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Mary Mitsuda’s Journey of Wonder

By JODIE CHIEMI CHING

Meeting Mary Mitsuda for the first time is like catching up with long lost friend. Over tea and her favorite focaccia bread from the neighborhood bakery, we talked story about art, family and life.

According to an article in a 2014-2015 issue of Kahala Magazine, “Mitsuda has had her work featured at over 150 exhibitions locally and abroad since 1992, including The Contemporary Museum of Honolulu’s 1999 Biennial, and is in such diverse collections as the Honolulu Museum of Art, Hawai’i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, Bank of Hawai’i, Japan Airlines and Neiman Marcus.” Since then her art has also been exhibited in the Paia Contemporary Gallery on Maui, the First Hawaiian Center, Fishcake in Honolulu and at the gallery Mark’s Garage.

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Within Mitsuda’s cozy contemporary home in Honolulu, which she shares with her artist husband Jesse Christensen, there is a studio bright with white walls. There are art pieces which include her large six-feet-tall abstract panel paintings mounted on the wall and Christensen’s sculptures of primitive masks made of wood and computer parts. We sat at a table in the middle of the studio.

“I kind of have this theory of art as a found object. When you see something on the street that captures your eye and you don’t know what it is at first,” Mitsuda explained. “Then you might wonder why it’s interesting and you know that you’re approaching things from a personal and individual point of view. But, at the same time, you’re looking at how your perception is connected to everyone else’s.”

Mitsuda’s journey is filled with interesting “found” bits of her ancestral roots, creative influences and valuable experiences that she interweaved into her life and art over the years.    

ISSEI - ANCESTRAL ROOTS

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Mary and her brother Lance

Mary and her brother Lance

With old photos, notes, documents and memorabilia kept within the family Mitsuda tries to connect the dots that form the stories of her Issei ancestors. Her paternal grandparents, Yaichi and Misayo Mitsuda, travelled from Yokohama on the SS Yamashiro Maru 120 years ago in 1821.

“My Kawanishi (maternal) grandparents came in 1899,” said Mitsuda. According to a ship manifest or landing card, Soemon –– spelled “SOUYRMON” on the card –– Kawanishi, a 21-year-old farmer, boarded the Toyo Maru on Nov. 25, 1899 with his wife Wasa, from Yamaguchi-ken, or Prefecture.

“My mom told us about the time her mom and dad took the whole family [to an island village, most likely on what is known today as Okikamuro Island]. So that was the parents and four daughters, and I think a niece was also with them. They had to take a boat to the island and they brought all kinds of gifts for everyone. We have the sourvenir plate of the ship they took, the Asamu Maru, and my mom has written on the back 1933;  she was born in 1915, said Mitsuda.

NISEI - GODZILLA COCONUT CRAB, LAUHALA AND SUZY WONG

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Mitsuda’s parents, the late Satoshi Mitsuda and the late Ayame Mitsuda, had two children: Mary and her younger brother Jamie. “My Dad did a variety of jobs when I was really young, and he did, I think, a couple of stints working on Kwajalein or Eniwetok (Marshall Islands). Until I was a freshman or sophomore in Aiea High School our family car was an old army jeep, and I remember my mom bundled my brother and me up early, early one morning in the dark and we went to pick my dad up. I actually don’t really remember the details of that but in the morning this vaguely familiar man was having breakfast with us and he had brought back all kinds of neat things.  J (Jamie) and I each got an embroidered satin bomber jacket with ‘Eniwetok’ over a map of the island embroidered on the back and two tigers on the front. And he brought back jars of shells he had collected on the beach, and a gigantic coconut crab mounted on a wood trophy board, suitable for hanging, as the expression goes. Now that I’ve seen pictures of coconut crabs I realize this was actually a small specimen, sort of curio/airline baggage appropriate. But to us it was like Godzilla. Then he came back [to] stay and got a job at Pearl Harbor where he worked for decades and retired. He never really talked about any of his work but I believe he was an inventory stock clerk.

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“My mom was very creative and also very energetic, always wanting to learn and make things. So her hobbies were all creative — cooking, cake decorating, flower arranging and making bouquets and corsages, doing block prints on fabric, weaving lauhala (a type of leaf dried and used for the traditional Hawaiian art of weaving), embroidery, quilting and needlework, drawing, ceramics.

“My Aunty Hanae said at one point Mom had a dress shop where she made clothes to order. She also worked in a daycare because she loved little kids. She worked for a florist; she worked for Alfred Shaheen as a screen printer; when she was a stay at home mom before we started in school, she did piecework sewing and she also made frogs, those Chinese braided buttons — the Chinese ‘World of Suzy Wong’ Pacific tropical look was very in, the stand up mandarin collar, the frog buttons, side slits, silver and gold, red and black. Exotica [music by] Martin Denny, Trader Vic, Alfred Shaheen, Canlis, tiki torches, [and] Hawaii calls,” said Mitsuda with nostalgia.

