A view from the inside
By Victoria Gail-White
Special to The Advertiser
By Victoria Gail-White
Lynn Matsuoka has been in places most women aren't allowed to go, and maybe wouldn't want to go. For 30 years she has drawn and painted the world of sumo wrestling from the inside out — the dressing room to the dohyo (wrestling ring). It is the highest privilege granted any artist, male or female, especially a Caucasian-American born in Brooklyn, N.Y., who did not initially speak Japanese.
After graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia, Matsuoka did graduate work at the School of Visual Arts in New York. It was there, studying with Jack Potter, a teacher she credits to this day, that she discovered she could draw quite fast, completing a sketch in about a minute. And in that minute she could freeze-frame action and capture on paper subjects that don't like to sit still. Especially people.
After working as a fashion illustrator, Matsuoka became a reportage artist (a reporter who draws people and things in action) for ABC and CBS networks, covering court trials and the Watergate hearings.
In 1973 she was invited to work in Japan as a fashion illustrator and fell in love with sumo wrestling and kabuki theater. Matsuoka's love of the ancient sport of sumo continues to this day. Her exhibit of sumo drawings at the Robyn Buntin Gallery will run concurrently with the Grand Sumo Tournament in Hawai'i, June 9-10 at the Blaisdell Arena.
When not in Japan or New York, Ma-tsuoka lives in Hawai'i, where, drawn to ancient tradition and ritual, she pursues another passion: hula. On the scene at the Merrie Monarch Festival, she was backstage working with the tools of her trade — paper, graphite pen and oil pastels — drawing dancers moments before they were about to perform.
Distilling action is the secret to the aliveness in Matsuoka's work. She doesn't work from photographs.
Q. How did you begin your career as a reportage artist?
A. I double-majored at college in art and music. I sang with a concert choir and toured and recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra. After college and after studying with Jack Potter, I saw court reportage drawings and thought most of them were pretty horrible. I knew I could do better. I started farming myself out to the networks. I got sent to Texas for murder trials and did the Watergate hearings in 1972-73. CBS called and offered me the first Watergate trial. I was also offered a job in Tokyo for six months and thought I would be back by February, when the Watergate trial started. But I discovered sumo in Japan and forgot about Watergate and New York, and stayed there for 20 years — actually 33 years all together. I still go back and forth.
I was consumed by sumo. I was there every morning and all day long for the tournaments. I didn't speak any Japanese at the time, but they could read my drawings. I'm in the process of writing a book.
Q. What was it about sumo that got to you?
A. I grew up with a father who detested overweight people. When I walked into a sumo stable, years later, I felt like I had come home. I never saw them as fat or naked. I saw them as living sculptures. They develop their body into sculptures. I've been with these people for 34 years, and I'm still amazed and captivated. ... It's the same with kabuki and hula.
Q. As a woman, were you accepted in the sumo world or was it a struggle?
A. Both. I have my supporters and nonsupporters. One of the most notable Japanese magazines did a six-page spread of my sumo drawings. I was thrilled. However, the title of that article translated into something like "The Girl Who Likes Naked Men." I hit the roof. I never see them as naked. I see them as sumo wrestlers. There's nothing sexual about any of this. They are objects of art. And after 34 years, it's still the same. ... Some of them are my friends. I even married one.
A sumo grand chairman once told me, "You are bringing the beauty and the essence of sumo from where you are to the outside, to people who will never be able to see what you see. You must continue your work." I'm doing what he told me to do. I wouldn't change sumo at all. It's a tough game and a tough life to live.
Q. What happens in the process of drawing when you freeze-frame the action into a sketch?
A. Jack Potter taught me something that I try to impart to other people I teach: When you see someone, try to feel them. I can feel their hair, their nose, and their eyes. It comes from here (she points to her gut); it doesn't come from here (she points to her head).
Q. Tell me about your coloring process. First you do the sketches and then you put the color on afterwards?
A. I draw what I see. ... I don't editorialize. I work in oil pastels and graphite on paper. I do a quick drawing and I'll hit it with color as I'm going. Usually I don't have time to do anything with color. I just do a few colors to show the realm of light and dark.
Q. Obviously, in your case, the size of the piece is important. Do you have a preference?
A. You have to understand that I'm always working where I don't belong. In a dressing room, under the stairs of a set at a kabuki theater, or stuffed into a corner at a Broadway theater in New York where I can hardly breathe. I have also worked on the lines of NFL football games and backstage at the Merrie Monarch Festival. I usually work on 14-by-17 (-inch) paper or 11-by-14. I am always looking for more paper. Those are my standard sizes because they carry and fit well. I have also done larger works.
Q. How did you get involved in drawing hula?
A. I'm insane about hula. In between going back and forth to Japan in the 1970s, I took some lessons with Michael Casupang, not to perform but to know what I'm looking at and what it feels like. My youngest son, Jesse, danced with his halau and won that year, working six hours a day, six days a week. I have a huge collection of hula works that I have done over the years that I'd like to sell to support hula, to give kids a chance to dance whose parents can't afford it.
Q. Your career included being a mom as well; did you take your children with you when you were working?
A. I took my kids everywhere — to sumo and kabuki. When Jesse was a baby, I'd put him in the lap of a big sumo wrestler and go off and do my work. My kids are amazing and have an amazing background. ... They also speak Japanese and went to school here at Mid-Pac (Institute).
Victoria Gail-White's artist interviews run the last Sunday of each month.