Mariko Toyama’s mother never wanted her to be an artist, and it would take a long slog through sociology classes in college, a stint working in Japan’s foreign ministry, and ultimately a move to the United States for her to realize her dream of becoming a painter.
Mariko’s artistic eye developed at a young age: growing up in Kobe, Japan, she frequently brought home art awards from school and teachers told her parents she had great potential. Attending art school in Japan was out of the question, so in high school Mariko directed her restless energy toward another passion: fencing.
After college, Mariko married Hitoshi Toyama, moving with him first to Tokyo and then to Rhode Island. That included the chance to unpack her brushes and rekindle her love of painting. Once her children were old enough for school, Mariko began taking classes through the South County Art Association (SCAA), honing her skills in her preferred medium, watercolor, and becoming an expert at mixing paint. “I like watercolor because with oil you have to wait for it to dry, and I don’t like to paint in layers,” she explains. “I like my work to be transparent.”
Soon, Mariko’s colorful, frame-filling still lifes of simple subjects like tomatoes, onions, chili peppers and gumballs began winning awards at juried art shows held by the SCAA and the Wickford Art Association.
Mariko describes her style as largely Western, not Asian, pointing out differences in how the light plays on a basket of apples, creating subtle changes in the color from one piece of fruit to the next. “Japanese art is very flat, not shaded or round,” she explains. “I try to make it look natural.”
Her paintings, the winners still adorned with ribbons, fill the kitchen, dining room and living room of the Toyamas’ home in Narragansett. Mariko is outwardly demure and humble (“I don’t like this,” she says, pointing to an award-winning painting of scoops of ice cream that’s nonetheless prominently displayed on one wall), but it’s clear that the creative fire of that frustrated Kobe schoolgirl still burns brightly inside. Her eyes alive with laughter, Mariko describes her work as “bold and dynamic,” and likens the satisfaction she gets from painting to relaxing with a good, strong drink.
After a decade of winning local art awards, Mariko’s next goal is to have her work recognized by the venerable Rhode Island Watercolor Society, where she’s a member. She also has transitioned from student to teacher, leading watercolor classes at the SCAA in the spring, summer and fall.
Mariko has sold paintings for up to $350 each, but even those transactions are more about pride than commerce. “When someone hangs my painting in their living room or dining room, it makes me feel very happy,” she says.