Wild, wild life

Artist Jack Yuen explores nature and the elements.

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If you stopped by Dilly’s Taqueria this past summer, you no doubt noticed some very colorful artwork on the walls. The artist is Island-born-and-raised Jack Yuen, who is just completing his final year at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Yuen began making a name for himself as an artist on Martha’s Vineyard while still in high school. This past summer his work was featured at A Gallery.

Yuen works in acrylics, employing a very contemporary, stylized look, bright colors, and a combination of fantasy and realism. Among the pieces shown at A Gallery were a couple of images of whales and one of a lighthouse — all decorated with graffiti. These images represent two different interests of the artist’s that he sometimes combines in his work.

Although he has been creating art since he was 2 years old, Yuen switched from drawing to painting, and got more serious about his work, when he was a sophomore at MVRHS. Inspired by street art and graffiti that he observed on a trip to London, the burgeoning artist began incorporating urban art styles into his work.

A more recent trip led to the furthering of another passion. While in Zimbabwe on a conservation-based trip, Yuen developed a passion for nature and ecology, and decided to use his artwork as a way to express and inform others on environmental issues.

“There were 11 of us visiting conservation groups, learning about that whole process,” recalls Yuen. “There were a lot of safaris. I had the chance to see the way these animals play such a significant role in people’s lives.”

One species that Yuen found particularly fascinating was the Grévy’s zebra — the largest and most threatened of the three species of zebra. Recently Yuen has been creating a number of images of the endangered African animal, heightening the already striking striped design of its hide with multicolored small swirls. The designs found on the zebra images emulate another favorite subject of the artists. Among the paintings displayed at Dilly’s during the busy summer season were two colorful renderings of the surface of water — one based on waves in Menemsha, and the other a depiction of the calmer seas at the Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs.

“In 2014 and 15, I was doing a lot with drips and splashes,” says Yuen. “I still wanted to represent the motion of water — the hydrodynamics — but more intentional, more deliberate.”

For Yuen’s more recent paintings, he is using similar ideas of motion to represent the energy found elsewhere in nature. “I’m exploring how to show unity, the idea of elements coming together to create a form,” says the artist. “I want to tie together the elements that bond animals and other organisms. I transfer an understanding of how water moves to create something else. What unites a zebra and perhaps other life forms?”

The message found in an image of an orca with a Nike swoop logo on its head deals with man’s relationship to nature. “It’s about the commodification of wildlife,” says Yuen. “People are familiar with  Shamu and SeaWorld. It’s about marketing and branding — making wildlife a commodity.

“Doing environmental art comes from growing up on Martha’s Vineyard,” says Yuen. “With all of my pieces, I try to instill a sense of joy. That’s always the intention, to impart something positive. That’s what I’ve been doing more and more in recent works.”