“Mom also went to cosmetology school and was a beautician. She was beautician at the Ford Island beauty shop. She was the solo operator and she took the ferry every day. We loved to go with her. I love ferry and boat rides. Then she decided she wanted to work in the library so she took a two year course of study and became a library tech, first for Liliha Library and then she worked at Leeward Community College library until she retired.”

“AYAME” IS “IRIS”

Mitsuda’s mother passed away on April 14, 1997, at the age of 81. Shortly after her passing, at one of Mitsuda’s art shows, she was doing a routine docent walk through, where the docent can ask the artists questions so that they could answer questions of the people who came to view the art.

The docent asked Mitsuda why she chose to feature irises in this particular art collection. “I hadn’t really thought about it,” Mitsuda replied. “It was my mother’s flower, because ‘Ayame’ is ‘iris.’ And I just started talking very lightly. I didn’t think I was bothered at all, remembering my mom and her passing, but I completely choked,” said Mitsuda about her unexpected tears. “It just goes to show though, art is a process that touches what you really don’t know about consciously.” 

SANSEI - NEW WISDOM: “WORK HARD AND BE KIND”

“I thought I would be an English teacher because I liked English,” said Mitsuda. But when she moved away from home, to attend the University of Hawai’i at Mänoa, she moved into an apartment with her friend and two other girls. “My friend had been in art from the beginning, and I was meeting more of them (art students) and I really loved their energy. “Passion,” I think is a really overused word. But they were very interested in what they were doing –– passionate,” Mitsuda said laughing. “There’s an expression, ‘Work hard and be kind,’ and I though they were like that. They worked hard and they were kind, fun, smart, funny people and I liked them a lot!”

Mitsuda found her tribe, she was attracted to their “engagement with life.” Mitsuda has great reverence for previous generation, Nisei Japanese American artists Satoru Abe, Harry Tsuchidana and Tadashi Sato because of “their engagement and their interest,” said Mitsuda. “If they were artists, business people, chefs or gardeners or whatever, you are always drawn to people who are engaged. It could be your grandma, you know? Like, ‘There she is, doing her afghan for the bazaar for free!’” she said laughing. “Or making 500 pounds of mochi - It’s the engagement. Basically everything they do is an act of sharing, you know? It’s a tremendous thing to feel good about your connection with others, people around the world. And there’s a lot going on that’s worrisome. But in a lot of ways, this making art, or whatever, making blankies, it’s about the power of self-expression. It’s a health-full thing,” explains Mitsuda.

Graduation from college took a little while “because as soon as I left home, I started dropping out of school. Which just didn’t go over really big. But when I moved out (from her parent’s home), I was totally self-supporting so I just gave myself permission to just not be that interested [in going to class],” said Mitsuda.“I was always interested in the stuff [art], but I often don’t do well in classes or workshops. I have to work with it on my own and find my own way” She got her BFA from the University of Hawaii in six years, “almost by accident.” Perhaps as life’s “beachcomber,” Mitsuda knew she would not find her creative voice in a classroom.

PURSUING AN ART CAREER - “JUST LIVE IT”

“Eventually of course, it became clear that I was in art. I think the concern was ‘Are you going to teach it?’” She knew her parents were just concerned about the practical matters in life. “Well, we didn’t really talk about it, because, number one, I was living on my own and had [been] for years.”

And so Mitsuda, in her own way, experienced all types of environments, learned from other people in the local community, and just dug her hands in and did art of all sorts of media. Mitsuda went back and forth between part-time and full-time jobs, all art related. “I really appreciate the jobs that I had because, number one, it brings [me] out into a situation not of [my] choosing,” she said. Like when Mitsuda sets up a flower in a vase to do still life art in her studio, “It makes things easy when some things aren’t of your choosing, you just work with what’s there. You learn from the situation and in terms of working for someone else.

First Mitsuda worked for the Contemporary Art Center, when it was located at the Honolulu Advertiser building on Kapi’olani Blvd. at South Street. It was on its way to becoming The Contemporary Museum and in 1988, moving up to its current location in the historical Spalding House in Makiki. In 2011 The Contemporary Museum merged with the Honolulu Academy of Arts and became, in 2012, the Honolulu Museum of Art.  While switching back and forth between part-time and full-time positions at the Arts Center and with the Honolulu Advertiser stamp collection, Mitsuda was always clear about her purpose. “I knew I wanted to get back into making actual art and get out of being an arts administrator. I learned a lot but, you know when it’s not your thing, you know?” she said, “And so they (The Contemporary Art Museum, now known as Honolulu Museum of Art Spalding House) were in the process of getting a full-time director and when he came on, I left so I went from [a] full-time art administrator job to being on my own.”

