Meet Nora Aoyagi, the San Francisco SPCA’s Artist-in-Residence

The Bay Area Illustrator on Pet Portraits, Trickster Beasts, and Beautiful Mysteries

by , March 2023

In Nora Aoyagi’s work, golden birds break free from thorn-studded vines, rabbits convene under glowing moons, and wolves leap into the sky. Fauna, flora, and the more elemental forces that connect them (air, water, the cosmos) inform Aoyagi’s paintings and illustrations, which she creates from an old Victorian home in Berkeley. The compositions that result are intimate and animated, drawing from the unique characteristics of animals and the folklore that has centered them throughout history.

It’s no wonder, then, that SFMOMA and the San Francisco SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) partnered with Aoyagi for the recent live art extravaganza, Pet Portraits Day, where artists from across the Bay Area came together to create likenesses of over 200 visitors’ beloved pets. Aoyagi’s vibrant watercolor portraits of four SPCA long-stay animals (Cowboy, Zee, Zelena, and Zucker) set the stage for the event. Now, two of these works and 30 additional pet portraits by local artists are on view in SFMOMA’s Steps Coffee on Floor 2. Come see how they’ve captured the unique, unbridled spirits of their furry subjects, through May 9, 2023.

Below, we speak with Aoyagi about her practice, inspirations, and experience as an artist-in-residence with the San Francisco SPCA for SFMOMA’s Pet Portraits Day.

Nora Aoyagi, Rabbit Above Below, 2022; courtesy the artist

SFMOMA: Your work is deeply rooted in a fascination with flora, fauna, and their symbiotic relationship. What led you to make this a central subject of your work?

Aoyagi: As a child, I played outside a lot of the time. We grew food and flowers in our backyard, went on a lot of camping trips, and took day trips around the Bay Area. Nature was always a part of my imaginative world. As I age, I’ve reconnected to my love of nature, reading books on mushrooms or crows and digging around in my garden. The natural world is full of beautiful surprises, of magic, a feeling of life, growth, and energy. It is wiser and wilder than I can grasp and I love that! I use representations of plants and animals to access this feeling of awe and simple beauty.


SFMOMA: Is there a specific animal or plant you’re drawn to again and again? Why?

Aoyagi: I return to wolves and foxes a lot, often using some sort of non-specific canine figure baring their teeth or leaping. Ironically, I am more of a cat person, but I’m drawn to these fierce, wild, often expressive animals. Maybe it’s that they represent more of my shadow self — an untamed trickster beast, maybe even something dangerous. They are so expressive!

In my art, animals often act as representations of emotions and attributes that seem too vulnerable or specific when represented by the human form. Animals can be more universal. You can feel the wildness of the snarling fox, the freedom of a swooping bird, the terror or joy of a leaping rabbit. Though loaded with imposed human symbolism, an animal is ultimately a beautiful mystery, something outside our understanding. I like this contrast.


SFMOMA: You’ve mentioned influences ranging from the still-life paintings of 17th-century artist Abraham Mignon to the beloved children’s book Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. What else inspires you?

Aoyagi: I always return to illustration for inspiration, mostly children’s picture books. It’s important to me that an image is not only graphically pleasing, but also that it tells a story — that it ignites an association or emotion. Best-case scenario, it is even funny in some way. Picture book illustration typically marries the pleasure of beauty with effective storytelling, something that, when well-done, is the best type of magic.

Nora Aoyagi, Bird in the Rain, 2023; courtesy the artist

SFMOMA: What mediums do you gravitate towards in the process of creating your work?

Aoyagi: One of my favorite mediums of the last few years is an indigo-colored watercolor. It’s like a warmer version of black with more beautiful tone variations. I spoil myself on heavy watercolor paper. I do a lot of my preliminary sketches in [the program] Procreate on my iPad. I am a traditional medium person at heart, but I love the freedom of experimentation that digital art allows.


Nora Aoyagi, Wolf Ghost, 2022; courtesy the artist
Nora Aoyagi, Bear Ghost, 2022; courtesy the artist
Nora Aoyagi, Wolf Ghost, 2022; courtesy the artist
Nora Aoyagi, Bear Ghost, 2022; courtesy the artist

SFMOMA: You recently completed a residency with the SPCA, tied to SFMOMA’s Pet Portraits Day. How did the experience influence your practice?

Aoyagi: The SPCA residency was one of the first times I tried doing true pet portraiture. I wanted to really capture the personalities of each individual pet — to highlight their spirit and intelligence — and paint them facing directly towards the viewer. In the portraits that resulted, each animal is enveloped in stylized vines and flowers to inspire a feeling of growth, possibility, and beauty. The animals themselves are painted in a realistic style to capture their true likenesses. It was a really fun exploration of portraiture that I’m interested in trying again in the future.

Nora Aoyagi, Fierce and Fancy, 2022; courtesy the artist


SFMOMA: What kind of response have you received to the portraits? I’m sure they meant a lot to each pet’s human.

Aoyagi: A few people from the SPCA reached out to me with really kind words about how I had captured the personalities of the animals. It really meant a lot. It made me feel like the pieces truly had achieved what I set out to do, showcasing what made each cat or dog special — what made them worthy of love, companionship, a home.


SFMOMA: Looking ahead, what’s next for you?

Aoyagi: I always have a million ideas. I just want to keep going. More plants, more animals, more paper, more paint!

Nora Aoyagi, Fancy Bat, 2022; courtesy the artist

Alexxa Gotthardt

Alexxa Gotthardt

Alexxa Gotthardt is the former Assistant Managing Editor at SFMOMA. She loves helping creative, unconventional people tell their stories and writing about the forces that inspire and sustain artists. Outside of work, she likes to spend time in the water, take photos, and grow plants. She studied Art History at Middlebury College and is originally from Ohio.
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