Mary Jo Matsumoto's Journey to Becoming a Full-time Artist
It’s no stretch to say that Californian native Mary Jo Matsumoto has been many things in her life so far – designer, style blogger, author and now artist. But throughout her career her work has always had a common thread: her passion for creating and appreciating beauty.
She’s currently working on a collection of portraits done in oils with Los Angeles as the setting. Read on to learn more about her inspirations and her journey to becoming a full-time artist.
Interview by Nicole Danielle
Photographs courtesy of Mary Jo Matsumoto
Have you always wanted to be an artist?
Yes, I drew constantly when I was a little girl. I doodled on all my tests, the walls in my bedroom and later on in books in the library and the bathroom walls at school – not exactly things I was rewarded for although my teachers would always tell me that I should be an artist.
Did you study art?
I took three art classes in college and loved it, but my parents made it clear they weren’t going to pay for school if I continued so I let it go. I studied for a summer in Florence during college but there wasn’t much instruction and my work was very Matisse-inspired back then. I didn’t have any formal classical education until last year, but I was always going to openings, shows and museums since my early 20s and was reading about art ever since then. My honors thesis in college was about women and art (at the time there had only been one one-woman show in the United States), and then for almost a decade I wrote often about art and style on my blog. Even though I was a designer, I always considered art to be my true passion, so I had an undercurrent of regret about it.
How did you ultimately determine the type of career you were most passionate about?
I wasn’t expecting this twist in the plotline, but after my dad died I inexplicably lost interest in the fashion world. I thought launching a second handbag line would give me something to dig into and even though it started to take off, it became clear to me that my career/business/identity of 14 years that I’d put so much work into wasn’t making me happy.
Melissa Lee, who I co-authored Journey To The Inner Child with, is a master of getting to the core of the unhealed issues that almost all of us have. I worked with her pretty intensively to figure out not just why this was happening but also to use the opportunity it gave me to step into another life that felt more like me.
It wasn’t easy to get my head around what it would mean to start an art career at this point in my life but I’ve been having such a good time, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is what I was meant to do.
Is there someone or something specific that inspires you?
When I watch dancers training I see the parallels with the practice of drawing. I love the person who just shows up again and again and really brings it, pushing themselves to the highest level they can go – that inspires me.
How does living in California influence your work?
At first the idea of being labeled a ‘California artist’ was hard for me, it felt so limiting. I think I’ve made peace with it because in the end – I believe ‘know thyself’ is more powerful than a label. My life is here in California, the things I have to say are influenced by the culture, for better and worse, and the way I see the light is affected by the bright California sun. I would hope it’s not the sum of who I am, but it’s definitely part of it.
Describe a typical day in the life of Mary Jo Matsumoto.
Art is very physical so I went back to a vegan diet this year to help me feel as good as possible in the studio with lots of energy and it really has helped. I have hot water with lemon first thing every morning to alkalize my body and then meditate before the day starts. Then coffee, breakfast, a quick Instagram post and I’m working. On a good day I stop for lunch but I don’t always feel like taking a break. Before I know it, I start losing the light so I clean up my brushes and realize I’m starving. I try and get out for a walk at the beach at least once during the week. Then it’s sort of a free-for-all to get dinner together, spend time with friends and loved ones and go to bed by a decent hour. (The sleeping part is aspirational.)
What is the perfect ‘starter kit’ for aspiring artists?
In Journey To The Inner Child, I wrote about how tuning in to the kind of art your inner child wants to make and getting the (affordable) art supplies based on those desires is always a good place to start. I like to use acrylic paint to experiment with because it’s much cheaper than the oils I use and takes away the pressure to get things right.
Could you give us a glimpse into the link between being an artist and entrepreneur?
The internet opens so many doors for artists but I wish there wasn’t such a big emphasis on being an ‘artist entrepreneur’. From all the seminars cropping up about how to monetize your art, it seems a lot of artists worry about this, but for me it’s not something I put energy into. I’m very early in my career at this point so I don’t look to my artwork to support me and don’t want to put any pressure on it to do so. I also think that before you’re well-known or have gallery representation it’s the golden time to work on your craft, develop technique and hone in on your message without external pressure.
My main focus is developing a body of work, which right now is an oil portrait series I’m working on. For me, selling pillows and prints of my abstract studies is just about having fun and the art lover in me wanting to offer a taste of my work to people who might not be used to buying art because I truly believe that once you start filling your home, the place you live and sleep, with beauty, life becomes more beautiful.
What advice can you give to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Everyone’s story unfolds differently so all I can say is that figuring out a way to do the thing you’re most passionate about is a good recipe for happiness.