There are some illustrators whose hearts simply shine through their work. Yohey Horishita, 35, is one such artist—in each of his pieces, whether personal or commercial, his warm spirit illuminates the work like sunlight through a stained glass window.
That metaphor is apt for the illustrator’s technique, too—Horishita digitally adds rich color to his minutely detailed pen-and-ink work, filling in his hand-worked pieces like a craftsman might assemble a church window. An illustration of elephants surrounding a jeweled tree, which Horishita made for an article on finance for Institutional Investor, exemplifies his talent for creating a multifaceted world of delightful visual moments in a single image. Jeremy Leung, an editorial art director for the publication, chose Horishita for exactly those qualities. “These articles can be highly dense in [their] subject matter and involve multiple complex ideas. I knew Yohey’s intricate style could meet these challenges.”
In conversation, Horishita projects a great kindness and a depth of feeling that go hand in hand with his commitment to social justice. “I have a couple of ‘passion projects’—as Oprah Winfrey says, it’s a ‘calling,’” he says. “LGBTQ+ equality, immigration, civil rights, women’s empowerment and teen arts education. It’s all deeply personal, and something that I experience, read about and study whenever I can. If that’s all connecting to a faith community in some ways, that’s even better.” A person of strong faith, Horishita sometimes refers to “the Holy Ghost” when talking about something’s true essence.
When I spoke with him over Zoom in February, the illustrator gave me a minitour of his “living room–slash–bedroom” that’s also currently the work area in his New York City apartment. In July 2020, he gave up a shared studio space, as he felt uncomfortable commuting there during the pandemic. He was sad to leave it behind, but says, “As long as I have a coffee maker, then I’m good.” Other essential ingredients, of course, are his tools, including a nib pen and ink, which he keeps in an antique wooden holdall. For five years, pen-and-ink has been his starting point, and before that he typically began with a scratch technique on oil pastels, an approach he credits to Julie Mueller-Brown, one of his professors at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).
Horishita’s time at SCAD is clearly meaningful to him as a part of his journey toward making a personal and artistic life he could call his own. The illustrator was born and raised in the city of Kagoshima, in southern Japan. His father, who is Japanese, and his mother, Japanese-born Korean, were pastors in a conservative Christian church. From a young age, Horishita knew he was gay, and he also knew that for his family and religious community, homosexuality was anathema. As the oldest son, the expectations for him were immense, and between striving to achieve academically and acting as a straight man, he says, “I was dying.” The idea of attending medical school, as his parents wished, only added to his internal crisis. Finally, after repeatedly begging his parents to let him study art, his father told him he could pursue those studies in the United States. “I was like, ‘Get me out of Japan,’” he says.
Horishita decided to attend school in Alabama, which appeared first in his school searches, and he initially enrolled in Jacksonville State University (JSU) because it offered gospel choir as a course. “I was that kid [who] when I was in sixth grade ... was listening to Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Ma Rainey,” he says. “I always liked to look up to those female vocalists.” He loved the gospel class, which gave him a familiar, valued feeling of belonging: “In Japan, [my] sense of community came from the Korean community ... people who were discriminated against or marginalized by society.” The home he found in gospel class and in the Black church was all the more necessary given the racism he experienced as an Asian man in Alabama. He didn’t have a car, and as he walked, people sometimes yelled at him and even threw food at him. “It was very tough, especially the first year,” he recalls.
The illustrator had been feeling insufficiently challenged by his art education at JSU, and, during a visit to see a friend in Atlanta in the summer of 2008, he stopped by the SCAD campus on a whim and ended up speaking to the director of admissions. By fall, he had transferred to the illustration program, where he found himself in another tight-knit community. “It really fit my style,” he says. “After shows, we went for dinner together, beer together. It was that family-like environment.” He enjoyed working with fellow students and the small group of “really dedicated” professors, describing Mueller-Brown as the “mother of my illustration.” The department’s associate chair, Rick Lovell, says of his former student, “He’s the nicest, most generous guy in the world, and supremely skilled and hardworking.” As an illustrator, Lovell notes that what sets Horishita apart is his empathy, “which really rises to the top of his work,” and a technique that “beautifully combines skillful drawing and ink work with a unique way of adding texture and color digitally. Nobody else’s work looks quite like his because of that technique.”
