Lion's Roar

THE ART & ACTIVISM OF MAYUMI ODA

WHEN she was a child growing up, Mayumi Oda loved visiting an ancient shrine in Kamakura. Located in a cave, it was dedicated to the Hindu/Buddhist goddess Sarasvati, known in Japan as Benzaiten. Because Benzaiten is a goddess of wealth, people would wash their wallets and purses in the spring running through the cave, and they’d leave offerings of eggs for the white snakes associated with her.

One day, the young Oda encountered a guardian of the shrine, a seer. With one skillful stroke he was painting a serpent, vibrating the brush to create scales. “Young girl,” he said, “you are going to be a successful painter.”

Mayumi Oda, now aged seventy-nine, is known as the Matisse of Japan. Her signature style is an elegant, heartfelt whimsy that’s infused with spirituality, sensuality, and vivid color. She’s had more than fifty solo shows internationally and her work is in such high-profile permanent collections as those of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the U.S. Library of Congress. But in addition to her prodigious creative output, Oda has had a rich life as a Buddhist and activist, mother and farmer.

“It’s not that I became a Buddhist,” she tells me. “I was born a Buddhist. It’s in my blood.”

As a child in Japan, Oda chanted, although Oda’s father had practiced Zen as a student at Kyoto University. He taught her the importance of respecting oneself, not harming others, and concentrating on the moment. He frequently quoted the Buddha: “On heaven and earth, we are the world-honored ones.”

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