Lauren Matsumoto is a Brooklyn-based artist whose work touches on one of the most urgent crises facing humanity today: environmental degradation. Through her gorgeous, brilliantly executed paintings, which involve flora, birds, and vintage ephemera, she beautifully illuminates the fissures that have formed between humans and nature. In this fascinating interview, Matsumoto shares her insights on the environment, sincerity in art, her process, and more.
Did you ever consider a different career path, or have you always known you wanted to make art professionally?
I have always aspired to be a professional painter since I started painting seriously at 14 years old. Unfortunately, running a professional art studio in a major city is costly, with supplies, art shipping, and studio rent as expenses. I’ve always had to keep my studio lean and do design-related projects on the side to help pay the bills. I respect quality design as well as art, so I welcomed those side projects. There is nothing wrong with creative people shifting gears occasionally to supplement their income.
How has your art evolved over time? Has there been a particular mentor, words of advice, or event in your life that has informed your work?
There are lots of tips I absorbed from some very astute professors I was fortunate to have in art school, but the words that really stuck with me were “kill your darlings.” This advice is normally given in writing classes, but I find it applies to art-making as well. I think about those words regularly in my practice. I have changed and redirected my work several times over the years when a line of investigation was not quite right to me. It took a lot of guts to make a change because some of those series were quite successful, but I’ve done it several times and am now proud of what I’ve accomplished in my practice, despite what other people might think.
Can you describe your creative process? Is there a step in the process you find the most enjoyable?
My creative process developed over decades of experimentation within the space between the mediums of painting and collage. I begin by playing around with torn vintage papers, discarded documents, photographs, and other vintage ephemera. I tear them up and layer them loosely on paper to make a collage “sketch.” Some of the layers I create by painting them or hand-drawing vintage patterns. The give-and-take of the process is something I truly enjoy. By continually layering, adding, and subtracting, I distill the piece down to find balance within the composition and color palette. Then, after adhering the paper to the surface and adding a bird or two landing on top, the collage on paper then serves as a “rough sketch” for a larger oil painting on canvas. While creating the oil painting version, I make more edits. I enjoy working through this spontaneous, messy process to find happy accidents along the way, but always within a set structure with a sense of authenticity.
There is an important distinction between craft and skill. Great writers such as Richard Yates, Kazuo Ishiguro, Joseph Heller, Stephen King, Knut Hamsun, Hemingway, Flaubert, and Dostoyevsky do not “show off” in their writing. They slowly, carefully, and with humility, craft a tale that tears your heart to shreds or shows you a new way of being. What I love about my process is how everything is in movement at all times, finding balance, yes, but always in flux and never predictable or visually stale. I enjoy the work of other painters who embrace the principles of exploration, play, and sincerity in their work. For the same reason, I love artwork by young children. Children understand (through their lack of traditional painting and drawing skill) that displaying skill for its own sake is beside the point.
What drew you to the theme of human/nature relationships? What do you think of the relationship between humans and nature now? Is there anything that worries you or gives you hope?
This is a multi-part question. Let me start by saying there is nothing more important right now than humankind’s relationship to nature. Nothing. Every major problem we face on Earth, from pandemics to economic inequality to racial injustice and a lack of fairness for all, stem from our unbalanced relationship with nature. So I would like to flip that question upside down and ask rather than what drew you to the theme of the human/nature relationship, how could an artist working today not focus on that? Perhaps their focus is a narrow, specific slice of that, or perhaps their focus is a little silly. I’ve always been repelled by painters whose work is all about irony, because irony does not matter once everyone is dead. If irony or another supercilious message is your artistic focus, you can probably get your work into a hip, big-city gallery, but in my view you have some hard thinking you need to do in your studio alone, examining what you really want to do with your life.
To answer the second part about hope is simple. Hope is the antidote to irony. Hope is all we have at this point. It may be enough if we embrace it and try to inspire each other to make the necessary edits in our lives that could collectively have a positive impact on our environment and the creatures in it. I hope my work, in some small way, inspires others to embrace simplicity and balance in their lives. On a practical level this means: yes, you should recycle materials (as I do in my work). Yes, you could stop eating meat seven days a week and try to cut back a little. No, we cannot all be flying to international destinations to vacation twice a year. Yes, sometimes you could just stay home and read a book. Before you drive needlessly, ask yourself if there is a way to walk or bike instead. Do you really need to gut renovate your entire kitchen or could you do a minor refresh? If you are in construction, use bird-friendly markings on windows to prevent birds from crashing into them at night. Those are the kinds of daily choices we face in first-world countries that collectively have a positive impact.
Birds are one of the most prominent features in your work. Why birds specifically, rather than another non-human animal?
My grandfather was a bird breeder. As a result, everyone in my family liked birds and kept them as pets. I grew up living with birds, holding them and observing them up close, and I understand them. They are the protagonists in my work. I would like to add that I believe birds today belong in the wild and therefore do not support anyone having them as pets (other than rescue birds). If you must have a bird, buy one of my paintings instead!
What are you working on now?
For most of 2019 and 2020, I have been working on a series entitled “The Rise and Fall.” Fundamentally, this series is about the imbalance in our relationship with nature and how that imbalance has evolved throughout the rise and fall of humanity’s various eras. My work evokes different eras through reusing discarded papers, textures, and colors left behind by mankind. If you would like to see more of my work, please visit my website at www.laurenmatsumoto.net.
Are there any other links or resources you’d like me to share?
In big cities, residents can encourage their local leaders to pass bird-friendly construction requirements like those New York City recently passed. The following article tells more about this issue:
In suburbs, this article on the Audubon Society website shows how people can help birds in their own yard:
LAUREN MATSUMOTO is a painter exploring how we relate to nature. She is known for her use of a hybrid form of painting and collage as an innovative way of composing traditional paintings. Internationally, her work was presented in a solo show at Fabrik Gallery in Hong Kong, and in group shows at ArtLink Canada in Vancouver, the Art Complex Gallery in Tokyo, and the United States Embassy in Oman. She has also exhibited her artwork across the United States in over 60 exhibitions. Her work has appeared in notable publications and blogs such as Domino, Aesthetica, The Jealous Curator, HOME Journal, Studio Visit, Booooooom, and The Cut. Matsumoto has an international collector base, with works held in collections across Europe, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and North America. She received an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York and a BA in Painting from Yale University. Her honors include a 2019 Artist Residency at MASS MoCA and participation in the 2011 US Art in Embassies Program. She lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
Find her here: www.laurenmatsumoto.net
AYA KUSCH is an editor, artist, and freelancer based in San Francisco. She grew up playing with mud, which eventually led to a love of clay and a subsequent BFA in sculpture. She is fourth-generation Japanese and a third-generation potter, a Bay Area native, and a former bookseller who still obsesses over the best way to organize a bookshelf. She loves good design, contemporary art that will worry your mom and confuse your dad, and sculptures that make you look up. She is currently working on a book about art from Edo Japan.