Q: In your opinion, what makes something beautiful?
“It’s not specifically what you see, but how you feel.” – Manami Yagashiro Lingerfelt
It was a rare treat to be invited into an artist’s house. The experience, I hoped, would provide a small glimpse into the mind behind the masterpiece.
I’ve arrived at my destination in Dallas, Georgia, and a petite woman clad in bell-bottom jeans with brown patches strides across the yard to greet me.
I’ve seen Manami Lingerfelt’s work three times before now — once in Asheville, N.C. at the Leaf Festival in August 2018, a few weeks later at the Suwanee Fest 2018, and most recently at the 2019 Duluth Fall Festival — it’s my first formal meeting with the artist herself.
Manami offers to give a tour of her property. She has three studios, two of which are separate structures on the property, both built by her husband, Tommy, who is a carpenter. But we start in her home, the place where all the magic takes place, I soon learn.
Stepping in through the kitchen door, I can’t help but think this is what an artist’s home would look like. It’s small and quaint. Herbal tea is brewing, and some of the first sights I’m greeted with are her paintings. They’re everywhere. As I skirt around the kitchen, I see an array of canvases leaning against the side door and the window, evidently still drying.
In the living room, above the entertainment set, I see more of her distinctive paintings, fitted on the wall like a patchwork quilt. Some depict fairies — others — sentient animals, moons, suns. These celestial images are among my favorite. I notice a texture of small circular shapes overlaying these images and ask what significance it holds.
“At the beginning when I did those things, my idea was just because everting was originally made of tiny little particles,” she tells me. “And an accumulation of all these tiny little particles create gigantic beings in this world.”
Although she has three studios, the kitchen table, I learn, is Manami’s preferred creative space. As a mother of three, her artistic process has evolved to accommodate her busy life.
And as she paints, she tends to multi-task – working in the house, cooking, and listening to philosophy.
We head towards the table and sit. She pours me a cup of tea. And then, she shares the story of how Manami Yagashiro ended up here — an entire hemisphere away from her birthplace.
“Whatever I do I wonder why I’m doing and meaning of living. [When I was young] and very insecure feeling, I didn’t know what to believe. Now, I believe in God. I don’t have a specific religion, but religion, to me, is the study of God, and so it’s great to have religion to guide people to understand about God. But I also understand that God is one.”
Manami spent her early life in various regions of Japan. Her family is from the prefecture of Nara, and they reside there to this day. But from elementary school until the time she left Japan, Manami lived mostly in Tokyo.
Even at an early age, Manami had a strained relationship with her parents. They were highly traditional, and she recalls hearing complaints that her mother did not discipline her enough. There were many quarrels — doors slamming, harsh words, and disappointments.
Still, Manami considers her mother amongst her first artistic influences. Her mother was a housewife, and not only was she an avid cook, but she also had an artistic side and made crafts constantly. She painted decorative designs on chairs, boxes, and umbrellas. She also hand-died artificial flowers.
“She dyed the petals by herself. Sometimes she used tea, and sometimes she buys a dying material for the fabric. She was always very creative,” Manami said. “I would help her for the dying of the petals and flowers, and I feel like that was creating my basic idea about color because so many blending I did. And it was pretty cool to see the die smudge together with fabrics and to see a new pattern created by that mixture.”
In 1985, Manami graduated from the Tokyo Musashino Art Junior College. She began working in the corporate world as a graphic designer and grew discontent with her life.
“It was the wrong field,” Manami said. “As soon as I realized it was not my work, I quit, and I saved several thousand dollars one year and took off to traveling.”
Peregrination and the Bohemian Living:
In her 20s, only one thing was clear to Manami. She wanted to see the world, and so she planned a two-month trip to China. “I was thirsting for the meaning of life, and I didn’t expect to find the answer traveling, but I was looking for stimulation, I guess. I wasn’t getting in Japan. Everything was so mild and nice.”
So, she went to China where she hoped to experience culture, color and music. “I was expecting all this colorful stuff, but China was totally under Communism. I wasn’t allowed to stay in same hotel the local people use. They don’t like [tourists] to see the real life. So, I stayed in the tourist place and met American people and Dutch people and all different cultures. Not Chinese people, though,” Manami said. “I was excited, but when I walk in the street of China, everything was grey concrete.”
