When I arrive at Jem Yoshioka’s loft in downtown Wellington, the first thing she does is offer me tea.
It’s the same ritual every time I come to her home in New Zealand’s capital city. I ride the rickety iron elevator, which is like something out of Titanic, to the loft, and Jem ushers me in, then she opens the wooden tea cupboard and starts pulling out boxes.
I covet her electric kettle, a space age gadget that heats water to the optimal temperature for different types of tea. She sets a timer on her phone so the drink steeps for exactly the right number of minutes.
Jem’s been living here for as long as I’ve known her; close to five years. When we met in 2011, she had just tentatively entered part-time work, after a long recovery from an illness that left her devastated.
Five years before that, she was in the middle of of studying for a degree in design when she contracted a stomach virus. The virus soon passed, but Jem’s body refused all of her efforts to get well.
“Everything exhausted me. I got no rest from sleep. Over exerting myself would leave me drained for days,” she says. “It took two years of this before I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndr
ome. There was nothing I could do to heal myself.”
An estimated one million Americans and a quarter of a million people in the UK have CFS, or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). The cause is not fully understood, the symptoms are complex and inconsistent, and there is no known cure.
“I slept in weird snippets when it seemed the thing to do, I would eat healthy and get pain from wholegrain bread one day, but be fine with it the next. Exercise would be fine until it destroyed me and I’d be unable to move for days. I learned I needed to listen to my body and follow what it was telling me.”
Plagued by exhaustion and anxiety, Jem struggled to continue her study, and the art that had always sustained her.
“It was difficult and I went through patches of being unable to draw. I had to teach myself all over again. My heart was broken. Drawing was something I’d always had, and I didn’t even really have it anymore.”
Now, close to a decade later, Jem uses her hard-earned degree and her artist’s eye to tell stories in steady full-time work, making space for drawing in her own time.
Her drawing and illustration work has won her both awards and acclaim, and is informed by her experience with illness–and her special heritage.
Yoshioka is Jem’s grandmother’s family name. When she married Jem’s New Zealander, or “kiwi”, grandfather in the 1950s, she refused to drop her name. It was a brave and an unusual choice. Jem initially adopted it as an online pseudonym.
“Drawing was something I’d always had, and I didn’t even really have it anymore.”
“It’s always been a beautiful name to me, and I thought using it would help to solidify my connection to my heritage and direct my art practice. After about 5 years, I realized that the only places with my other name were official places. It sounded dull to my ears, so I decided to change to Yoshioka. It’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
This is one in a string of choices Jem’s made about her mixed race identity. Like many people with diverse backgrounds, she has questioned her right to belong, and this exploration is present in much of her recent artwork.
“I remember growing up feeling proud and also feeling quite alone. There’s not a lot of other Japanese here, and the other families who are here are often quite different from mine. I worry about how much claim I have to my heritage, that really I use it as an excuse, an accessory. I’m sometimes scared of talking with other Japanese people, in case they think I am a fraud.”
Jem has travelled to Japan twice in the past two years, and has another trip planned in 2017.
“I was able to be in Japan to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb, which my grandmother survived. I got to spend time with my great uncles, see places important to my family and travel with my younger brother. A three week trip with so much walking would have been absolutely unthinkable as little as 5 years ago. I am so grateful that my body has been able to recover to the point where I can walk around.”
“Artistically I think these trips will be feeding me for a long time. Japan is very important to me and this will be a common theme through my work, but it’s also important to know I’m not from Japan, I’m from New Zealand, and so my worldview and the work I make is different because of that.”
In the autobiographical comic Folding Kimono, Jem attempts to engage with her heritage through the gift and care of a traditional kimono. The work has been extremely popular, racking up over ten thousand notes on Tumblr, and earning Jem first place in the biannual Chromacon Art Awards.
“When I first wrote Folding Kimono I was convinced it was terrible,” she confesses. “But people seemed to connect with it, and I felt like they could see me.”
“I have been so moved by hearing other people of mixed heritage (especially mixed Asian heritage) talk about how my comic made them feel. I had people telling me they’d never seen their experiences recorded so accurately, that the piece resonated very deeply within them.”
In May this year, Jem finished Visits, her third autobiographical comic. She says it stills feels weird to create such personal things and share them with the world.
“I feel oddly selfish putting myself in the center of my work and getting people to look at it. Despite the response to Folding Kimono, I worry this isn’t something others will understand or be able to access or see value in. But it’s very cathartic material to make and it’s helping me to process a lot of things.”
Along with the lingering effects of her Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Jem suffers from an anxiety disorder. She describes how this feels with typical artistic eloquence.
Anxiety is like an unbreakable silver thread woven through everything.
“Anxiety is like an unbreakable silver thread woven through everything. It’s a slightly different texture to the rest of the fabric, and it catches the light. I want to pull it out, but it causes the fabric to buckle and bend, and so trying to remove it only makes things worse. Now not only is the thread still there, impossible to remove, it’s ruined everything around it.”
“I work hard to learn about my anxiety,” she says. “I treat it as a living part of me that needs to be acknowledged. It’s learning to leave the thread, to see and experience the grey. It’s being happy with nothing being quite right, but maybe things are okay.”
Now that she is able to have a full-time job, Jem has discovered that working benefits both her mental and physical health–and improves her ability to make art.
“Without a steady job I tend to sleep until at least noon and rarely get drawing before three or four anyway,” she says. “By filling my days with work I’m less likely to mess around online and actually get a decent amount of time in drawing most evenings before aiming for a sensible bedtime.
She’s filled with gratitude that she’s now well enough to support herself and her art.
“As every single artist and writer knows, eating is important. Having somewhere to live is important. Having a job that means these things are a guarantee is probably the single most vital thing to me being able to fill the rest of my time with drawing. While I do sometimes miss drawing while I’m at work, the payoff of being self employed just isn’t worth it for me. I need the structure.
It’s a privilege to be able to work in this way, and I am thankful every day I have been lucky enough for my physical health to come back to me.”