By Shannon Gallagher
New York City artist Fumiko Toda’s paintings and prints launch the viewer into a enchanting, mysterious environment that is simultaneously calming and intriguing. The artwork is the result of an infatuation with color, pattern, and texture. Toda, who works from her light-filled home studio in Harlem, mixes elements of drawing, printmaking, and painting to create works that envelop the viewer with a sense of optimism and curiosity.
Toda’s work is extremely intuitive, as she rarely begins with sketches. “Sometimes I have an idea, but most of the time, I don’t start with something specific in mind. Even if I begin a piece with one idea, it usually ends up as something else by the time I’m finished.” Recently, she has been experimenting with thicker layers of paint. Although Toda enjoys the quiet tranquility brought on by some of the flatter elements in her paintings, she said, “Lately, more than ever, I’m interested in making the work a little more sculptural. I’m in a place in my life now where I want to be excited more than calm, so I apply a lot of paint on the panel so that certain parts come out more than others.” Toda finds that push-and-pull exciting, and is delighted by the properties of the paint. “More than the actual image I’m working on, the paints I apply inspire me to continue working. I don’t know what my work is about, but the more time I spend painting, the more comfortable and confident I feel about the process of painting. I’m trusting the process more and more these days,” she stated.
That process, according to Toda, is crucial, even when she feels that what she is working on isn’t amounting to anything. “Even when I’m not inspired or motivated to work, I just have to stay in the studio,” she said. “I stay and experiment. I try to be open about what’s happening on the canvas, and I will play around with materials and mediums, and try to get inspired by what I discover.”
Toda grew up in the Japanese countryside, and spent a lot of time as a child near a pond burgeoning with biodiversity. The long hours of warm summer days in the countryside were spent collecting insects, leaves, and other pieces of the environment to combat feelings of isolation. Although New York City does not offer the same kind of environment thriving with various plants and animals, she does spend as much free time as possible in Central Park, and goes hiking whenever she has the chance.
Toda, who did not speak any English when she left Japan for NYC, found the cultural differences to be an exciting challenge. Although living in a large city does sometimes lend itself to feelings of disconnection, she also does not view isolation as a negative experience. “I think everyone deals with isolation at some point and I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing,” she said. “It’s a part of our human experience, and working alone or being alone helps me to nurture myself and better understand myself and others.” She compared the role of an artist with that of a musician. “When I was in high school, I played flute, and I wanted to be a flutist. When you’re playing music, you jam with other musicians, but when you’re painting, well… of course artists can collaborate, but mostly you’re in the studio alone, and you talk to yourself, or your cat, if you have one,” she said, smiling.
In addition to spending her free time outdoors, she enjoys visiting museums like the Metropolitan Museum, and her personal favorite, Neue Galerie, a museum devoted to early twentieth-century German and Austrian art and design. The museum houses a large collection of Kandinsky, Klee, Schiele, and Klimt, the last of which is often cited by others as similar to Toda’s work. “I get that a lot,” she said. “It’s funny, but I don’t mind at all. For me, the most important thing is the process of making art, and while of course, the finished work does matter, it’s not as important to me. If the work looks like this or that, well… it doesn’t really concern me. “ Although she is always influenced by artists, there is not one in particular that she tries to emulate. “I recently started a flower series, which was inspired by Redon, but it’s not that I want to be like him.”
Although she now has her own printmaking press in her studio, Toda used to spend time working at the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in NYC. She said that although she enjoyed working alongside the “wonderful community” of artists there, she loves the freedom that having her own equipment has given her- “I do whatever I want,” she said. Toda bought the press about three years ago, and also uses it to teach classes. Her favorite method of printmaking is etching, because of the quality of line that can be achieved. “I also cut [my prints] apart and collage pieces of them into my paintings,” Toda said. “I use it as a mixed media medium. The printmaking really forces me to be open and spontaneous, because there are a lot of ‘accidents’ that happen, and that is really exciting.”
One thing she wishes she could do is work much larger. “There is a lot of physical work involved, I wish I could work ten times bigger, but I paint on panels, and I physically cannot lift such heavy things.” Recently, Toda completed a triptych, approximately 48” x 96”, but said that working on one solid panel of that size would be difficult. “I like the fact that it is a triptych, but wish I were a little more macho and I could deal with the physical part of it. If I could do that, I’d probably be sculpting, too. There are a lot of things I want to do. Sometimes, I get frustrated with my studio space, because I wish it were bigger- but at the same time, I’m very satisfied and happy to be working with what I have,” she stated. As far as what the future holds for her, Toda said, “I have no idea where I’m going. I know that the painting is going to take me somewhere, but I’m not taking it.”
Fumiko Toda has an exhibition of new work opening at ZIA | Gallery on Saturday, September 7th, 5 -7pm. Her work will be on display in the main gallery from September 7th until October 12, 2013.