Monday, November 19, 2012

Interview with an Artist

Yolanda Sharpe is one of the great gems of central New York, displaying a sense of persistent excellence and artistic flexibility few can aspire to. Yolanda was born in Detroit, and studied painting, printmaking and art history at the University of Michigan, where she graduated in 1979. Three years later she graduated from Wayne State University with a Masters of Fine Arts in 1982. She has had a substantial impact upon the art scene of upstate New York since her arrival in 1987. She was head of the SUNY Oneonta Art Department for a number of years, and maintains an active lifestyle in both art and music of the local area. She has a solo exhibit at the Bloomfield Art Center at Birmingham Michigan entitled "Urban Fragments", as well as an upcoming one in 2013 at the Cooperstown Art Association, and can also be found singing at the Glimmerglass during the summer and the Episcopal Church through autumn and winter. She specializes in encaustic painting, watercolors and pen and ink drawings. This past week, Yolanda was kind enough to answer some of our questions about her life and art. This article covers half of this interview. Her artwork can be found at her website here.

I was under two years old when I was compelled to draw on the walls in the house where I grew up. My parents were not pleased at all with this, especially since I insisted on using Crayola crayons! So, regularly (every day, actually) I was spanked for doing this. In my toddler’s mind, since I knew that I should draw, as it felt natural for me to do this, and since I wanted to grow up and do big artworks (I am currently working to secure a commission to do a huge wall piece for some public space), and since I saw my father making paintings, I did not see the connection between drawing on the walls, and the spankings. Eventually, my parents realized that I was not going to stop. They began supplying me with various materials to draw and paint with . . . to keep me away from the walls around the house.

How old were you when you first began making art and singing?
I was very young when I began to sing, say, maybe three, or four years old. My parents, and aunts and uncles played jazz and the blues. So, I would make up blues songs about how my man wasn’t treating me right. Of course, I had no clue about what any of that stuff meant. It’s just what I heard. However, when my father played classical music, and followed this with playing the classics by ear on his own harmonicas, I realized that I had found the kind of music that I should learn to sing. The melodies and structure of the music from different time periods resonated with me, and I wanted to learn more about the composers.

As a child, I was curious, and easily bored with classroom activities, especially when I attended kindergarten through fourth grade. So, I daydreamed a lot! One day, when I was in second grade, I daydreamed so intently that I seemed to be able to look into the future (I did this quite a lot then . . . I still do too). I saw myself as a young woman, and I heard myself singing an Italian aria that I had never heard of before. Now, I know the aria to be Verdi’s “D’ amour sull’ ali rosee” from Il Trovatore. And yes, that aria is one of many arias that have become part of the repertoire that I sing. In this vision, I was practicing this aria while standing between two wooden columns inside a house. This experience though strange points to truth, as I realize that I was seeing my current house. I do have wooden columns that are situated between my living room and dining room. And, I do practice standing right there between the columns when I am at home.

But, I digress. . . Thus, after this vision into the future, when I was seven years old, I was determined to find out where this music came from, and to see how I could learn to sing this. This quest has taken me many places, singing many songs and arias.

In a related question, how were you first drawn into art and music?
I come from a family, from my father’s side, of musicians, artists, and singers. It was inevitable that I would try to see how art and music could become my life coming from this environment. I was very fortunate that I had parents that did not frown upon active studies and involvement in the arts. In fact, they encouraged it.

As a small child, I began to study the piano with intentions of possibly becoming a classical pianist. However, there were times when I’d practice fast scales and stop to sing them instead. It became evident that I sang them more fluidly than I played them on the piano.

When I graduated from High School I attended Interlochen Arts Academy in Traverse City, Michigan. This was a dream come true! There I studied piano, voice, and studio art. During the fall semester of my seventeenth year, I began undergraduate studies at Michigan State University and decided to keep up with both studio art and music. This time, however, I switched from piano to voice.

I have had the pleasure of listening to you sing several times. I have usually heard you sing hymns and gospel music. Did you have a favorite growing up or one that had a particular meaning for you?
My maternal grandmother taught me a hymn, What A Friend I Have In Jesus”, and she asked me to sing it to her.  Singing this hymn to her is the moment that crystallized for me that I should pursue singing. That hymn provides a plaintiff melody, I think, but it always reminds me of my grandmother, and that moment. I also like the gospel song, Oh, How I Love The Lord.

As for classical repertoire, composers Johann Sebastian Bach, and George Frideric Handel provide much for me to learn and sing. I love their sacred music. 

Check out this page tomorrow for the second part of our interview with Yolanda Sharpe.


  1. Very interesting--congrats, Yolanda and Ben!

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and look forward to part two!
    There are magical and mystical elements here that I really appreciate.

  3. Exceptional piece! You both know my love for music, wish we could sing Soul in church.

  4. Great piece! It is a good thing that she didn't associate art with punishment. How her parents could have made this mistake, spanking her instead of providing outlets for her desire to draw, could have been tragic. Luckily, she was determined.