Discovering spiritual truth in
‘The Furniture of George Nakashima’
opens today at SV Center
By ADAM TANOUS
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
Figured English walnut table by George
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,"
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
"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.