It’s hard not to like a Mary Mitsuda painting. The museum has six works by the O‘ahu based artist in its permanent collection—all of which make the abstract accessible, even fun, as she achieves playful tension between chaotic earth-tone smears and geometric grids made from repeating slivers of white or long drips of paint. To HoMA staff and longtime members, Mitsuda’s work is especially familiar because she has been personally involved with the museum going back 40 years.
In 1976, Mitsuda helped inventory the Contemporary Art Center (which was known as The Contemporary Museum from 1986 to 2011) collection established by Thurston Twigg-Smith and Laila Roster. She eventually served as the center’s director, before making a clean break in the early 1980s to focus primarily on her painting.
In 2014, the museum organized a solo exhibition of Mitsuda’s work at First Hawaiian Center. Now, as First Hawaiian Bank and the museum celebrate 20 years of showcasing the work of local masters. The show includes a Mitsuda painting, Folded Letter II, derived from a stint as manager of Twigg-Smith’s renowned collection of letters by island missionaries and other residents.
Last week, Mitsuda took some time via ponder some questions email about her work, her involvement with the museum, and the current First Hawaiian Center exhibition. Here is the exchange, almost entirely unabridged because, as Mary puts it, “my answers to everything are rambling and not quite to the point, but then that’s who I am.”
What was it like working at the Contemporary Art Center in the 1970s?
As with all arts organizations and nonprofits, especially ones that are evolving and expanding, everyone really ends up doing everything, and soon you’re there full time, working long hours on various projects. From the grubbiest of totin’ and haulin’, installing all kinds of work, writing grants, creative graphics, and having interviews with artists, to dealing with insurance companies when a forklift pokes a giant hole in the eight-foot crate of plate-glass sculpture panels.
So what spurred you to leave and focus on your own art?
Life tends to give you clues about your essential nature and what you want to spend your time getting better at. And I knew that I wanted to get back to making art. And when I say “making art,” I mean that as an aspiration, not as a mission accomplished. So I guess you could say the “spur” was that I came to a crossroads—it was a job choice. But actually it was more like this was the job I was best suited for, something I would be doing all my life.
Your solo show at First Hawaiian Center in 2014 included several different series of works. Did you see that show as a kind of culmination of many years of work?
Well all the work overlaps and connects. And my imagery is about looking through time— maybe looking at a flower as it’s falling through space—is it the same flower seen in different ways or are they different flowers falling in different moments? And why the heck are we watching flowers falling? It’s really made to be looked at. I like the word “gaze” because it has a stillness, yet a sense of travel, your eye leads you along. And my sense of the art experience is that it is literally an out-of-body experience. That is the feeling, the perspective that is the art experience.
I prefer showing a variety, the range of what I’m working on, rather than one kind of thing. The pieces may look different but their core is the same, and there’s a sense of conversation among the pieces. So when I am able to show a variety of work, it does have a retrospective/group show kind of feeling, and you see different facets of shared imagery, hearing different voices with their own version of the story. It’s valuable for me too, to see that.
The piece now on view at First Hawaiian Center, Folded Letter II, involves elements of much of your work. Can you discuss why it was selected over others?
I wasn’t involved in the selection process so I don’t know the whys and wherefores of that. I had thought it was going to be the Aquifer piece because that had been purchased from the first show I had there. The piece they selected for this show was purchased by First Hawaiian Bank from another venue, and it’s really great to see it again! It would have been wonderful to see the two paintings together since they have many of the same elements—flowers submerged and emerging, water, vertical yellow drip acting as gravitational lines—but are very different. Looking at these two pieces, Folded Letter and Aquifer, I think it’s pretty evident that the different elements are shifted to create a different perspective, a different story made by reordering the words, adding and removing punctuation. Nature as the core but the graphic quality points to a made image. My images are generally arrangements of nature, man, time or history. I guess there is a sense of fate suggested. A changeable fate though—like that of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
We all have our themes and images that play out between background and foreground, the themes that keep coming to me are about transience and transition, things live and die, bloom in color and then become transparent, things move between solid, liquid, vapor, ocean, rain. There’s a natural rhythm, a sort of womblike tick-tock.
A few weeks ago a friend was telling our fortunes with her own card system. Later, I thought about how maybe my images are like my own personal fortune-telling or storytelling game. With every round I lay each card down and they appear in a different order, in different positions relative to the others. The different patterns produce different suggestions, different stories, different fates. I don’t consciously organize these images in a painting or into series—I just play the deck. And each painting is the story that surfaces.
Can you tell us about Folded Letter II’s inspiration, the Persis Stamp Collection? You’ve mentioned the appeal of the folded letters, their creases.
Oh, working with the stamp collection and especially the letters, and working with [Thurston Twigg-Smith] and [philatelist Alfred J. Ostheimer], was so important. Two very fascinating and brilliant guys, both collectors of many things. I could easily understand their fascination with shells, Hawaiian artifacts, fossils, art, and the letters and wonderful documents with gorgeous red seals and signatures of kings and all that. But the stamps themselves? I really didn’t get it at first. But for Twigg and AJO, and all the other insane stamp collectors and philatelists I met while working on the collection, every stamp, every fragment of almost anything was a bit of history, a story. And that was an exciting lesson to learn over and over. I learned so much from them and I miss them both. Their kind of brilliance doesn’t orbit around our planet very often.
Well, anyway, about the folded letters—faded, stained, torn and dog-eared from being passed along and shared—one was even repaired with a featherstitch. To unfold one of these letters, it was like a whole garden opened up. Even if the news was tragic, which if often was, these letters were vivid living things, a connection with a loved one. Someone you might never see again. Each letter was such a potent object. Handling them, reading them, transcribing them, had a very powerful effect on me. I didn’t consciously set out to do paintings based on those folded letters, but the folds, the creases and holes, kept appearing in my paintings. It took a while for me to recognize them! At first I just thought it was a way of working the paint a section at a time, but then of course I saw the connection and it gave me a lot clearer sense of what I was exploring. The flowers and leaves and water had been part of my imagery for a while but when they fused with the folded letter structure, it became like the garden I entered when I unfolded that first letter.
How does it feel to be in this show? Any special connections to other artists on view?
It’s wonderful to be part of the show. It’s a time capsule that starts from 20 years ago and comes up to the present, with all the different pieces and artists—it’s like a great gathering, a mélange of conversations about art and ideas. There are quiet voices and raucous ones. Great.