We had the privilege of connecting with Yvonne Neth, a pilot, educator, activist, and accomplished artist.
BIO: Yvonne Neth was born on the island of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) to Pohnpeian and Chamorro parents. She spent her growing years both on Pohnpei and on the island of Saipan in the Northern Marianas. Yvonne attended university in Honolulu, majoring in cultural anthropology, and also earned her FAA Commercial pilot’s license during her years in Hawaii. She returned to Pohnpei in 2009, and worked as a co-pilot for Caroline Islands Air. Eventually, the FSM Government employed Yvonne as their Aviation Operations Inspector for the nation's Division of Civil Aviation. After three years, she shifted from this position and became the Vice-Director for the NGO, Island Research and Education Initiative (IREI), a not-for-profit non governmental organization dedicated to producing culturally-relevant educational materials for Micronesia's students and conducting anthropological, environmental, and geological research in the region. Yvonne has collaborated with professionals throughout the Pacific region and has helped develop a multitude of educational products for Micronesia.
For more information and to purchase/view her work: Yvonne Neth Website
YN = Yvonne Neth
TFB = The Fourth Branch
- TFB: What made you want to be an artist? Where did this all start?
YN: I never thought to be an artist. I failed art in university; just sat there in class and, for the most part, produced nothing. It got to the point where the teacher simply skipped over me because she knew I wouldn’t have anything on my paper. I did listen though. Eventually, the exercises taught in class appeared on random pages in a sketchbook, in no particular order or at any interval. Till this day, I will watch other artists, read up on other techniques and once in a while, I’ll feel the need to doodle, expand an idea I have in my head. Does the finished piece come out exactly as I had pictured it? Nope -- but it sure feels good to create something.
- TFB: When you decided you wanted to be an artist, what kind of support were you getting if any?
YN: I didn’t receive much support outside of a small compliment here or there, keeping my art within the small circle of my immediate family. My art didn’t really develop till I moved to Pohnpei after graduating from university. I had more free time and had discovered Anthropology by then; I was struck by the malleable tendencies of human nature, reason and consequence seemed a big gray cloud of what if’s and how’s. It was a refreshing stance against my previous major in medicine. And so, that’s how it became that I looked upon Pohnpei and its ordinary with more questions than how one usually grows up thinking: listen to your elders and follow instructions, no questions asked… That’s when I noticed the absence in storytelling, in language, in documentation, all this leading to a certain drive toward creating art concentrating on Micronesian cultures.
- TFB: What form of art are you most interested in?
YN: 2D and 3D art forms, with an inclination toward repurposing materials that would have originally been tossed in the garbage bin.
- TFB: Where do you draw inspiration for your work?
YN: From other artists and pressing issues such as cultural preservation and environmental conservation. Pinterest can provide a smorgasbord of artistic expression and creations… and sometimes become a black hole I find myself in during the wee hours of the night.
- TFB: Any specific artists you look up to, or draw inspiration from?
YN: Many, many artists; libraries and Internet searches, museums and YouTube, social networking and life drawing meet-ups -- experiences and resources can sometimes present themselves as overwhelming. Sometimes, I just have to laugh and shake my head. It’s simply amazing to discover so much artistic expression there is in the world. Upon reflection, however, I recall the lack of art in my growing years in the islands. That is heart-breaking. How many kids and adults without the means of expressing their emotions or creativity? Or how many island artists are we oblivious to?
- TFB: Do you think the arts are taught enough, if at all, in the education systems back home?
YN: No. Current science supports the inclusion of artistic expression in schools as psychologically, socially and emotionally beneficial to children. It makes one wonder, if art was an essential part of the curriculum, would that have decreased youth depression and the consequential rates of violence and suicide in the islands?
- TFB: On your website you explain that it was difficult for you to conform to programs, assignments, and deadlines in school. Can you go into detail about how school systems seemingly fail in the area of art? What can be done to improve it?
YN: I don’t necessarily think school systems fail by implementing structured programs, assignments and deadlines. I feel it better to have these than to have no or minimal art experiences in school. Teachers need to base their decisions on something and having the student produce something tangible after a lesson is taught seems the obvious way to go about things. The issue in my case is I did not even try in class -- and that’s a huge failure on my part. Not until recently have I learned to let things go with my art, not be so rigid and so much the Perfectionist. This idea and drawing for the sake of practice (learning a new technique, using a different medium) is quite liberating. Should a school system need to improve in the area of art, it would benefit to encourage a student to always try, to embrace uniqueness.
- TFB: Do you think that we don’t take specific forms of art seriously (painting, drawing, media) because they are introduced? Or could it be because we are just not exposed to those mediums?
YN: The latter reasoning. The fact that locals compliment my art shows an appreciation for it… and to assume drawing a portrait of them and their entire family for free in a matter of one afternoon (This happens to me quite a lot!) is further evidence of lack of exposure. If they experienced working with the same media and producing similar artwork, I believe they would take the art forms you mentioned more seriously, perhaps even deepen their sense of appreciation for them as well.
