A herd of tiny toy bison are frozen in a never-ending rush across the dash of Mimi Matsuda’s Honda Element.
It’s fitting that they take adventures with her since wild animals and Yellowstone National Park — one of the bison’s last strongholds — are so entwined in the 37-year-old Bozeman artist’s psyche.
“My dream is to have my artwork help preserve and fund nonprofit work to help wildlife,” she said during a recent interview at a Bozeman coffee shop.
Just down the street is proof of that commitment. The Madison-Gallatin chapter of Trout Unlimited was busy setting up for its Troutfest banquet at the Best Western Inn. Among the auction items was a large wooden panel, created by Matsuda, depicting two Yellowstone cutthroat trout swimming side by side.
“Mimi was our premier banquet artist,” said Rick Arnold, one of the organizers of the event, in an email. “Her art piece auctioned for $1,000, plus we sold 50 collector prints of her work.
“Mimi has probably one of the best personalities of all the artists we’ve had present in our live auction,” he added. “I believe that with the exposure she experienced at our Trout Unlimited banquet, she will surely become a sought after artist. Besides being a good artist, she’s a very humble and wonderful lady.”
Matsuda leapt into the role of full-time artist only last May.
“It has been a jump with the hope that the net will appear,” she said. “That’s the beauty of life. You have to follow your dreams, and I just feel lucky.”
Prior to that, you might say she was busy studying the very fiber of her subjects. She graduated from Portland State University in 1997 with a degree in biology. That summer, she landed a job as a volunteer working with Yellowstone National Park’s fisheries crew on a gillnet boat used to remove nonnative lake trout from Yellowstone Lake.
“I loved the place so much and wanted to stay in the area,” she said, so she found work at the National Elk Refuge just outside Jackson Hole, Wyo., that winter as an interpretive guide on sleigh rides.
That job launched her into the world of education. She worked as an interpretive ranger for Grand Teton National Park and then secured a summer job in Yellowstone working at Fishing Bridge for eight years, also as an interpretive ranger.
“That was by far the luckiest, most honorful journey — to be right in the heart of the park taking trips to the mudpots, fly-fishing, taking kids on river hunts for aquatic bugs,” Matsuda said.
She left Yellowstone when her art began demanding more time. But she never left the natural world far behind. She draws inspiration from her hikes, mountain bike rides, cross-country ski trips and fly-fishing outings. She thrives on all activities involving the outdoors, including grueling competitive ones like a running race 20 miles across the ridge of the nearby Bridger Mountains, considered one of the most rigorous in Montana.
“I am a big everything,” she said of her outdoor interests. “I love Montana. I love the parks, and I feel all of us are so lucky to be surrounded by unlimited ways to enjoy nature.
“Mountain biking, trail running, those types of athletic activities outside give me time to think about what art I want to do next,” she added.
The outdoor activities also fill her spirit and give her energy to lock herself inside her apartment and studio and paint, work in pastels or in the mixed medium of her wooden fish panels that combine wood burning with acrylic paints.
She enjoys the variety of mediums, often using soft pastels to quickly create her cards that feature colorful “bits of whimsy,” like a flower-carrying pika on a unicycle named “Pika Pedals Petals,” or wild animals decked out with binoculars, maps and cameras just like the tourists that visit Yellowstone, named “Wildlife, Watching.”
She’s represented by Jack Dennis’ Wyoming Gallery in Jackson, where manager Corinne Elliott said Matsuda’s “fun interpretations of trout” play well in the store that also features a fly-fishing and outdoors shop.
Born in Tokyo to a Japanese father and an American mother of Scottish-French-English descent, Matsuda finds inspiration from a variety of artists, including her mother, who is a retired art teacher. Topping her list is her grandfather, commercial artist William Muir, whom she never knew. Among other things, he drew some of the line drawings in Webster’s Dictionary and illustrated gun catalogs for manufacturers in Springfield, Mass.
“I have used some of his oil paintings that he did for himself as inspiration for my own work,” she said. “This guy could paint skies and clouds like nobody's business.”
From there she jumps to the fanciful work of Maxfield Parrish, noting his great use of light for effect. Her interactions with Yellowstone have made her a fan of Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, men whose paintings in the 1800s helped show the fantastical features of Yellowstone and the West to the outside world. On the whimsical side, she favors Montana artist Monte Dolack, who juxtaposes animals with unusual settings, as well as Alaskan artist Ray Troll, whose odd and fantastical works she finds hilarious.
She credits Dolack and Troll with helping her to open up the “humorous, story-laden side” of her art.
“Any way you can tug on human emotion, that’s a wonderful thing,” she said.
She also likes her whimsical art because it can so quickly convey an idea.
“People get it right away,” she said.
With her biology background, Matsuda describes herself as a modern naturalist with a twist.
“Ultimately, I hope my art … this is how I communicate my passion about wildlife and the landscape,” she said. “Hopefully, people take note of the wildlife and wildlands and respect them and take care of them.”