Mayumi Oda at the Bolinas Museum

06/21/2018

Mayumi Oda’s favorite vegetable is the cabbage. “They look like roses…the beautiful unfolding of it is so awakening,” said Ms. Oda, an artist who long lived in Muir Beach and spent time at Green Gulch, during an artist talk on Saturday at the Bolinas Museum. Actually in Hawaii, where she now lives, she was beamed in through the power of videochat. 

Ms. Oda had more to say about the brassica, too. For the wall text of one sizable serigraph of a woman working in a cabbage patch, she wrote that the green cabbages and lettuces “spread their leaves, revealing mandalas of the field,” but also, more darkly, that the dark core of the purple cabbages, “curled so tightly, reminded me of my own lonely heart.” 

Ms. Oda’s devotion to the garden is now on display in a new exhibit in the main gallery of the Bolinas Museum, “Divine Gardens: Mayumi Oda and the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center.” It features two of Ms. Oda’s favorite subjects: vegetables and goddesses, with her bright, exuberant works influenced by, among other things, Buddhist iconography and a sensual style of Japanese art called ukiyo-e. 

“There is a joyfulness that’s timeless and also very contemporary,” Jennifer Gately, the museum’s executive director, said of the works. 

Ms. Oda, routinely referred to as the “Matisse of Japan,” was born in Tokyo in 1941 but found her way to Muir Beach in the 1970s with her two sons. The goddess first came to her in the ‘60s, when she was pregnant and “felt enormous female energy.” Green Gulch, where she practiced and spent time in the garden, was a particularly potent place for her because—unlike in Japan, where men dominated Zen practice—women could become priests. 

Her works depict goddesses so often that she called her studio a “goddess factory,” and the deities feature prominently in the pieces at the museum, mostly silkscreens; she often recasts revered traditionally male bodhisatvas such as Manjushri and Samantabhadra as full-figured women. Her interpretations of the two, both brightly colored and bare chested, ride bikes, with Manjushri holding a sutra scroll instead of the traditional sword. 

In other pieces, goddesses water cabbages or work the field. Also included in the exhibit are prints from a series she called the “Green Garden Seed Catalogue”: cauliflower, pumpkin, borage. 

Today, Ms. Oda’s work appears in permanent collections around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Library of Congress in D.C. and the Tochigi Prefectural Museum in Art in Japan. But her art dealer, Ren Brown, who loaned many of the pieces for the exhibit, noted, when discussing her long career, that it is “always difficult” to sell nudes. 

In fact, he noted that one time, a while ago, Ms. Oda’s works were shipped to Japan for an exhibit but the country would not allow them in because some of the goddesses had pubic hair—apparently indicia of pornography. 

According to Ms. Gately, Ms. Oda’s portrayal of goddesses was important when she began back in the ‘60s, after the horrors of Vietnam and during the new wave of the women’s movement. 

“She felt compelled to celebrate the power of women and bring more joy into the world,” Ms. Gately said. “We’re experiencing a similar moment now, where women are beginning to go back to these conversations and have them again, and so it’s a timely moment to share her work.”

 

“Divine Gardens: Mayumi Oda and the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center” shows at the Bolinas Museum through Aug. 12 in the main gallery.