for his whole family which left Wes feeling like "a second-class citizen."  Wes first came to Columbia to work for the Columbia Cooperative Ministries, the group that coordinated religious life in the new community, especially the village interfaith centers and the programs that brought together the various congregations that worshiped there.  He was excited by the openness of the religious institutions in the New City.  He must have had a sense that in a setting like that, he could grow himself.

In 1970, he left CCM to work for the Rouse Company, but within a few years he left that position to open Columbia's first art gallery with John Levering who also had been working for the Rouse Company.  Located in a historic stone building next to Oakland Manor, the gallery was called "Eye of the Camel".  Until the gallery closed in 1977, Yamaka created and sold original silk screen prints there.  Wes Yamaka eventually returned to the West Coast and to his work as a United Methodist minister.  But he continued to make art for the rest of his life.  

There are still artists all over Columbia, and we even have a cooperative gallery run by local artists.  But I believe that everyone has the capacity to make art--not just official "artists".  I love the recent trend in our schools to create cooperative art projects like the recently installed mosaic in Stevens Forest Elementary School.  Each kid in the school made a tile which the artists composed together into a forest scene.  Why not do something like that in our Village Centers?  Can you imagine a neighborhood coming together to make something like this:IMG_0946


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Jo Anne Yamaka

Thank you for this lovely article about Wes. The family is planning a memorial service in Columbia and will definitely keep this blog posted as to the details.

Barbara Kellner

Wes personified the vision of a place for people to grow as he moved from his work with the Columbia Cooperative Ministry, to the Rouse Company to the Eye of the Camel. I think that must have been rewarding for him -- I know it was wonderful for the community as his art brought his beautiful spirit into the homes of so many Columbians.

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