Nancy Yaki found inspiration for award-winning painting while battling cancer
By Medicine Man Gallery on
Nancy Yaki with 'Holding Stratus Pose, Tenaya Lake, (Yosemite)' (2023). Photo by George Rose
When Nancy Yaki visited Yosemite National Park for the first time, she was 12 weeks into weekly chemotherapy treatments. That was the summer of 2021; she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier that year.
Sick, weak, body full of toxins, Yaki managed to get her paddleboard into Tenaya Lake.
“Water was something that I was just really craving, especially fresh water because of my experiences growing up on a lake in New England,” Yaki remembers. Her childhood lake was Manitook Lake in Connecticut. “Water for me has always been very cleansing, very grounding, even though it's fluid, it offers a real solid base for me.”
The painting Yaki produced the following year from that experience would go on to earn first place in The Wildling Museum of Art and Nature in Solvang, CA’s “California National Parks: Stories of Water” juried exhibition. It was hardly the day’s greatest accomplishment.
“On my board that day I realized I'm going to do this, I'm going to make it,” Yaki said. By “make it,” she doesn’t mean the painting, she means survive cancer. “That was spectacular for me. Getting back (home) after that visit to Yosemite, it was what I needed.”
The artist considers her time on a paddleboard at Tenaya Lake as a “hinge,” a turning point, in her recovery.
“I got the once a week really harsh chemicals through a port out of the way, but I was still heading into six weeks of radiation every morning, once a day, and nine months of chemo once every three weeks – it was pretty gnarly,” Yaki said. Not to mention, the pandemic. “For me, getting outside, being out in nature was really important, not being holed up in the house and being able to have that horizon allows anybody – especially me – to have vision of the future. We need to get up every morning with that feeling of hope and purposefulness.”
For Yaki, part of her purpose was art.
“It was a really isolated time, a time of going deep into myself, making the commitment to heal – I don't have to choose chemo, I don't have to choose to move forward, but if I do, I'm going to commit thoroughly,” she recalls. “In that commitment was you’re going to get out of the house as much as you can and you're going to continue to sketch, you might not do big, huge paintings, but you're going to continue to sketch and create and have a sense of purpose.”
Installation view, 'California National Parks-Stories of Water' at The Wildling Museum of Art and Nature. Courtesy of the museum
A Painting, Delayed
Yaki, who lives in Lompoc, CA, couldn’t start on the painting right away. She was too weak, too sick, her brain foggy from the chemicals. In and out of the hospital. Multiple surgeries. Not to mention she was still working her day job teaching art, music and theater at a local boarding school to keep her health insurance benefits.
“I had a tiny sketchbook and my little watercolor bag and I had (them) on my bed stand,” Yaki said. “Sometimes it was just sketching small thumbnails because the drugs are so intense – your hair falls out, your eyelashes, you just start disappearing – it's brutal on your body.”
During this time, Yaki’s teaching load was reduced to a photography class, she was too weak to instruct studio painting.
Finally, in spring of 2023, she started feeling stronger. Her body was clearing the toxins which saved her life. Her energy and clarity returned. In remission, she returned to painting.
“Art saves lives,” Yaki said. “That's always how I felt about what I do, even as knocked down as I had been, I could see on the horizon that I was going to get better and I was going to be able to produce work again. When this show came up, I was like, ‘this is perfect!’ I hadn't been to any (National Parks in California) except that one and – wait a minute, let me look at the material here and it was about water, the stories of water – and so everything finally lined up for me.”
Nancy Yaki, Holding Stratus Pose, Tenaya Lake (Yosemite), 2023. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the Artist
Holding Stratus Pose, Tenaya Lake, (Yosemite)
When asked what makes Holding Stratus Pose, Tenaya Lake, (Yosemite) a successful painting, Yaki’s response doesn’t seem remarkable at first blush.
“I brought the viewer into the place I was,” she said. “If you are standing in front of (the painting), you almost feel like you're there with me in the lake because it has that perspective.”
Artists “taking viewers there” – wherever “there” is, wherever they’re painting – is nothing new. However, considering the circumstances under which Yaki made her visit to Tenaya Lake, doing so proves remarkable.
Remember, she’d never been there before. Or since. And on the one day she visited, her body was saturated with chemicals, weary, her mind hazy.
Throughout her painting career, mostly landscapes and portraits, Yaki hadn’t generally worked from photos. That changed slightly during her cancer treatments. Her body and mind were too weak to hang on to the mental images and there was no telling how long it would be until she could commit what she saw that day to at least a sketch.
“I have a good recall button,” she said. “When I see an image, it gets stuck in my head, but then I also infuse it with my being and how it made me feel.”
Adding to Yaki’s achievement in taking viewers to Tenaya Lake through her painting is that it isn’t produced in a realistic, representational style. She doesn’t show viewers what can be seen or felt at Tenaya Lake, she shows what she saw and felt.
“It had to be the essence of my being intertwined with the essence of the place,” Yaki said.
A piece of Yaki’s essence will forever be connected to her art.
“I try to think of three things that I'm grateful for every morning on the way to work, things that I'm grateful for that bring me into the here and now, and one of the things I am grateful for is that I still have the ability to create art,” she said.
“California National Parks: Stories of Water” will remain on view through February 19, 2024.