Interview

Meet Member Mary Jo Matsumoto!

I'm thrilled to introduce everyone to Mary Jo Matsumoto this Friday! Mary Jo is an artist working across a diversity of media. You can also find her interviewing inspiring voices from the art world at FoxandBunny.net. Read on to discover how art was thought of in her house growing up, her career as a fashion designer, and some works of art that inspire her!

How did where you are from/your childhood affect your relationship to art?

The unspoken messaging in my home was that art and the life of an artist was frivolous. I always knew that I wanted to be an artist, but from the age of 15-21 (end of high school through graduating college) there was a huge amount of pressure put on me to let go of art and pursue a “real career”.

Night Ocean, 2021

I grew up in California and was always drawing and doodling. Although my parents weren’t artistic, my father’s mother had been a painter in Japan until she married my grandfather and he made her quit. My mother’s father was an amazing cartoonist and his yard was filled with the most incredible folk sculptures that he made, but he worked for the telephone company his entire life and it was nothing but a hobby. The unspoken messaging in my home was that art and the life of an artist was frivolous. I always knew that I wanted to be an artist, but from the age of 15-21 (end of high school through graduating college) there was a huge amount of pressure put on me to let go of art and pursue a “real career”. At the time I had no way to survive on my own, so I caved to the demands, but I was always looking at art and going to see a lot of art as soon as I got to college. I went to UC Berkeley and the influence of the Bay Area Figurative Movement was going strong. I was able to take three art classes in college before I got shut down. I took a drawing class from Elmer Bischoff, a painting class from Chris Brown, who had studied with Wayne Thiebaud and Manuel Neri. Joan Brown and Peter Voulkos, who I never got to study with, were also teaching at Berkeley at the time and I saw their work in the faculty shows. The school’s museum had a large Hans Hoffman collection and I spent a lot of time looking at it. I think these influences, because I was so fresh and new to the art world, stayed with me, although my work may not overtly reflect it.

You were a fashion designer for 14 years, which is a different form of art than you’re making now. Could you tell us how your career as a designer influences your practice now? 

The sheer number of different bags I had to design to keep up with the crazy pace of the seasons and trends trained me to keep moving and I find it impossible to settle into a life where I paint the same thing over and over

Sphinx, 2019

When I was designing, it was the texture and color that kept me interested and that hasn’t changed. I liked the surprise element of combining different elements in my designs - I used semi-precious stones as the handles on miniature victorian shaped bags covered in tiny velvet delphiniums and later started designing very elegant subdued bags with wildly bright luxurious linings. One of the gratifying things about designing is that you get immediate feedback. People either buy it or they don’t and I was very lucky that I had representation that sold my bags all over the world. It allowed me to express a lot of creativity and is why I think I stayed with it as long as I did. I also created this textile of floating talismans that I drew and used as my signature lining and designed fine jewelry from the drawings. A lot of those symbols and images come up in my sculptures. I find sculpture much more similar to designing handbags and it always feels more natural to me than the contrived situation of preparing a drawing or a painting, which was (and still is) challenging for me. But now that I’m out of school I find myself experimenting with different mediums to find ways of creating dimension in my paintings. This past year I started painting on aluminum and scratching into the paint to reveal shimmering silver in my ocean paintings. Lately I’ve been experimenting with different ways to create even more shimmer using different techniques on some water paintings I’m working on. I’ve also always wanted to do some drawings with white chalk, so I’m doing that too. I guess the sheer number of different bags I had to design to keep up with the crazy pace of the seasons and trends trained me to keep moving and I find it impossible to settle into a life where I paint the same thing over and over.

Could you tell us more about FoxandBunny.net and what prompted you to start the site? 

During lockdown last year I found myself wanting to have conversations with artists whose work I really admired and learn about how they went about their creative life and ask for advice.

Woman in a Beercan Hat, 2021

During lockdown last year I found myself wanting to have conversations with artists whose work I really admired and learn about how they went about their creative life and ask for advice. When I was designing I had a blog for 10 years that had a feed to the NYT, where I interviewed designers and illustrators and ultimately started covering art. I gave it up when I left my design life to study art because it was so time consuming. During lock-down I started thinking that there were some more reclusive artists that I wasn’t hearing about on the art podcasts, and I wanted to interview them. It was great to start connecting with other artists again and have stimulating conversations, especially during that time. I also feel like artists tend to converse mostly with artists and I wanted to bring in other voices like curators and art critics. It’s been more fun than I could’ve imagined and I’m looking forward to expanding it this year with our first Call for Art that will be happening in the coming weeks.

