Artist at Play

Mary Mitsuda’s intuitive and freewheeling approach thrives in the juxtaposition of opposites.

Text by
Eric Stinton
Images by
Chris Rohrer

Tucked into the back of Pālolo Valley, Mary Mitsuda’s home studio feels like a part of the landscape. Sunlight falls through the studio’s skylights like sediment settling on a riverbed, and when winds whip through the valley, passing clouds interrupt the beams and change the lighting inside the studio from one moment to the next.

“I like to see how the paintings look in different lights,” Mitsuda says. A pair of unfinished paintings hang on the wall, and she goes over to tinker with them sporadically while she talks. Part of the studio space is devoted to displaying finished works by Mitsuda and her husband, fellow artist Jesse Christensen: totems constructed from discarded computer parts, paintings of ti leaves in various stages of decay, woodblock portraits of fishermen. But perhaps the most interesting piece in the studio is the shell of a xenophora, which Mitsuda presents with an earnest eagerness reminiscent of elementary school show and tell. 

The xenophora is a deep-sea mollusk that moves across the seafloor, picking up small shells and stones and attaching them to its own shell as it grows. Atlas Obscura once declared the xenophora “the world’s most artistic mollusk,” a distinction that Mitsuda would likely appreciate—she keeps the xenophora shell around as a visual representation of her own artistic journey. “I didn’t plan to go into art,” Mitsuda says. “It wasn’t really a conscious decision. It sort of just emerged. This life absorbed me.”

Mitsuda didn’t take any art classes while attending ‘Aiea High School, and when she first enrolled at the University of Hawai‘i, she studied English. But her literature classmates displayed a self-seriousness that didn’t gel with Mitsuda’s playful personality and freewheeling approach. She moved into an apartment near the campus with a friend from high school who was studying ceramics, and she quickly fell into a group of friends who were “living in the lab,” Mitsuda recalls, “always working, but always having fun.” She started taking any and every art class available.

“Everything was pretty unconscious,” she says. “That’s why I relate so much to the xenophora mollusk. There’s something about the process of how they live that makes you think they have choices, but how much of it is intuitive? I keep the shell as a reminder of how much of our lives, and maybe even our choices, are biological on some level.”

But honing the same craft decade after decade also involves conscious deliberation. Mitsuda relishes in such contradictions, calling her approach oblique but also direct. She says she prefers a minimalistic aesthetic out of laziness and pragmatism, then concedes that she’s most moved by art that is vague, mysterious, and suggestive.

Photograph of artist Mary Mitsuda

“Everything I say, I know the opposite is also true,” Mitsuda says. “When I say I’m a lazy painter, that’s as disingenuous as saying I’m driven. I’m just trying not to take myself so seriously because anything you do that you’re really interested in, you do take seriously. Maybe too seriously.”

Her oeuvre is an ongoing meditation on the coexistence of opposing concepts: transience and transition, light and dark, land and sea, life and death. But these tensions and dualities are not just themes in her work; they also extend to her process.

Mitsuda’s first act on a blank canvas is to create what she calls an “arbitrary background,” applying broad, sweeping washes of paint with her hands or wide brushes. From there, she adds layers on top of the initial strokes with plastic resin spreaders, a process she refers to as “simplifying” the painting.

“When I’m painting, I’m doing it section by section,” Mitsuda says. “I don’t want to look at it all at once. Giving something up is really a way of simplifying because you have to decide, is that gonna strengthen it? The whole subject becomes clearer because you don’t have too much to fiddle around with. Keeping it simple is complicated enough.”

After 40 years of painting, the artist continues to be as playful on the canvas as she is focused, increasingly inspired by whatever she comes across in life, still stretching and expanding and growing artistically. “It’s becoming clearer what my interests are, what little mysteries keep pulling at me,” Mitsuda says. “I’m just moving along the ocean floor, picking things up and gluing them to my head.”

Mitsuda says. “This life absorbed me.”
“I didn’t plan to go into art,” Mitsuda says. “This life absorbed me.