By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
Is there life after working as a Yellowstone Park ranger? In the case of Mimi Matsuda, a Bozeman resident and one of the most exciting contemporary wildlife artists of her generation, the answer is not only “heck, yes,” but it comes with an exclamation point.
Matsuda’s collectible art, which is a mix of both coveted originals and imagery that appears on limited edition lithographs, T-shirts, coffee mugs, dinner plates and even COVID-19-era masks, is noted for its whimsical, colorful anthropomorphizing of our region’s most iconic critters.
Originally a science major in college, Matsuda’s visual bestiary is an outgrowth of her work as a naturalist-interpreter in Yellowstone with a keen eye for observing both humans and animals, and, of course, great talent as an artist. I asked her about some of the people who influenced her style and evolution as a painter.
“My mother was an art teacher and I was raised with creative outlets everywhere,” Matsuda said. “My great grandfather, William Muir, was a commercial illustrator in New England, illustrating some of Webster’s Dictionary and Winchester Rifles. Growing up, I soaked up the art of great illustrators like Norman Rockwell, NC Wyeth, and Maxfield Parrish. Rockwell really tapped into instantly conveying human emotion. I loved Robert Bateman and Bev Doolittle; we had their large picture books at home to marvel over. I admire Rosa Bonheur, French animal painter from the 1800’s [and] also greatly admire Bozeman artist DG House, whose friendship and mentorship has been heartfelt and golden.”
Matsuda was well aware of the combination of Thomas Moran’s paintings and William Henry Jackson’s photographs that helped convince Congress to pass legislation creating Yellowstone in 1872. Matsuda in her own way has tried to elevate ecological awareness through her art and as her stature has risen, she has supported conservation efforts.
“There are endless ways to portray wildlife through art,” she said. “Gather a group of artists together and have them paint the same subject and I bet you’ll see dozens of different interpretations. My wildlife art centers on drawing a direct link from animal to human viewer. I think my art resonates because [viewers] recognize themselves, or someone they know, in the art.”
One of her pieces, “Wildlife, Watching,” has been transforms animals into “wildlife watchers” carrying cameras. “Mountain Goat, Mountain Bike” is a favorite of mountain biking parents introducing the sport to their kids. “Birds of a Feather” is a favorite of fly fishers who love to spend time with friends on the water. Meanwhile, “Worth the Wait” has been seen by millions visiting Old Faithful.
Depicting a raven hoping to snag a taste of ice cream, it has a double entendre reminder for tourists to be patient until the world’s most famous geyser erupts. She has seen the impact of Yellowstone literally change peoples’ lives for the better.
About working in the park “as a dream job come true,” Matsuda reflects on of her favorite activities—helping young park visitors complete a series of learning tasks that enabled them to become inducted into the Junior Rangers program.
“A large part of my job was to listen and learn from visitors,” she said. “Many times I would spend time just listening to people recount their stories from the past. It was wonderful to share experiences and to observe wildlife on guided hikes, along with my groups. I was a ranger-naturalist for so long that some of the children I inducted into Junior Rangers came back to visit me as grown adults. It made me feel so happy.”
Today, Matsuda herself is a mother of twins and helping the wild country she loves become imprinted on them.
I asked her to explain her belief that there is a connection between all life forms as sentient beings.
“The true push behind my art is this: I put viewers in the perspective of animals so that they realize that animals have a whole suite of desires/goals/needs alike to ours. We are closer to other animals than we realize. We are the same underneath. Their lives are as authentic and as worthy as our own.
“It is not our species’ place to rank other species as greater or lesser. It is my wish for humanity to be gracious enough to allow all other species the right to live out their lives. Our species would truly suffer from the loss of the animals from this planet. I think this is a vital fight.”
Visit mimisatsudaart.com to view Matsuda’s work.
Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He also authored of the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by Thomas D. Mangelsen, about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399.