Yohannes Yamassee ’16 always dreamed of working with Walt Disney Co. Growing up watching Disney films animated by his childhood hero Floyd Norman, and surrounded by Black and Native Indigenous art in his great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother’s home on the south side of Chicago, his imagination was sparked with an endless fascination for art, design, and storytelling.
Now, Yamassee heads his own animation studio, Yohannes Studios, and earlier this year, was named to Forbes “30 Under 30” list for Art and Style, a highly selective incubator that highlights the world’s top 30 innovative creatives, under the age of 30, for their work. “To receive the honor at 26 opened the door for other opportunities to unfold, and allowed Yohannes Studios to be at the forefront of innovation,” said Yamassee, who earned a bachelor’s degree in art and technology from what is now the creative technologies program at Illinois State.
Yamassee said his humble beginnings remain the foundation and inspiration for his direction with Yohannes Studios. Proudly sharing his roots and his upbringing—both the ups and the downs—Yamassee emphasizes that he was raised primarily by women, that he takes pride and remains rooted in his Afrikan and Native Indigenous heritage, and embraces the beauty and inspiration he found growing up on Chicago’s south side.
“It was inspirational being a kid in a big metropolis filled with beautiful architecture, realizing there is much to learn from architecture riding the train up north to downtown Chicago. That is where some of my fascination began, and it was added by the diversity of Black/Brown culture in Chicago. Each neighborhood has its own spirit, and it influenced me to see the world in a different way,” said Yamassee. “I saw my direction turning clearer as I matured; however, the roots that inspired me remained strong. Being surrounded with strong women who raised me to face any challenges, I entered into the architecture, art, and technology world with clear goals in mind from the start. Knowing who I wanted to be, and where my feet must step due to role models like Disney legend Floyd Norman, who gave me strength to push forward as a Black artist.”
After graduating high school, however, Yamassee’s main focus was on sports, specifically triple jump for track and field. His dreams of pursuing art and design were put on hold before coming to Illinois State University. After receiving an associate degree in architecture, Yamassee capitalized on the opportunity to become a track athlete at Illinois State in 2014. “I was recruited as a triple jumper, and it was a dream come true to be a Division I athlete,” said Yamassee. “Triple jump is an individual sport and competing at that level taught me how to take hardships in stride. Triple jump at ISU gave me the strength as an individual to learn how those similar forms of discipline can be structured for success in creative technology as a multidisciplinary artist.”
However, Yamassee’s time on the Redbird track and field team did not pan out as anticipated. He entered the program while coming off of a hamstring injury and struggled to fully recover. He used the opportunity to immerse himself in his studies.
“My mind became more fascinated with architecture, art, design, technology, and how they can actually work as one,” said Yamassee. “ISU gave me the knowledge and tools to facilitate my future goals in art, architecture, and design. Programs like ISU’s allow wonder, depth, and imagination to be nurtured, from wood design to creating technology, guiding me how to use architecture and creative tech in order to work as one to influence and change the world.”
Yamassee credits Illinois State for providing an environment that helped him solidify his career direction. “ISU gave me a creative environment to grow into my imaginativeness, away from the people that I was competing against on the field,” he said.
After graduating from Illinois State University in 2016, Yamassee was granted a scholarship to UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts, specializing in set and production design. UCLA’s graduate program was rigorous, but it opened up new opportunities, including an internship with Walt Disney Imagineering, where Yamassee received mentorship from industry icons such as Disneyland Art Director Kim Irvine.
“The day I sat in front of my great-grandmother’s VCR, which shaped images into an animated film, my goal was to be a part of that form of creativity,” said Yamassee. “Reaching for that began with years of challenges in the design industry. As a high school student, I would apply to many jobs and internships, especially at Disney, and never received any. However, I kept going, kept applying, and knowing that my spot at Disney was manifesting. I saw each rejection, each internship denied, as an opportunity and challenge to prepare myself for when I was given that chance. There were still many challenges in Disney Imagineering, but it is now a home where they have given me mentorship and the opportunity to create.”
Since 2018, Yamassee has worked on several projects at Disney Imagineering. In that time, he has continued to boost his portfolio through working as a concept and set designer for the likes of Marvel Studios and CBS, as well as set design for theatre productions in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Denver.
While Yamassee appreciated all of the opportunities that he received while entering the industry, he knew that there was more he wanted to do. This revelation led him to launch his own studio in 2019.
Yohannes Studios is based in Los Angeles and Chicago, and is an avant-garde studio that specializes in 2D and 3D animation, stop-motion animation, live-action animated filmmaking, set and production design, and consumer product development. The new venture has been challenging and rewarding for Yamassee. While receiving recognition from Forbes was gratifying for Yamassee, he is mostly proud of what his achievement signifies to the youth—especially children growing up in similar circumstances as he did.
“Yohannes Studios is here to help kids grow and inspire dreams,” said Yamassee. “They can achieve more than me if they really embrace the challenges that they’re in, figure out why they’re in that space, and take advantage of what they have around them.”