Ocean, 2022

What role do you think art should play in society? 

I think art is a reflection of the collective unconscious whether it’s prescient or reactive, and since it lives long after we’re gone, I think in the end it’s more about what role society plays in art.

George Floyd, 2020

Who are some artists that inspire you? 

I tend to think about certain paintings and less about the painter, like Whistler’s Nocturne paintings or Degas’ sketches. I really like Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, and what you can’t see in reproductions is that she painted tiny droplets of blood spurting everywhere, including over a dainty cameo bracelet that Judith is wearing. It’s really fantastic in person. Andrew Wyeth’s Adrift is another painting I love. Joan Mitchell, Ruth Asawa, Kiki Smith, Yayoi Kusama, Vija Celmins, Louise Nevelson, Barbara Hepworth, Lucian Freud inspire me. Monet’s color. Calida Garcia Rawles, Will St. John, and Diarmuid Kelley are artists working now that I really like. Nobody knows who the artists were, but I’m a Greek mythology nerd so I love the Attic red-and-black figure vases and can spend endless amounts of time looking at them.

If you connected with Mary Jo's story or work, start a conversation in the comments!

Be the first to cheer this
  • Elisabeth Condon
    Elisabeth Condon 2mo
    Mary Jo, it is so exciting to read of your pursuits! and to see your work. Joan Brown, Chris Brown--how wonderful to be face-to-face familiar with their works, and to see yours. You draw beautifully; there is a smoky feel in the pencil drawings, a softness that speaks to devotion. Your dual pursuit of blog and studio is also very compelling (I keep a sporadic blog) and your shifting interests (also very relatable). On one ha …MORE
  • Mary Jo Matsumoto
    Mary Jo Matsumoto 2mo

    Thanks Elisabeth! I appreciate your kind words. I will have to check out your blog!

    • Elisabeth Condon
      Elisabeth Condon 2mo

      Mary Jo, it's called Raggedy Anns Foot. It's a photo blog, documenting shows so as not to  forget them, which otherwise I would! 

  • Hall W. Rockefeller
    Hall W. Rockefeller 2mo
    As far as artistic milieu of the last decades go,  Bay Area Figurative has got to be one I'd most like to be immersed in! I can only imagine what swimming in that water was like. And on a very different note—thank you for that description of the Artemi …MORE
    • Mary Jo Matsumoto
      Mary Jo Matsumoto 2mo

      Agreed! In my opinion, hers is one of the most graphically violent images of this scene by any artist. It's interesting to me too, that she painted many versions for wealthy patrons, but as she got older, her work became less violent. I like to think it's because she came to terms with what happened to her and had less anger to express.

  • Karen Schifano
    Karen Schifano 2mo
    This was fascinating, Mary Jo! You persisted despite being discouraged and were clearly always an artist. And then studying with such major artists, (who I learned about through a sister in Davis.) Seems as if the design work feeds into both the interviewing and art making. Bravo to you!
  • Brece Honeycutt
    Brece Honeycutt 2mo
    Mary Jo--after reading your profile, I haven't been able t stop thinking about 'frivolous' art career.  My father didn't want me to major in art history--making yearly treks to talk with both my advisor and the head of the department, hoping they would see his side. I always thought that he was unique in his quest, but wonder now, if other women were discouraged in order to have a more …MORE
  • Linda Vigdor
    Linda Vigdor 2mo

    Mary Jo - your trajectory and breadth are fascinating to read about. From my personal experience, and "informal" observations, women artists with breadth rarely get the same type of attention as do the men. Persist, as they say! In some of your work I see the influence of Vija Celmins - love her work as well. 

  • Sadie Bridger
    Sadie Bridger 1mo
     I noticed that just by being you Mary Jo and following that tendency of being yourself I didn't think for a second that art was frivolous.  The direction you took is one to be admired especially when family forces are swaying you toward unnatural waters. Good for you and I too know personally how that goes.  I was particularly drawn to the precision, clarity yet subtleness of your drawings " Woman in  …MORE