She took a train inland and made her way to Pakistan. She enjoyed the spices, the curry, the colorful clothes. And so, she sojourned further into the continent, visiting Nepal and India. She had planned to travel for only two months, but Manami soon realized that whatever purpose her life had, it would not be found at home, but on the road. So, she sold what art she could as she traveled and lived off her savings. She followed a frugal lifestyle and stayed in the most affordable quarters she could find.
“India is such a county that you can save lots of money if you want,” Manami said. “You can live lower living and still you can live like people. And you have to choose like really shabby hotels really small, small. But still I enjoy, and I learn lots of music in India. And most of the time, I learn singing. I learned also dancing and flute, but mostly, I learned singing.”
But eventually, her funds started to wane. While visiting Pakistan, she had met a peddler who coerced her to give him half her savings. He sold her jewelry, saying it would be a wise investment. He convinced her that if she were to resell the jewelry, she could make a profit. But after giving him her money, Manami learned the man was a con-artist, and she had blown her savings. When her money ran out, she had to return to her family in Japan.
Back home, Manami got a job as an illustrator working for a few local magazines. It was a prosperous time, and Japan’s economy “bubbled” as Manami recalls. “I saved money quite quickly,” she said.
The only thing that stood between her and her dreams of traveling the world was her family.
“My parents didn’t mean to control over me, but that’s what they do. My family is very proud of who they are, too. To go against their tradition, if I skip some event because I wanted to travel all the time, then I was a black sheep.”
Growing up, Manami had been close with her younger brother, but when she left Japan, he too, wrote her off as a black sheep.
And when she was ready to return to her travels, her brother assisted her parents in physically holding her back to prevent her from leaving. “Anyway, there are a lot of different stories with them to not me do my own way, but I was too selfish to put up with those kinds of restrictions.”
When the opportunity presented itself, Manami left the country. On her second cross-continent adventure, she traveled to various parts of Europe, including Sweden, where she met a charismatic Swedish carpenter. The two married and had a daughter named Maria. As a family, they continued living this Bohemian lifestyle.
Manami’s favorite trips were for music lessons. In India, she learned from a great teacher and learned to play the Tanpura and sing in Sanskrit and Hindu.
To support herself, she did commission work, typically watercolor paintings and charcoal sketches on paper. At times, she would also sell T-shirt designs to the many tourists coming and going from the share-house where she and her husband stayed in Sweden.
“I paint whatever people ask for. Like, ‘Can you paint golf player’ or ‘Chinese boat?’ Or some people wanted me to paint parrots. So, I did all that kind of stuff. Whatever was the request,” Manami said. “I was living in a share-house with other people in a Swedish apartment. But Swedish apartments are large, so [my husband and I] got one independent room and kitchen. We live together, always shared. Since there are living like four to five groups of people together, and since so many people always coming going in that apartment, there was always people. Everyone bought my T-shirts.”
Motherhood, Marriage and Divorce:
“I just realized, ‘I have to get out from here, otherwise she going to have same life like me.’ In that time, I believe her happiness is to see I’m happy and have that together. So that’s a big reason I flew back to Japan after 10 years of traveling.”
When Maria was about two-and-a-half years old, Manami realized she was repeating the cycle established by her parents. Her husband turned out to be the controlling type, and the two argued constantly.
“You know, I guess, I grew up in a happy family, after all, because now my parents are good friends with each other. But I wish they didn’t [quarrel so much when I was young],” Manami reflected. “But when I quarrel with my ex-ex-husband, I was doing the exact thing to my daughter — the same things I grew up, and I just realized, I have to get out from here, otherwise she going to have same life like me.”
After nearly a decade, the prodigal daughter returned home to her family, exhausted and spent. With her own space, Manami gained clarity and realized she had to end the relationship.
“At first, I was going to go back, since I was married to him, but my parents were like,’ You look nothing happy. You look so exhausted.’ And I actually quickly decided I wasn’t going to back no more.” It wasn’t easy to break off the relationship, but after many conversations, phone calls and letters, the separation became official.
Manami lived with her parents for the next seven years. When Maria started going to preschool, Manami enrolled in the Kyoto University of Art and Design to become an art educator.
Being a single mother, she couldn’t help but compare herself to the other moms at her daughter’s preschool, most of whom stayed at home and worked closely with their spouse to rear their family.
