Mita Mahato is a Seattle-based cut paper, collage, and comics artist, whose work explores the transformative capacities of found and handmade papers. Using collage and paper-making techniques, she builds multivalent images and stories that center on issues related to loss—loss of life, identity, habitat, and species. She is the Associate Curator of Public and Youth Programs at Seattle's Henry Art Gallery.
How did you begin working with/in response to natural environments?
I moved to Montana in 2003 to complete my studies in art. I began hiking and backpacking a lot and During my childhood, I spent afternoons and weekends wandering what seemed like expansive lands and shorelines that were in reality neighboring lots, traffic islands on suburban boulevards, or irrigation systems. I grew up in Milwaukee, WI—and my experiences with the natural environment there were often mediated, whether I understood it that way or not. I have a strong memory of being sticky hot and barefoot one summer and burying the garden hose nozzle in some loose soil in the front yard. I pressed my feet into the mud that formed, shifting from side to side and wiggling my toes, feeling my way around the wet and cool textures. I was always trying to connect with my surroundings in spite of the artificial bounds that partitioned the land and structured its value and use. As I began developing my collage practice years later, I saw that drive for connection weaving into my work. And the processes of loss and transformation inherent in the collage medium became a channel for issues especially related to climate crisis and species extinction. A long way of saying that I guess I’m unclear about a starting point; it feels like a lifelong affinity!
Share with us one of your favorite creative pieces and the natural environment it responds to.
“Lullaby” is a comix poem about the Southern Resident killer whales—a unique culture of orca that is endemic to the Salish Sea and makes the Puget Sound region where I live its home for much of the year. Their population has been decimated to 74 individuals due to the short and longterm impacts of human activity. Each spread of “Lullaby” places one of these activities (river rerouting, chemical and pharmaceutical usage, industrial and recreational boating, oil hunger, and art) within the context of the fragmentation and degradation it causes to the whales’ habitat. I include art as one of the activities because the way we represent natural environments influences or frames our relationship with the planet and the many species it houses. Art can exploit, overdetermine, decontextualize, manipulate—and art materials and practices also can have a deleterious effect on ecosystems. It was important for me in this piece to acknowledge my complicity with art under capitalism even as I take industry under capitalism to task.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to co-create with the natural world?
Be quiet and still and stay awhile. Offer space to let the ecologies you inhabit speak to you. Art can be deceptively aggressive and self-gratifying and become more about the artist than whatever the artist takes as their subject (the verb “take” in the phrase is interesting to note). There is some inevitability here; because art is representational, it can be far removed from the ecologies that inspired it and indelibly colored by the one translating it. It’s important to stay reflective of this displacement and keep the voices of the ecologies that inspire the art in front of mind. For me, that has meant acknowledging and welcoming and wondering at my continuing entanglements with the environments through which I move and their entanglements with each other.