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Soon after a local businessman and philanthropist, Thurston Twigg-Smith, asked Mitsuda to be the curator of his collection of Hawaiian stamps and postal history of Hawai’i. “Basically he was concerned about my income. So he said, ‘Why don’t you just work for us part-time? And you can have a loose schedule, and then, you can still do your art.’ So that’s what I did. It was a good balance because I had a flexible schedule and i could continue to work on the stamp collection, which was quite fascinating though I will never be any kind of philatelist. Also, after all those years, Twigg-Smith and the art center and the stamp collection were part of me. This way I really got to have the best of all worlds.” said Mitsuda.

CREATING - A PURSUIT FOR BEAUTY

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In 1995 the stamp collection was sold at auction in New York, and Mitsuda went back to the University of Hawai’i at Mänoa and took a welding and metal fabrication class. As an undergraduate she had always wanted to take welding and screen printing. By working with various types of media, Mitsuda’s artistic style evolved and she eventually decided to focus on painting. “On one hand, I didn’t like [screen printing], but on the other hand I really liked the fact that it was so minimal and so flat,” she explained. “ And so I did a lot of screen monotypes and then that segued into painting and using less toxic media, because screen printing, the process and solvents, I thought, were frying my brain.”

There is a sense of balance in the opposing qualities of Mitsuda’s paintings. For example, while the surface is very flat you can see a lot of layers and depth of colors; or drips of liquid that give a sense of gravity and motion, drop from very straight lines across the surface. This style emerged as Mitsuda painted and pursued her artistic exploration. “They generally ended up being kind of what I considered beautiful,” she explained. “You have to kind of ‘beachcomb’ while you’re woking in order to find the things of interest.”

“One of the things I realized was that I was interested in repeating images that changed, because that’s how I felt that I viewed things. From different perspectives, the same moment could be different. It’s like the Rashomon Effect, right?” said Mitsuda. “We’re all here, but we all have such different perspectives. I also realized that I like things that were fairly quiet and also, I don’t know, I guess even things that seemed very random.”

“I felt that beauty was an overlooked or often maligned aspect in the art world because everyone was wanting to do something edgy and often very purposely and purposefully not-beautiful. I think often when you pare away the excess, what is left is something quite organic but minimal — and beautiful. And I think we are inherently drawn to that kind of simplicity,” said Mitsuda.

ART IS “SHARING AN EXPERIENCE”

“That drip painting,” said Mitsuda referring to one of the large paintings on the wall in her home, “is my idea of a nature painting, because it’s an observation of a natural kind of phenomenon, and very, very restricted. It’s about gravity and surface tension. I want there to be that sense of depth and time, because you know, depth is time,” she said, “and it’s more mysterious if it’s really super-flat, because it’s like looking at one of those geodes, where it’s sliced and polished.”

When creating the drips, Mitsuda said, “You have to go slowly, and just watch what the fluid paint is doing. And yes, fluid but not too watery,” she said laughing. “Even someone who’s never done this before, I think, can sense that it’s very slow motion, not a very hyper kind of thing. Everything is moving, but it’s slow and I want the viewer to feel like they are watching all these different points in time, these drips happening in different places with their own trajectories and speeds and final destinations. I think it feels like watching individual stories or lives — thereʻs simultaneous individuality and commonality. So to me it’s a thing of sharing an experience. Like when you observe this, you have to be quiet, you have to slowdown.”

Currently, Mitsuda’s work is part of the permanent collection in Neiman Marcus in the Ala Moana Shopping Center. A plaque next to one of her installations, it reads,  

Mitsuda’s style consistently refers to the passing of time and ideas of change. In each painting Mitsuda explores contradictions in nature such as cycles of dark and light, growth and erosion, chaos and order, structure and freedom.

Layering is a key quality of Mitsuda’s work. As successive applications of point are used, images are altered. Patterns which initially looked like trees, may come to resemble other aspects of nature such as the ocean, mountains or waterfalls. Other images have come to suggest buildings or people.

Mitsuda sees a painting as a record of a particular point in time. A work has reached completion when it has a certain stillness and balance, which captures a sense of the past as well as a hint of the future. Neiman Marcus is honored to include Mitsuda’s work in its permanent collection.
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Mitsuda’s success has inspired younger artists as well, like Yonsei painter Kelly Sueda. He is an art consultant who has collections for massive clients like Ala Moana Shopping Center and Kapi’olani Hospital. “Mary Mitsuda has been an inspiration to so many local artists over the years,” Sueda said. “She has been at the top of the Hawai’i art scene for decades and is included in the best private and museum collections in the state. I had the pleasure of doing a two-person landscape show with Mary in 2007, it was incredible to see her process and her diversity of subject. Known primarily as an abstract artist she created beautiful plein air works for the show. So dedicated to her work, I always love to visit her in the studio and see what new works have been developed.”   

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Mitsuda’s theory of art as a “found object,” encourages us all to look for interesting things in life, pick them up and wonder. Wonder can connect us to our Issei when we look at old photos.

Wonder can help us discover who we are. And wonder in a world with too much worry, can lead us to create beauty for the world to enjoy.

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