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Painter Mimi Matsuda Provides Visual Fodder for MoJo's First "You Write The Caption" Contest

Bozeman artist is a former Yellowstone ranger who enjoys having humans ponder nature from wildlife point of view

Nature painter Mimi Matsuda
Mountain Journal through its special continuing section called "Big Art of Nature" will showcase the best of wildlife art in all its forms, landscape painting and the  talented people who create it.

Every few weeks, MoJo will also feature a magical realist painting by an artist and invite readers to write a caption. Winners of the contest will receive a MoJo-Truth hat and have their names mentioned on site. 

As part of the caption contest launch—go there by clicking here— MoJo welcomes one of our regional favorites Mimi Matsuda who is letting readers muse on her work Wildlife, Watching.  Here is the gist of a conversation we had with the talented painter not long ago.

MOUNTAIN JOURNAL: Your paintings are a confluence of your background—an interest in biology, your work as a naturalist-interpreter in Yellowstone, and, of course, having a passion for artistic expression.  Is this the career path you imagined?

MIMI MATSUDA: Yes. My profession as an artist is the perfect combination of my life passions.  I always had a keen interest in animals and the outdoors.  When I was very young, our family vacations were trips to the national parks and high mountain lakes and rivers.  Seeing ranger naturalists at work in the parks, unraveling the stories of nature looked like the best profession out there.  Throughout my schooling, I followed the path of science and biology because I wanted to know more about what made the world work and how these animals live their lives.  In my science classes, I took to the skills of recording observations and sketching what I saw.  There is timeless power in this kind of data. 

I realized that art is a visual form of communication that speaks to the emotion of people, and that I could teach to a wider audience through these paintings.

MOJO: Like a slough of other talented contemporary artists in the West, you inject whimsy into your visual narratives, often turning the tables on humanity so that it sees our interaction with nature through the perspective of animals.  What was the catalyst for your bringing that point of view?

MATSUDA: After nearly a decade of working in the field as a park ranger naturalist, I came in contact with thousands of visitors from around the world.  In all of my guided programs, I would bring my hand drawn illustrations of scientific principles and points that I wanted my audience to understand.  For example, I drew the recipe for making a mud pot in Yellowstone showing Sulfolobus, a thermophilic super star of the Archaea group, soaking in hot water and wearing a Hawaiian shirt, while eating sulfur and hydrogen sulfide gas, kicking out the byproduct of sulfuric acid, which melts the surrounding rocks to make mud.  Another illustration showed the lake trout issue of Yellowstone Lake as a play on the Jaws movie poster of the 1975 film, with a giant lake trout locked on to the unsuspecting, small, surface swimming Yellowstone cutthroat trout.  After showing these pieces of art to countless people and hearing the laughter and seeing the nodding heads, I saw how powerful a whimsical/humorous spin worked over all ages and an international community.  It is true, a picture is worth a thousand words, and a humorous picture is even more effective. 

Mimi Matsuda standing next to a larger than life-sized portrayal of ravens and bears watching Old Faithful erupt.  The piece is part of an informational kiosk for Yellowstone Forever, located within eyeshot of the famous geyser.  It is a promotion for the Yellowstone Art & Photogrraphy Center, (a mini-museum at Old Faithful devoted to showcasing visual celebratings of Yellowstone over the years).  Posters of Matusuda's painting are available for purchase at the center, via her website and at the Old Faithful General Store.  Photo by Erika Matsuda
Mimi Matsuda standing next to a larger than life-sized portrayal of ravens and bears watching Old Faithful erupt. The piece is part of an informational kiosk for Yellowstone Forever, located within eyeshot of the famous geyser. It is a promotion for the Yellowstone Art & Photogrraphy Center, (a mini-museum at Old Faithful devoted to showcasing visual celebratings of Yellowstone over the years). Posters of Matusuda's painting are available for purchase at the center, via her website and at the Old Faithful General Store. Photo by Erika Matsuda
:  Who are some of the artists who influenced you and others you currently admire?

MATSUDA: First off, my mother was an art teacher and I was raised with creative outlets everywhere.  My great grandfather, William Muir, was a commercial illustrator in New England, illustrating some of Webster’s Dictionary and Winchester Rifles.  Growing up I soaked up the art of great illustrators like Norman Rockwell, NC Wyeth, and Maxfield Parrish.  Rockwell really tapped into instantly conveying human emotion. I loved Robert Bateman and Bev Doolittle – we had their large picture books at home to marvel over.  I admire Rosa Bonheur, French animal painter from the 1800’s.  Her success, while she was a living artist inspires me.  I also value the tremendous effect art has on conservation, thinking of Thomas Moran’s art and  William Henry Jackson’s photos working to persuade Congress to preserve Yellowstone, the world’s first national park.  I greatly admire Montana artist DG House, whose friendship and mentorship has been heartfelt and golden.

