Goddess in the Garden

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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