Goddess in the Garden

Artist and activist Mayumi Oda envisions a beautiful world

| September/October 2002

For a century now, the art world has debated whether or not beauty is an appropriate goal for contemporary work. For Mayumi Oda, the answer is simple. Take one look at her silkscreen prints of robust vegetables, graceful cherry blossoms, and fleshy goddesses with delicate pink nipples, and it's clear that beauty animates her artistic vision.

Growing up in Tokyo during World War II forever marked Oda's view of the world. 'I was on the ground when B-29s were bombing us,' she says. Despite hardship during and after the war, Oda's mother always secured hard-to-find art materials and encouraged her children to draw. 'My mother wanted to be an artist but could not because she was a traditional Japanese housewife,' Oda says. 'So she entrusted her dream to me.'

After graduating in 1966 from Japan's National Academy of Art, where she met and married an American, the noted Japanese-literature scholar John Nathan, Oda moved to New York and discovered flower children, psychedelic light shows, and a burgeoning women's movement. After giving birth in 1970 to the first of two sons, Oda began to paint the unabashedly joyful and voluptuous goddess figures for which she is known, drawing inspiration from old Japanese woodblock prints that depicted traditional masculine Buddhist gods.

'The experience of giving birth and raising children . . . made me realize my own strength and the potential power of all women,' she writes in her book Goddesses (Volcano Press, 1988). The transformation of her breasts and hips during pregnancy, she says, made her feel like a 'neolithic fertility goddess.'

She found notable success-her work is housed in the permanent collections of New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress, and the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music-but later traded in the role of artist for that of activist. That was in the 1990s, when she discovered that France was illegally shipping plutonium via Latin America to the Japanese government, which was building controversial breeder nuclear reactors that produce more plutonium than they use. She founded Plutonium-Free Future, an organization dedicated to eliminating nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

'At that point,' Oda recalls, 'it almost felt like, 'It's not time to paint goddesses anymore; it's time to become one.''

Oda worked as a bridge between progressive organizations in Japan and North America, drumming up support for anti-nuclear campaigns. 'We stopped plutonium shipments, which is what we were against,' she says, conceding that the broader problems of nuclear contamination and proliferation are much harder to overturn.

But, Oda says, she began to feel unfulfilled. She had not painted in years, and instead of creating something, she felt like her life was being defined by what she was working against. She eventually opted for a different form of activism, a quieter variety more rooted in everyday life. She moved to Hawaii, where she now holds month-long classes twice a year for students interested in herbal healing. She grows organic vegetables, herbs, and fruits-and she's painting again.

'I thought that maybe if I show some positive vision,' Oda says, 'someone will say, 'Oh, this is beautiful; this is the way to live.''

Peppered with vivid stories and lush prints, Mayumi Oda's most recent book, I Opened the Gate, Laughing: An Inner Journey (Chronicle Books, 2002), tells the story of how her creativity was renewed through the sacred space of a garden.

Anjula Razdan is assistant editor of Utne Reader.

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