And that’s when Husband No. 2 came along. He was a silver-tonged gent from Kennesaw, Georgia. He said all the right things, and so Manami dropped everything and left school to become his wife.
“I was looking for somebody, and I met him online. I just knew that I could not live with my parents all the time,” Manami said. “And he said lots of cool stuff. And he came to Japan to meet me in Nara. And he was a very nice guy, so we decided to marry, and I flew here, and got married and started to have marriage life.”
It only took less than a week for Manami to realize she had made a mistake. “We were totally different people,” said Mamani. Immediately, she began considering her options for divorce. At her daughter’s school, she met many other Japanese women who were sympathetic to her situation.
One of the women was married to an engineer designing a hospital in San Francisco. She knew Manami needed money to hire a lawyer, so she offered to commission Manami to create paintings for the new hospital.
“And so, she said, ‘I want to have your picture on a canvas with acrylic or oil.’ I knew acrylic paint, but I had never used oil. So, I paint 10 [acrylic] pictures altogether with 30×40 inches canvas, and then she paid me $3,000.”
It only took three days for Manami to realize she had married the wrong man, but it was time enough for her to get pregnant. When she discovered she was carrying his child, Manami knew she had to plan her exit carefully.
At the time, her main priority was to get out of her husband’s house. “So, one day, I left very quietly. It was planned. But I had to leave very suddenly with her, so that he did not know. I did not want him to stop me, and I did not want him to take away the stuff before I going to leave. So, I move out everything slowly to a friend’s garage in the same subdivision. And I packed like a few suitcases, and I went to the battered woman’s shelter together.”
It took six months for the divorce to finalize and for Manami to get back on her feet. Up until the third trimester of her pregnancy, Manami had been working as an assistant teacher at a local preschool. And when her baby, Lily, was old enough, she started teaching Japanese and piano lessons to pay the bills and rent for a small apartment in Marietta.
But she never stopped painting. Her confidence had grown after doing her first successful commission project on canvas, and Manami continued working on canvas. As her friends and acquaintances discovered her talent, many encouraged her to put herself out there and display her work publicly.
Second (Or Third) Chances:
With research and a little help from her friends, Manami was able to come up with an array of paintings to exhibit at the Barefoot in the Park Fine Arts Festival in Duluth, which has since been discontinued. Manami was shocked by her success. In one day, she made over $1,500.
“I never heard anything about art show, but so many people helped me, and I’m so thankful for this country. You know, people believe in second chances, I think. People don’t believe in giving up on you if you show how much you better for. And that’s something very valuable about here.”
To supplement her wages as a substitute teacher, Manami continued doing art shows from then on. “I used to take all my daughters with me. They used to stay under my table in the booth. They bring coloring books, games, paint and a bunch of snacks to entertain them and so they enjoy,” Manami said.
Eventually, Manami met someone new. Tommy Lingerfelt was a carpenter living in Dallas, Georgia, and the two hit it off instantly. This time, she decided to take it slow. After living in Marietta for over a year, Manami decided to move in with Tommy to see how it went. Eight months later, they married.
Several years passed. Manami and Tommy turned out to be good working partners. They continued doing art shows. Manami would paint, and Tommy helped out by making prints and building canvases to meet the growing demand for her art. “I was totally thrilled also you don’t find stuff like art show in Japan. It’s not that big scale,” Manami said. “They do small scale shows at a community center. But not [to that degree of] organization [with shows] every weekend, [where you can travel to shows from] state to state. And there is a book and management to [help you] apply for [various] events and festivals. Here, you can get all the resources, so I was totally amazed to be able to feed myself with art show.”
Then a third daughter was born. Kaia, their youngest was born hard of hearing, and so Mamanmi needed to stay at home as often as possible to care for her. She relied on a hearing aid, and a variety of government workers, including an occupational therapist, a speech therapist and a parental therapist would come through the house every week to ensure she received the proper foundation. The most memorable of these was the parental therapist.
She instructed Manami on how to teach her daughter the meaning of everyday sounds. A police siren. A plane. A car driving by.
“She could hear a little but sometimes did not recognize the sounds. My work was to let her know the meaning of sounds. So, when we hear a police car, I go, ‘Let’s check it out!’ And I did those things with her and with the parental guide,” Manami said.