Horishita developed this technique during a stint in New York before returning to SCAD Atlanta to earn his MFA. He was tinkering with a scanned oil-pastel piece in Photoshop, “just randomly clicking through it,” he recalls. “And then, suddenly, I started seeing the magic.” He gets his effect using one of Photoshop’s simplest tools, the paint bucket, but the way he applies it to his analog work is visual kismet. His choice to replace the oil pastels happened later; he was finding the pastels, which dried out quickly, a difficult medium for assignments that took longer than a day or two to complete. Yuko Shimizu, a close friend and mentor, suggested he try ink. “I can take more time on it [and] I can control it more,” Horishita explains.
In 2014, Horishita moved back to New York and worked “my butt off” to remain stateside. He gained assignments from various outlets, including PLANSPONSOR, Family Circle and Politico Europe, and a 2018 subway poster for MTA Arts & Design. The assignment was an exciting one for Horishita, who had “dreamt about Harlem since I was a kid,” and he made a variety of thumbnails for consideration. Lydia Bradshaw, MTA Arts & Design’s senior manager, chose the one focusing on music. “She pointed out the energy, movement [and] positivity that existed in it,” Horishita recalls. The final poster celebrates the culture and people of Harlem, with a swirl of instruments, street signs, iconic buildings and people framing a Jazz Age microphone. He is particularly proud of the people he drew into the crowd. Among them are “my Black church mama with her church hat,” a Jewish man wearing a kippah and an Asian couple—“that’s my grandparents who immigrated from Korea to Japan after World War II. I loved them.”
Bradshaw says of Horishita, “His work is very colorful and detailed, catching the viewers’ attention.” According to the illustrator, some of those viewers engaged directly with his poster, writing comments on it about racial injustice and police brutality. “I was so happy that people felt safe to write about it on my poster,” he says. “My poster became their platform. And that was my intention... ‘This is your microphone, this is your stage! You are the voice, you are the star!’”
When not on assignment, Horishita has been teaching at P.I. Art Center, a vocational school that offers college-preparatory courses in visual art, and he’s looking forward to more opportunities to work as an educator. “When I teach younger students, I’m very passionate because of my experience, because no one really heard me—what I was saying, what I was shouting for help,” he says. Horishita tells his students to keep a sketchbook. “That should be the safest space,” he says—a place where they can express ideas and feelings without inspection or judgment. Horishita has used sketchbooks in this way himself for years. “When you don’t have anyone to talk about things, [the] sketchbook is the only place to really release your thoughts,” he says. “It’s kind of like a prayer, right? It’s a very ritual thing for me to have.” It was in the pages of his sketchbooks that he explored his sexuality when he wasn’t able to speak about it with his family. To this day, he says, “I still struggle expressing certain part[s] of myself, but again, it is just a part of the process of growth.” Coming out to his parents was difficult, but now “my mom, my dad, all my family welcome me as a gay man,” and, he says, “I really made peace with Japan. I’m very comfortable now about myself.”
These shifts have enabled the illustrator to become both more vocal and more vulnerable. He says that, after years of viewing his illustration work as being purely a commercial exercise, he’s “finally recognizing ... the personal part of illustration, which is very powerful.” He toggles between his pen-and-ink and scanned-pastel styles, finding an audience for each, and he’s taking his storytelling skills wherever they lead him, whether it be making YouTube videos, creating stickers or posting on Instagram. “I like the sharing aspect,” he says. “Because I grew up in church. I grew up in the community.” Like so many of us, Horishita has been living and working alone for many months, but through his art and deeply felt humanity, he always connects. ca