- TFB: Are you a full-time artist?
- TFB: Would you encourage other artists to pursue art as a career?
YN: If they were independently wealthy, yes. Alas, in my case, that is not to be. I say this in jest, but the truth of the matter is, if you (and, if applicable, your family) can survive on your income from your art, then do so and consider yourself very fortunate. But if the basic priorities of financial stability are not met to ensure a roof over your head and food in your belly (and, if applicable, that of your family’s), then continue art when time permits. Art is therapy. Just because you can’t make it your career now does not mean you should let it go.
- TFB: Would you say that you try to preserve your culture through your art?
YN: To a degree, yes. For the Micronesian Portrait Series, I work off historical photographs, looking for an image that is representational of a specific island. Through work with the local nonprofit organization Island Research & Education Initiative (iREi), I have helped preserve my culture by facilitating in language preservation training workshops (we created talking dictionaries with the help of local volunteers and Living Tongues, Institute for Endangered Languages) and creating educational materials such as alphabet cards and legends books for children.
- TFB: Would you say that our cultures and traditions are fated to disappear and your art serves as a sort of memory bank?
YN: Culture is a product of evolution. The current state of Micronesian cultures and traditions is the disappearance in some practices while the resurgence in others. My art is my interpretation, confined to the context of my experiences. For the pieces where I work off historical photographs, those may qualify as a sort of memory bank; considering many people did not know of such photographs and its details, I may have helped pass on these memories and (this I hope to be the case) caused the need for their personal reflection on our cultures and traditions.
- TFB: When we look at the FSM, most of the conversations there are political in nature (COFA, funding, China, fisheries, climate change, healthcare, etc.). Is there a place for art to be discussed, or do you think that art from our region can only be discussed/preserved from abroad?
YN: Yes, there is definitely a place for art in such discussions and any other topic. Art is a means of communication and can be quite effective in providing awareness and education, even mobilizing revolutions. I would love to create large murals that involve a cultural preservation or environmental conservation theme. I’ve actually sent proposals to several companies and government offices in Pohnpei, but they were rejected in the end. It seems much funding and consideration goes toward sports and non-humanities subjects.
- TFB: When we look at Micronesian art, it seems like most of it is reflective of our histories and traditions. Can contemporary Micronesian art add to current discussions? For example, do you think art can be another way to communicate ideas about current issues and topics?
YN: Most definitely. We can use art in info-graphic posters to explain an otherwise hard-to- understand topic – like the effects of climate change or pollution on our islands and where science predicts our island will be in 5 years (looks grim at this point). Or we can use art to depict our ancestral lineage, migrations or communicate a message of anti-racism and gender equality. Art and music, they bring about emotions in people like no other and we can use this to communicate our ideas locally, regionally and globally.
- TFB: What are your thoughts on traditional art forms, like carving, weaving, and tattoos? Do you think these art forms have adapted well?
YN: I think these three art forms have become heavily influenced by the supply and demand of tourism, but that’s not necessarily negative; we have to be practical and if creating a carving, a woven product or a specific tattoo allows you revenue then so be it. I only hope that the carver, weaver and tattoo artist can produce separate artistic creations at other times that is unique to them.
- TFB: What would you say is the number one reason for cultural and traditional loss?
YN: A change in perspective. External influences and personal experiences can change one’s perspective on how much time one spends on reflection and weighing the urgency of learning traditions – Do I share with my child a story I heard when I was little? Do I ask Auntie to teach me a local dance? Do I ask Grandpa to tell me the different stages of the coconut? I’ll join Mom in the taro patch today. Or maybe I’ll do these later and watch a movie instead.
- TFB: Are there other major Micronesian artists that you follow?
YN: I follow a photography group in Pohnpei and a couple of tattoo artists from Yap and the Marshall Islands. I think there would be more artists to follow if an association of Micronesian artists was formed and an inventory with artist and his/her respective website provided. It would be a good place to exchange ideas, give advice and support each other. It would also be a good place to start dialogue on a group art exhibit.
- TFB: Would you consider going back home to maybe teach art?
YN: I would love to facilitate discussions into an art center and art camps, encouraging capacity building and skills transfer for more locals to become art teachers and art students. The idea to incorporate Recycled Art as a craft taught to the community would help our environments too, I think.
- TFB: How can we support your work?
YN: You can visit my website www.yvonneneth.com and artist Facebook page. It always lifts my spirit when someone finds these pages and leaves a kind message of compliment.
- TFB: What can we expect from you in the near future?
YN: I’d like to develop children’s books of our local folklore and legends, expand the Micronesian Portrait series to the rest of Oceania and create thought-provoking pieces on environmental issues.