MOJO: Your artwork at Old Faithful will be viewed by millions of people.  Tell us about that commission and the piece that resulted from it.

MATSUDA: My painting, “Worth the Wait” was actually a piece of art I did for myself.  It was not commissioned.  This is a piece that came from my years working in Yellowstone and talking with visitors, answering questions and awarding Junior Rangers their patches.  Living in the park, you get to know the different park culture of each region of Yellowstone.  I wanted to pay homage to the visitor family units and the awe-inspiring Junior Rangers.  I enjoy how they take to their new responsibilities so earnestly.   I love how focused and attentive the new grizzly Junior Ranger is in this piece, and how like real life, there are always some kids that miss out on a natural wonder like Old Faithful, by the distraction of an ice cream cone and some fantastic, giant ravens strutting around.  “Worth the Wait” has double the meaning: The geyser is well worth the wait, and, the raven trio is zeroing in on the tipping ice cream cone…maybe it will be worth their wait?  Also, I wanted to paint an image that was a near-universal image for visitors to the park.  It’s a world meeting place and if you are lucky, you will have had an experience watching the famous Old Faithful geyser. 

MOJO: What is it like to be a Yellowstone ranger, wearing the proud green and gray of the National Park Service, and fielding questions from tourists coming to the park as part of a great quest for connection, to the people they came with, and to nature?

MATSUDA: It was my childhood dream-come-true job.  The profession of the “National Park Ranger” is one of the most important roles of the service.  We are in the field, directly making friends for the National Parks.  I saw my profession as a park ranger naturalist as vital in being a story teller for the park, a helpful resource and an igniter of interest in the parks.  I brought my passion and belief in the natural world to work every day.  A large part of my job was to listen and learn from my visitors.  Many times I would spend time just listening to people recount their stories from the past.  It was wonderful to share experiences and to observe wildlife on guided hikes, along with my groups.  I was a ranger naturalist for so long that some of the children I inducted into Junior Rangers came back to visit me as grown adults.  It made me feel so happy. 

I feel so strongly about exposing children to nature as early as possible.  The national parks are the ultimate outdoor classrooms and I hope our country never takes these sacred places for granted. 

MOJO: You tap into the power of wildlife iconography.  Do you have any thoughts about why there is such strong resonance with viewers?

MATSUDA: There are endless ways to portray wildlife through art.  Gather a group of artists together and have them paint the same subject and I bet you’ll see dozens of different interpretations.  My wildlife art centers on drawing a direct link from animal to human viewer.  I think my art resonates because they recognize themselves, or someone they know, in the art.  I hear it time and again at art shows and through email correspondence. 

A painting of mine, “Wildlife, Watching”, has been a special piece for people who are photographers.  “Mountain Goat, Mountain Bike” is a favorite of mountain biking parents introducing the sport to their kids.  “Birds of a feather” is a favorite of fly fishers who love to spend time with friends on the water. 

MOJO:  Are you reaching people?

MATSUDA: I enjoy hearing the vocalized interpretations of the art while I am present at my art shows.  I hear the gamut from laughter to tears.  One time I heard an older gentleman who works as a counselor, tell me that my art of a polar bear riding a fat tire snow bike signified the struggle to make a change and the shift of life for people.  He teared up as he explained the significance of this painting.  I see and hear young children gaze and speak up about what they are seeing in the art.  I watch families pull each other close to point out loved ones they see in the art. 

I have felt very lucky to have had the time in the national parks to teach and show my art-illustrations to a wide audience and to see what works.  Not every artist has a chance to test out their visual images in front of a varied audience.  And I appreciate my viewers who come to my shows and speak up about what art moves them and what they would like to see.  I have seen that people need wildlife in their lives.  It gives them strength, hope, makes them happy, fills a need, and brings such joy.  It is vital we make space for and allow wildlife their own lives, so we can live our own happy lives.  We are definitely connected. 

MOJO:  You relate, then, to wildlife as fellow sentient beings?

MATSUDA: The true push behind my art is this:  I put viewers in the perspective of animals so that they realize that animals have a whole suite of desires/goals/needs alike to ours.  We are closer to other animals than we realize.  We are the same underneath.  Their lives are as authentic and as worthy as our own.  It is not our species place to rank other species as greater or lesser.  It is my wish for humanity to be gracious enough to allow all other species the right to live out their lives.  Our species would truly suffer from the loss of the animals from this planet.  I think this is a vital fight with unacceptable consequences.
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