OTSU, Japan — It’s a fiercely tragic scene: On the left side of the painting, a white heron sprays water on a raging fire, trying desperately to extinguish the flames that engulf a shrine. On the right, the same heron lies on the banks of Lake Biwa, exhausted to death from its valiant effort. Though it’s based on a local legend, the painting also contains a premonition about its creator. Setsuko Mitsuhashi painted “The Requital by the White Heron” (1973) just months after losing her dominant right arm to a malignant tumor. Shortly after its completion, she learned that the cancer had spread to her lung. She would survive only to age 35, leaving behind a budding art career, a husband, and two small children. But like the heron, she fought bravely and passionately, painting powerful works like this one until the very end.

Three Worlds Drawn by Setsuko Mitsuhashi at the Setsuko Mitsuhashi Memorial Museum commemorates three creative phases of the artist’s short life: her beginnings as a botanically focused artist, her travels in Southeast Asia, and her final series based on regional myths and her own impending death. The exhibition is a revelation, offering an intimate view of an artist whose life and work are little known but incredibly inspiring.

Mitsuhashi was born on March 3, 1939, in Kyoto, Japan. From a scholarly family, she studied painting under artists like Fuku Akino and Tadashi Ishimoto at the Kyoto City University of Arts. She married fellow painter Yasumasa Suzuki in 1968 and moved to Otsu, a small city on the banks of Lake Biwa in Shiga prefecture. The couple’s home is on a forested hillside that today also hosts the artist’s memorial museum. Surrounded by nature, Mitsuhashi incorporated the plants that arrived with each season into her work. “Pond’s Edge” (1968) is a glimmering, dreamy vision of local flora painted during the same month as her marriage. Though many would overlook these weeds and wildflowers, they held special meaning for the artist. Flowers like okinagusa (Pulsatilla cernua) appear throughout her art, where they symbolize the fragility and beauty of life.

Setsuko Mitsuhashi at her studio in September 1972

“Yodaka Star” is based on one of Mitsuhashi’s favorite fairy tales, “Yodaka no Hoshi” (1971) by Kenji Miyazawa. In the story, a lonely, ostracized nighthawk flies into the sky until he becomes a star. Like Mitsuhashi herself, the bird embodies a mixture of sacrifice and self-knowledge. Here he is depicted at the pivotal moment when he decides to no longer consume insects or other creatures and instead to leave Earth. The swooping, gestural brushstrokes convey the nighthawk’s torment, but his red, glowing eyes indicate a sense of strength.

Between December 1967 and January 1968, Mitsuhashi traveled to India and Cambodia on a sketching trip with a group of other artists. Her impressions continued to inform her painting in the years after her return to Japan. In “Earthen Child” (1972), the artist collages different characters and places as if patching together distant memories. The boy’s face may be inspired by her son, who also appears in the bottom left corner of the busy market scene in “Thousand Dumplings,” painted later that same year. In both works, she shows herself to be a keen observer not only of plants, but also of regular people living their daily lives.

The year 1972 was the most productive in Mitsuhashi’s artistic life. She exhibited frequently and produced 24 paintings, many of them large scale. Then, at the end of the year, she began to experience extreme pain and swelling in her right shoulder. In early January 1973 she was diagnosed with a malignant acromioclavicular tumor. Her entire right arm, along with her right scapula and clavicle, would have to be amputated. She would soon lose her dominant hand. Despite her severe condition, she completed another painting before her operation.

Setsuko Mitsuhashi, “Pond’s Edge” (1968), natural pigments on Japanese paper

This piece, “Legend of the Lake” (1973), signaled a crucial turning point in Mitsuhashi’s trajectory. From now on, her paintings would be a poignant mixture of local legends from the Lake Biwa area and her own autobiography. “The Vesper Bell of Mii Temple I” (1973) was painted just three months after she left the hospital, but shows no signs of technical difficulty. Like many of her final works, the large-scale painting features a spectral woman in a red kimono and a young child enduring a painful process of separation. This piece refers to a local legend in which a woman who was once a dragon gives up her eyes to feed her human baby after she is called back to her home inside of Lake Biwa. The parallels to Mitsuhashi’s situation, as she struggled to come to terms with her illness and impending death, are striking. 

One of Mitsuhashi’s final pieces is “Mother and Child” (1974). The tender portrait is based on a sketch that her husband made shortly after the artist gave birth to her son in 1970. Here, the surface is thinner and more agitated than in previous works, and her visible brushstrokes seem to express a sense of urgency and emotion. Nonetheless, her parting gesture is one of giving, of wishing to care for her children when she herself needed a great deal of care. It’s a heartbreaking reminder of the years Mitsuhashi wouldn’t share with her children, who were only three and five years old when she passed away in February of 1975.

Mitsuhashi’s paintings are some of the most moving and compelling artworks that I’ve seen. It’s impossible to view her creations and not viscerally feel her tenacious spirit and deep sorrow. That her life was cut short is absolutely heart wrenching. But the work she left behind offers us precious insights about how fear and grief can sometimes transform into rare acceptance and grace. The late artist’s presence is palpable not only in the paintings on display; her husband still teaches art classes at her museum, and her former residence is located right next door. Nearly 50 years after the artist’s death, her legacy lives on there, and in the hearts of anyone who sees her art.

Setsuko Mitsuhashi, “Earthen Child” (1972), natural pigments on Japanese paper
Setsuko Mitsuhashi, “The Vesper Bell of Mii Temple I” (1973), natural pigments on Japanese paper
Setsuko Mitsuhashi, “Mother and Child” (1974), natural pigments on Japanese paper
Setsuko Mitsuhashi, “Hana-ore Pass I” (1974), natural pigments on Japanese paper
Setsuko Mitsuhashi, “Yodaka Star” (1971), natural pigments on Japanese paper
Setsuko Mitsuhashi, “Thousand Dumplings” (1972), natural pigments on Japanese paper

Three Worlds Drawn by Setsuko Mitsuhashi continues at the Setsuko Mitsuhashi Memorial Museum (1-1 Kozekicho, Otsu, Shiga, Japan) through June 18. The exhibition was organized by Seiji Hiraishi, director of the museum.

Lauren Moya Ford is a writer and artist. Her writing has appeared in Apollo, Artsy, Atlas Obscura, Flash Art, Frieze, Glasstire, Mousse Magazine, and other publications.