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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Arts and Entertainment

Discovering spiritual truth in beautiful objects

‘The Furniture of George Nakashima’ opens today at SV Center

Express Arts Editor

Fortunately for the world, artists—particularly fine ones—rarely fit nicely into the tidy classifications and periods of art history. And perhaps that struggle of the spirit against the confines of artistic mores is what pushes art to new levels of aesthetic expression.

Figured English walnut table by George Nakashima

The late George Nakashima, whose work is currently on exhibit at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Ketchum, was a furniture maker in the modernist tradition, but one who seemed to breathe exuberant life into his works by breaking free of its strictures.

"Making something pure, simple and true to material—these are all precepts of modernism," said Kristin Poole, artistic director at the Center. "Nakashima strayed from that in his love of the organic and his faith to the wood."

In many of his pieces, Nakashima retained the naturally occurring splits in boards and incorporated an exposed "free" edge in the work. This theme developed further as Nakashima created whole tabletops that were irregular in form and even had holes in them, holes that were present before being sawn.

While modernist art is typically devoid of any references to the past, "Nakashima honored the past by honoring the tree," Poole said.

Nakashima was born in Seattle to first generation Japanese Samurai in 1905. He studied architecture at the University of Washington, graduating in 1929. From there he went to Harvard where he studied under the famed Walter Gropius, who was teaching industrial modernism.

"He really struggled with that (heavy industrial modernism) and left Harvard for M.I.T. Really all of his young life he was at battle with modernism and its promises. He wanted to bring natural form back into his work," Poole said.

In the 1930s Nakashima had two experiences that seemed to inform his work, Poole said. One was when he moved to Paris to work for an American architect. There Nakashima watched Le Corbusier build the Swiss Pavillion.

"Industrial design was relaxing. The freedom of the concrete was exciting (for Nakashima). It was more organic in scale and feeling."

Then in 1937 Nakashima went to India to design a religious sanctuary and experienced a spiritual transformation at the ashram. Poole explained that the tenets of the ashram endorsed ideas central to Nakashima’s artistic sensibilities: simplicity of form, honesty to materials and that spiritual truth can be manifested in beautiful objects.

Then, of course, came the war.

From 1942 to 1943, Nakashima and his family were held at the Hunt internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho. There he befriended a Japanese woodworker who taught Nakashima a number of woodworking techniques. The young artist, 37 at the time, began to make furniture for his family with found objects at the camp.

"Because of the internment in Idaho, it just seemed like grace" to bring his work back here in a show, Poole said. "For Mira (Nakashima’s daughter, who was 2 at the time of the internment), it seemed like the perfect resolution."

Though Nakashima died in 1990, his studio in New Hope, Pa., is still flourishing under the direction of Mira, an architect by training and who learned by her father’s side throughout his life. In conjunction with the show, she will give a lecture titled "Nakashima’s Life and Legacy," Friday, July 16, at the gallery.

Other events scheduled include an opening celebration July 2 and a lecture by art historian Derek Ostergard on July 8. The exhibit will be up through July.


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