Snowbirds find common artistic ground

Seven years ago, Benjamin Weissman and Yutaka Sone met on a mountaintop. Rumor had it they shared a taste in skis. “There’s only one person more obsessed with snow than you,” a friend had told Weissman, “and it’s Yutaka.” And so Weissman searched Mammoth Mountain for the mercurial Japanese artist he’d heard so much about. What he didn’t know is that the meeting would change both of their lives, and that their friendship would blossom into a fruitful partnership that’s led to their joint exhibition currently at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA). All Weissman was hoping for, at the time, after all, was to ski.

“We met mysteriously, magically, on a chairlift because I had been told that he would be up there at the same time I was, but we didn’t know each other and didn’t know what each other looked like,” Weissman said recently, sitting in the kitchen of SMMoA.  “It was a perfect snowy day after a big storm. … I was wondering where this person Yutaka would be, and I really did sort of turn around on a chairlift … and the person on the chairlift behind me was Yutaka.”

Sone and Weissman seem something of an odd couple in person. Weissman, who’s in his mid-50s, cuts the figure of a typical Los Angeles intellectual — bespectacled, a fast-talking Jewish Angeleno with strong opinions and a relaxed wardrobe. Sone, by contrast, both looks and seems younger than a man in his late 40s. Although Sone’s English isn’t perfect, he gets his points across, often through wild gestures and sound effects, a mischievous grin across his face. Odder still is the fact that the two were brought together not so much by their love of art, but by their love of hitting the slopes.

“This is a Yutaka-and-Benjamin-style ‘Endless Summer,’ ” Sone said, referencing the 1966 Bruce Brown surfing masterpiece to describe his relationship with Weissman.   

“For skiers, when the season ends in May … it’s, like, ‘Ohhh, it’s so sad,’ ” Weissman said.  “But we have another life because we took the whole summer really seriously to paint, and make art about skiing. So the summer to us was all about skiing with brushes.”

Sone and Weissman’s exhibition is unusual for a number of reasons, perhaps most of all because much of the work was still unfinished before SMMoA Executive Director Elsa Longhauser agreed to show it at the museum. Longhauser said her faith in Sone’s track record as an artist made her trust the finished work would be museum worthy.

“Kiersten,” 2007-2009, acrylic on canvas.

The artists’ colorful, vivid, collaborative paintings form the backbone of the show, which is entirely focused on skiing. Their paintings are supplemented by text and poetry written by Weissman and buoyed by Sone’s grand centerpiece, a massive ski lift sculpture that apparently moves like the real thing.

“Our first paintings were really funny,” Weissman said of their working process. “We were painting them in the kitchen. There’s a photo of us painting with a little canvas on our lap, painting on the kitchen table.”

“If we ski together, we are watching the same landscape … we can share a painting,” Sone explained. “We really know each other. We like each other when we ski.”

Sone and Weissman work so closely that they often cross arms as they share the same canvas. “One of us starts a painting, and the other is just right there to add to it and jump into it,” Weissman said. “What one sees, the other one’s going to start seeing pretty fast. I don’t think we’ve ever really planned out a painting … we don’t even talk about what we’re making.”

“Chair 23,” 2007–2009, acrylic on canvas.

“We’ve never had a disagreement about a painting,” Weissman said. “It just doesn’t happen.”

Asked how skiing inspires him artistically, Sone was quick to answer. “Every day I learn new things. New differences. Every day… I’m still discovering new things in the mountains.” And sometimes Sone even feels like a new person on the slopes. “Can you transform?”  he asked, apparently not rhetorically. “I always become a cat.  Meow, meowww, meowww.” He rose from his chair to pantomime his feline self skiing down the mountain.

“I think we see the mountain a little differently,” Weissman said. “Some of the danger is really exciting.  It’s overwhelmingly beautiful, and it’s shocking.” He paused, then added, “It’s so far removed from any city-life experience.”

“I think Ben is 30 Mammoth years old; I’m like 13 Mammoth years old,” Sone said, explaining his youthful exuberance about the subject of skiing. 

“Grandma’s Closet,” 2007, acrylic on canvas.

“I get tired, and I want to go and read and take a nap,” Weissman admitted, “but Yutaka likes to ski till 4:15 or 4:30, after the lifts close, hide in the mountain,” Weissman said. 

You get the sense, talking to them, that if Sone and Weissman had a choice, they might never come down from the mountaintop. “He wants to be there till the very, very, very end,” Weissman said of Sone, “to say goodbye, kiss the mountain goodnight.”

How lucky then, that summer exists, so that we can share in their work.

Yutaka Sone and Benjamin Weissman’s “What Every Snowflake Knows in Its Heart” is on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art through April 5, 2014