NBC's Oklahoma Artist Series

A special thanks to NBC directors and staff David McNeece, photographer and Branden Reynolds, author for the following article featured in "NBC's Oklahoma Artist Series 2003-2012".

Mitsuno Ishii Reedy can’t remember when she became an artist but she can remember when she gave up art. And, luckily, she also remembers when she rediscovered it.

Beauty and Strength 30"x40" Oil on Canvas

Beauty and Strength 30"x40" Oil on Canvas

The troubled journey to embrace her craft isn’t obvious in her current work, but it’s a part of it. Since the early 1970s, Reedy has been a professional portrait artist, painting children and families, doctors and military officers, Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry and tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Born in Japan, Reedy came to the United States at the age of 20, living in Kansas City, Oklahoma City and Lubbock and Austin, Texas, before settling in Norman – although “settling” may not be the right word, because Reedy goes where her art guides her. 

Still, most of her life has been spent in the Sooner State, and so when she began working on her painting or the Oklahoma Artist Series, she drew on the two cultures she knew best: “I am a product of Japan and I have lived in Oklahoma,” she thought, “and I should explore that.”

“I immediately thought of doing a portrait of an Indian princess or something,” she said, thinking she would add cherry blossoms to connect it to Japan. Through a friend, she found a model in a chief’s granddaughter in El Reno and began.

“I started to paint and I became a little troubled, because the Indian girl and the cherry blossoms just didn’t go very well if I did it realistically,” she said. “And so the only thing I thought was to do it more or less like Indian painting: flat, and that would connect the Japanese to the Indian people.”

Photo by David McNeece, NBC

Photo by David McNeece, NBC

Both cultures created art, in woodcuts and paintings, which emphasized flat shapes and outlines.

“That flat, poster-like painting, we have it in common,” she said. “I thought that would be great. I could put in the cherry blossoms as well, and it was a perfect solution to me.”

Photo by David McNeece, NBC

Photo by David McNeece, NBC

In her piece, Beauty and Strength, the Native American girl has become three princesses. Reedy painted the faces to suggest the shared genetic heritage of the Japanese and Native American peoples, reinforcing that connection (which Reedy herself embodies in her own migrations) with cherry blossoms, Indian blanket wildflower and, flying overhead, a scissor-tailed flycatcher, the Oklahoma state bird.

The stylization may be familiar to the two cultures depicted, but it’s a departure from Reedy’s realistic portraiture. That made her uncomfortable at first, but she quickly embraced the chance to experiment as an artist. She wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, she was afraid to be an artist.

Reedy grew up outside the city of Osaka, Japan, in the years surrounding World War II. Her father went off to fight in 1944, when Reedy was three. An early memory suggests her fascination with color, even amid chaos. 

“I remember having to get up in the middle of the night and run to the dugout in the dark because of the air raids,” she said. “And I remember telling my mom, ‘Oh, Mom, look at the beautiful sunset!’ And then she says, ‘No, that is not a sunset; it’s the city, burning.’ It was orange.”

Her father was killed in the war, leaving her mother to raise two daughters and a son.

Reedy first grasped her artistic talent in elementary school, but she ran from it. Her teacher hung her drawings on the walls of her classrooms. At that time, Reedy didn’t think of herself as an artist, exactly: “It’s almost like I had to do it at school, so I did it, but it went out of my memory.”

What she saw outside her classroom window inspired those early drawings.

Photo by David McNeece, NBC

Photo by David McNeece, NBC

“It was a mountainous area where I grew up,” she said. “It was nice – bamboo forests and thatched roofs – and that’s what I drew.”

The first conflicting feelings of excitement and insecurity arrived in the third grade, when she won a regional art contest and was sent to the city to participate in a workshop, where a famous artist was going to teach the award-winning students.

“I remember going there by myself on a train and standing in the big studio with eagles, and a model was in the middle, and we were supposed to draw,” she said.  “And I remember not understanding what the teacher was saying, and having to look over the shoulder of a high school student who was next to me, and imitating what he was doing. And I got so scared that if I drew anymore, I was going to get into trouble like this.

“And so I quit drawing. I quit doing any kind of art, because I just made up my mind.”

For years, that was it for her. Reedy studied calligraphy, but beyond that, didn’t pursue art. What she did pursue, however, was America.

“Raised in a single-parent home, in those days, they would not even hire you in a top-class company or bank. They were very prejudiced,” she said. “I felt very, very indignant, because I didn’t choose to have my father get killed in a war. My dad gave his life to the country, but still, that’s how I was treated. I felt that my lot was to be out somewhere in America. America was my goal. Pie in the sky, I wanted it.”

So Reedy studied English, and began corresponding with pen pals all over the world. A woman sent her a dollar in a Christmas card; she used it to buy a dictionary.

Eventually, she started corresponding with a young medical student in Kansas City.

“He was just a charming person. And he loved to write so he’d write to me every day and I would write back every day and he’d send me pictures. And he said he wanted to marry me!” she said. 

And that is how, at the age of 20, she ended up in Kansas City.

She had a child and dedicated herself to being a wife and mother.

She divorced and remarried, and moved to Lubbock with her second husband. She became depressed. A visit to the doctor revealed that nothing physically was wrong, and after hours of talking, the doctor has a prescription: Sign up for art classes.

“I had permission to do what I loved to do,” she said. “Until then, I had my husband and child ahead of myself, and never would’ve asked for something like that for myself.”

She began taking classes in Lubbock, studying realist painting; therefore, she picked up where she’d left off in that studio in Japan.

“I think it was having to go to a strange city alone,” she said of why her childhood workshop experience chased her away from art. “I had never been exposed to even an easel. It was just a completely new experience for me and I was kind of a shy girl.”

But in 1970, at the age of 30, Reedy needed that new experience, again.

“I started painting in a realistic manner, and never got depressed since,” she said. “That’s my story.”

Except it isn’t. Not quite. Because after four decades as a successful portrait artist, Reedy decided that she finally needed to attend art school. 

Photo by David McNeece, NBC

Photo by David McNeece, NBC

“I am more or less self-taught,” she said, nothing she took some lessons early in Lubbock, and very quickly started selling her work and getting commissions. But more recently, “I realized that I just don’t have the very important basic skills. It’s like a foundation. I just started to feel that limitations. I was just getting frustrated and didn’t know where to go and what to do. I almost thought I should not do art anymore because I didn’t think I was good enough to be able to do what I wanted to do. I was sort of lost.”

So she decided to confront the workshop directly. In August 2011, she took a two-week course at the Studio Incamminati School for Contemporary Realist Art, in Philadelphia.

“I went ahead and enrolled,” she said, “and the first day, I realized, ‘This is where I need to come, because this is where they will teach me what I never had.’”

In September 2011, Reedy moved to Philadelphia and began a four-year program at the school. Her reasoning was simple enough: She could spend four years going alone as she has been, she said, “but if I came here to this school, four years will pass just the same and I will be so much happier at the end. So I decided to come. I dropped everything and just moved here.”

It was yet another trip to yet another strange city, but she was excited to discover it.

Reedy has been doing a lot of unlearning at Studio Incamminati, Rebuilding those lost years of art. She says the school’s name means “those who are progressing.” A more literal definition is “to make one’s way,” or “to set off,” which is appropriate. Reedy has spent her life perfecting the art of setting off.