Seeing all the pictures crowding their home and kitchen table, the parental therapist also took an interest in Manami’s art. She suggested, rather firmly, that Manami apply for a scholarship so she could complete her degree.
“She was like bootcamp or something. Totally nice lady, but totally pushing me. At first, I was like, ‘Why?’ But I was interested. At that time in our life was not that easy financially. I did the art show every weekend, but my husband was working as a carpenter. It’s not good enough to either one can quit to focus on the kids. This parental guide said, there are so many scholarships now many government scholarships to apply for next year, and I wanted to wait a little bit, but she pushed me to apply now. So, I applied, and I was accepted.”
That spring, Manami started at Kennesaw State University. She had to work less while going to school, but she was able to immediately apply everything she learned. She even sold some of the paintings she had made for class assignments.
“Then change my style a little bit, and our sales went up two times more, and then, three times more. And sales were going up. Before I never really believed in the power of education, but since I went back to KSU, I had great teacher, but also my attitude because I felt I was spending valuable time. I didn’t want to waste my time in here, so I want to observe everything they give to me.”
Manami graduated from KSU in 2015. After graduation, Manami did her first oil painting on canvas. The painting sold that year, and since then, she has transitioned to using only oil paint for canvas work.
Looking to the future:
“For me, DNA is such a great expression of the gift of life. Because that shape passes information from life to life, like a bridge or chain from past to future.”
Now, Manami has a highly distinguishable style. She defines her work as “pop art”, and it tends to depict mystical settings and fantasy figures such as mermaids and fairies. Most often, she paints animals, trees, and natural landscapes.
DNA helixes, spirals, and small circular patterns often appear in her work, adding dimension and texture.
“For me, DNA is such a great expression of the gift of life. Because that shape passes information from life to life, like a bridge or chain from past to future,” Manami said. “We are here from walk of life to life to life, and finally you are you through the walk of life, and you got lots of information through the DNA passed down to you. And your life is not the end. You are not the end of life. You are here for big responsibility and mission to hand what you did to accumulate the new system and all the great wisdom inside you. The knowledge of how to survive like wisdom of life passed to next generation. I think that’s why we have a life. To learn all these things — how to be kind how to be together with the people and still keep your own life being yourself but with harmony. And both have something we need knowledge and wisdom to do that.”
In each of her studios, I see the DNA helix over and over again, along with Manami’s signature swirls and circular particles in dozens of pictures.
From the kitchen, Manami escorts me to a spare bedroom. This is her first studio, now too crowded to work in. She then leads the way to her second studio located less than fifty feet from the house. It’s a large barn-like structure with a loft. Here, she stores some of her older work, and I notice just how much her style has changed in the last few years.
We leave this building and cross the yard to enter her third and largest studio, hand-built by Tommy. It’s like a mini production plant. Along with dozens of original works that fill every space with vibrant colors and patterns, they produce dozens of prints for their art shows. They keep a printer in the back, and Tommy builds the canvas himself by stretching the prints over wood and folding them neatly to be sold to happy customers. They’re good together, it seems, as a couple and as business partners.
This year alone, they have participated in 27 art shows across the Southeast. Manami keeps tabs on her transactions through the Square app — she had reached a total of 1,430 transactions as of November 2019. She’s a prolific, I’d dare say industrious artist.
But at the end of the day, it’s not about the money or the number of transactions. Her goal as a business owner is to make enough to support her family. As an artist, she seeks to create paintings to which families who take them home can assign individualized meaning.
Home at last:
Since she moved to Dallas, she now lives with Tommy and her two younger daughters, who are 15 and 11, as well as their dog. Manami still sings and plays the Tanpura, and the entire family enjoys dancing together.
And in the quiet of the morning, she meditates, and she consults her ‘higher self,’ asking the higher power to inspire her work.
“It took me a long, long time to understand the meaning of life, I guess. But finally — recently, it’s a little clearer. Some people are fortunate to have a clear mind. They know [from an early age] how to be kind and how to be happy. [All you have to do is] be nice to each other. It’s such a simple thing, but I didn’t understand. I [needed] to have a reason, and finally, I got reason. It was a slow process.”
At long last, Manami has discovered life’s not-so-simple truths. Manami has found her purpose. She has found her home.
Follow Manami on Facebook @Artist.Manami, and check out her website at http://www.manamiart.com.