Writer and artist Mita Mahato works with paper to create collages and comics on the theme of loss. Credits for the Seattle-based Mahato include a cut-paper comic, "Sea," named co-winner of the best comic book in 2015 by Cartoonists Northwest, and a poetry comics collection, In Between (Pleiades Press, 2017). She also is an associate professor of English at the University of Puget Sound and a teaching artist with the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington. Mahato returns to Whitman College–where she taught in 2004-05–on Thursday as part of the Visiting Writers Reading Series, which is sponsored by the English Department with additional support from the Mabel Groseclose Fund. Prior to her visit, Mahato shared some thoughts about her aesthetics, gave advice to aspiring students artists and recalled cherished Whitman experiences. Edited excerpts of the email Q&A follow.
How did you become interested in paper arts?
My work in paper arts was, in some ways, an accident. I had been drawn to the work of other paper artists like Saelee Oh, Nikki McClure and the amazing Henri Matisse, but didn't think of working with paper myself until my mother died. There was something about taking paper, tearing it up, slicing it into shapes or isolating patterns and colors that were already printed onto it that assuaged my grief. In cutting, pasting and folding paper–transforming its original message and shape into something new–I was able to work through my confusions related to my mother's death and subsequent absence. Paper is such a dynamic medium. We often think of it as a flat and blank foundation for other media (ink, paint, etc.), but paper can speak as loudly as what's put upon it. I love that about it and am constantly finding new ways to hear it speak.
Are there themes you return to?
The primary theme that inspires my work is loss–of life, love, personal and cultural identities and myths, and habitat and species. Part of this focus has to do with how I work with paper–renewing it and transforming it in ways that allow for an exploration of loss. Much of my work is autobiographical or based in encounters or experiences that I've had–but I often put a magical realist twist into the work. When you layer paper, you're able to give the suggestion of multiple narrative planes, and I try to take advantage of that layering to suggest that our experience with the world is complex and multivalent and, too, happens simultaneously with the experiences of a wide world of perspectives, dreams, memories, fantasies.
What types of paper do you like working with?
The primary paper I use is the printed newspaper, particularly the colorful advertisements you find in its pages. I love cutting these colors out of their context and, essentially, repurposing what had been designed for mass consumerism into something with an anti-consumerist message. I also make handmade papers. Lately, I've been incorporating plastics that my food has been packaged in into the paper pulp I use; these pages will be part of a book I'm working on about climate change and ocean conservation.
What advice you would give to students interested in paper arts?
Have fun with it! It's easy to get caught up in being exact and meticulous with how a cut looks and whether or not the paste is coming through the edges. But there is a great deal of playfulness and joy to be found in sitting with scissors and paper and cutting things up. Yes, just have fun and let the paper surprise you!
You were a visiting professor of English at Whitman in 2004-05. Favorite memories?
I have so many good memories of that year–particularly class discussions and spending time with the students on campus. Ha! I still have such a strong memory of the papers students wrote–one of them on the landscape of Scotland in Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and another on identity in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Oh, and George W. Bush was elected for his second term of office while I was teaching there. The discussions I had with students in my first-year composition class about that administration–there was so much wonderful passion there. I am still incredibly grateful that my first full-time teaching experience was with these students.
Whitman hosts an array of guest speakers and educators. Many also offer on-campus workshops or engage with students in the classroom. We ask them to give us a brief insight into their area of expertise. For more information on upcoming events at Whitman, go online to the campus calendar.