Mayumi Oda, an artist often dubbed the “Matisse of Japan,” is a petite woman with boundless ambitions. In the book Merciful Sea: 45 Years of Serigraphs by Mayumi Oda, meetings with intensely raw and passionate artists, including Ginsberg, Rothko and De Kooning, triggered her to reflect, “I am small. I am Japanese. I kept questioning to myself: ‘What is my art?’” Oda’s artwork is otherworldly–comely goddesses often relax elegantly against vibrant wildlife that worships their figures. In Merciful Sea, Oda says, “Sometimes my goddesses burst from the sea like Venus; sometimes they floated in the night sky.” Also a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, a nuclear activist, and a champion of female empowerment and sustainable farming, Oda’s newest works of art, titled “A Prayer for the New Birth of Japan,” focus on finding hope and harmony amidst the catastrophic post tidal-wave period of Japan.
Hi Mayumi, are you excited for the upcoming exhibit?
Yes! It’s going to be fun to see them all together, which I haven’t done yet.
It’s really a huge work that I’ve done in the last one year. It mostly has to do with the difficulties that Japan has been facing and the hope that we can bring.
How many paintings are going to be in the “A Prayer for the New Birth of Japan” exhibit?
I think about 25…let me see (laughs, starts counting). There’s 10 in Buddhist gallery and 27 altogether. Hopefully they’ll all glue together as one entity.
Your work depicts a lot of female goddess figures; where does your inspiration come from for that imagery?
I practiced Buddhism in the ‘80s and ‘90s in the United States. There was a lot of women practicing so the Buddhism became very feminized rather than the Buddhism in China or Japan…it was a great time. And then a lot was going on in terms of ecology, you know the land was getting devastated and people were really starting to worry about Japan. It’s because they don’t take care of the feminine… because we don’t take care of the children.
So I ended up becoming an activist and I worked on the nuclear issue in Japan for 10 years. This is really sort of a comeback for me. I haven’t painted this much in ages because then I couldn’t convince Japanese government or even the people about the harm of having nuclear energy in [Japan].
And so in 2000, I bought the land in Kealakekua in Big Island and started a farm because I knew there needs to be someone who has got to be living pono, growing their own food and being more sustainable.
Sort of like how you once said It’s much more powerful to be pro- something than anti- something?
That’s right, the anti-work did not work. I worked 10 years to try to work as an anti-nuclear activist and it just did not do much at all. All the things that I did very well in that time was to really convince in this other way, which is new energy–solar energy the wind energy–possibilities. This was during the ‘90s in Japan and in California where I lived. I could no longer do that. We have to be living the way we really believe. So I took shovels and hoes and I started a farm–it took us 12 years to make our five-acre farm.
You’re artwork is always inspired by nature. Has the nature found in Hawaii and Japan inspired you in different ways?
Hawaii is wonderful. I grew up in the suburbs of Japan and this is not suburbs, it is really a farmland. So living in Hawaii was my eye-opener. We are very indebted to the land and that’s very apparent here. And if you’re a farmer you get nourished and fed so I have this tremendous humbleness and gratitude towards the life it has given me.
What’s one of the biggest problems you see in the world today?
The land is not sustainable.
Do you think everything would be different if there were more female political leaders?
Of course, if even 30 percent of the politicians came from women, I think that would be a great change. [Women] will never think nuclear is good. It’s a male thing. They don’t think long term, but women have to raise the kids and give the birth–it’s different.
When you start a work of art do you have an image in mind, or are you unsure what the piece will become?
I don’t know, but I sit quiet until the image arises in me. It helps when I’m in nature, being in the land. I’m outdoors a lot and my studio is filled with many windows.
You’ve also written books. What does the writing process lend you that’s different from making art?
The book-writing process gives me clarity. I usually write a book at the end of a certain period of my life and the beginning of a new one.
What does living in Hawaii mean to you?
The place I live is called Kealakekua, so that means the pathway to the god. I don’t need another place [laughs].
“A Prayer for the New Birth of Japan” exhibit at Honolulu Museum of Art 5/24–1/13, (Blessing on 5/24 at 3pm), [honoluluacademy.org]
“Merciful Sea: 45 Years of Serigraphs” opening reception and book launching party on 5/24 from 4:30pm–7pm at Robyn Buntin of Honolulu, [robynbuntin.com]