John Yoyogi Fortes: Telling Stories of Obscure Worlds and Inner Conflicts

Western Exterminators, 2001, acrylic and laser transfers on canvas

Born in a taxi on Yoyogi Street in Tokyo, Japan, John Yoyogi Fortes is a Filipino-American painter based in Sacramento. His paintings are often large scale explorations of self that lean towards a whimsical, dark and obscure world. We caught up with him to find out more about how his father’s struggle with Alzheimer's and his Filipino background are a source of inspiration in his work and how the constant need for self-examination form the underlying theme in his art.


Why and when did you start painting - was there a defining moment in your life that made you realize this is the path you want to take? How did your friends and family feel about it?

I was always drawing as a child, and making things, so I think this started me off on a creative path towards art making. It wasn’t until Junior College that I learned art wasn’t necessarily about replicating the world realistically, but redefining it from a more personal viewpoint through materials, language and content. It just happened that painting was accessible at the time. I’ve also explored installation and video, but I gravitate towards painting, at least for now.

My parents and family never encouraged me to make art. They really didn’t have a connection to it and never asked what I was doing or why. I don’t fault them in any way. It just wasn’t part of their experience growing up in the Philippines. I had more friends commenting about my art when I drew realistically, ha!


In your bio you mention your fathers Alzheimer’s was one of the main key moments that unlocked your artist path - what was it with his condition that compelled you to document it into your work? Was it a way to release your emotion or a way to capture his? 

When he was alive it was hard for the whole family. It’s painful to see your parent deteriorating in front of you. It bothered me so much that I felt I needed to confront these feelings through my artwork. What it did for me as an artist was broaden my visual vocabulary. I learned to create meaning through imagery about my relationship with my father, his illness and objects associated with our family and Filipino culture in the home. Out of this came a body of work about disorientation, family and memory.


Your work has been described as taking a journey of self-discovery, what have you learnt about yourself so far through your art?

I think the answer to this question could go on and on because self-discovery isn’t a static thing. For me, painting is a solitary act and when I’m by myself it offers time and space to be in my head. I know that through painting I’ll always confront barriers in many forms - that require resolution. I only have to look back at my history as an artist to see that eventually I’ll prevail, but that doesn’t make things any easier. I’ve also learned you have to work hard, trust intuition and act with conviction.


How do people feel about your art? What has the reception been from Filipinos and non-Filipinos? Do they understand what you are trying to communicate in your work?

They like it or they don’t. They have a relationship or they move on. I place no expectations on the viewer to like or understand my artwork. I hope that my paintings are accessible, but I don’t dwell on it. I try to offer some inroads into my work through humour or imagery that one might align with, but there are no guarantees regardless of the viewer being Filipino or not.


Your art touches on immigration and cultural assimilation - your work has layers upon layers, is this reflective of your perspective on cultural assimilation? Do you feel it is a good thing or a bad thing that immigrants assimilate?

More than immigration or assimilation, my current work deals with barriers we create, both psychologically and physically in life, and how we choose to navigate them. I guess regarding the question, it boils down to how you define assimilation. I know that part of it for me is the acquisition of the culture around you, but I also see the consumerism end of it, and how we’d like to fit in based on what we have and own. I see assimilation as organic. It changes form. I don’t have a judgement good or bad.


Do you feel your Filipinoness living in the U.S?

It’s not something that I think often about when I’m around other Filipinos or around other cultures. I do however feel judged at times possibly due to my skin colour and appearance.


Do you have a daily routine when you work on a piece?

No, I really don’t. I just put on some music and get to work. I don’t have a set idea at the onset, but a loose narrative eventually surfaces that I paint towards. With the work I’ll be doing at my residency at Bemis however, I’ll begin with an idea. I try to work on multiple pieces all at the same time. I feel that it can often trigger ideas that might carry over to other works.


What do you want people to feel when they walk away from your art?

I have no expectations other than considering it as art and having your own personal experience with the work.


Can you share with us some of your pieces with a short description?


Immaculate Rendition, 2008, Mixed media on canvas, 120" X 96"

This painting marked the beginning of a series of works that deal with inner conflict. The outer white line delineating my physicality. The main images are from a collection of Chinese Comics.


These two paintings are part of a series of running figures which I still include in my work. They're metaphors for the navigation of the psychological landscape which are strewn with symbolic barriers. The floor piece is a whimsical tumbleweed sculpture that replicates the forms in the paintings.

I use sketchbooks as a way to stay connected to spontaneity and my intuitive self. I don't try to illustrate ideas or worry about accuracy. I just draw and whatever comes to mind gets put down. My sketchbooks are where I give myself permission to play. Any writing is done in a separate book dedicated just for that.

This is a grouping of small paintings on paint can lids. In the 1920's and 30's, Manongs immigrating to the U.S. were called 'monkey," by Americans. I created this monkey character to use in my work as a reminder of that time, and also turn that stereotype around.

I'm currently working on paintings that still examine self and the inner conflict we create. The paintings aren't an attempt to illustrate this specific idea, but are more a means to an end, although the idea of inner conflict is often woven into the work.


What artists/people/things/music influence your work? Is there one piece you have created so far that really defines your style?

My college professors at Fresno State, Terry Allen and Charles Gaines, influenced me by making me question my work, that some materials may convey an idea better than others, and to not settle on the first idea. I looked to artists of colour to see how they dealt with culture and race to make art. Some were Filipino like Carlos Villa, Manuel Ocampo and Santi Bose. This eventually led to my own expression and process of making art.

I’m also influenced by what I see on the internet which has a global reach. Since my work is always changing I don’t have a particular piece that sums up my style.


You are about to go into residency at Bemis Center for Contemporary Art - what do want to get out of this experience?

I look forward to being in an environment with other artists of varied disciplines and having access to their many points of view. I’m open to being influenced and pushed in a new direction, new processes or new media to convey my ideas. My studio is at my home so having three months of dedicated time to make art will feel foreign, but welcome.

“I learned to create meaning through imagery
about my relationship with my father,
his illness and objects associated with our family
and Filipino culture in the home”