In 1999, Tom Nakashima saw a pile of dead trees waiting to be burned. The image was so striking, he decided he must include it in his art. In doing so, he moved away from 20 years of abstract painting to portray the branches using representational collage.
“I’ve always been concerned with the idea of being trapped in a particular art style,” Nakashima said. “I like to think I am free to fluctuate between styles.”
While the style of his art might change, Nakashima remains invested in having a solid philosophical core behind his artwork.
Nakashima will discuss this philosophy of art at 7 p.m. tonight in the Hultquist Center.
“I think it’s very important that someone decides what the world is about and what their art is about,” Nakashima said.
For the last decade and a half, that has mostly been piles of trees in various shapes and sizes. He initially used pages from The Washington Post to create his collages of dead trees, gradually adding painting back into the process overtop of the newsprint.
“The collage brought it into the 21st century,” he said.
Nakashima made it clear that these works are not nostalgic for times gone by. If anything, they are warnings of climate change and environmental degradation.
The speaker was first exposed to art as a career through his uncle, George Nakashima, the world-famous furniture maker and influential figure in revitalizing American craft in the 20th century.
Nakashima is often described as using both Eastern and Western aesthetics, although he says that is not entirely accurate.
When Nakashima started showing his work in the early 1980s, postmodernism and identity were beginning to be a significant issue in the art world.
“I had just done a number of traditional Japanese screens,” Nakashima said. “[From] 1980 to 1998, I did do a lot of work that did reflect that I am half Japanese on my father’s side, and German-Irish on my mother’s side.”
Now, though, Nakashima has moved away from some of these influences, and he does not consider himself a postmodernist.
“I’m still interested in aesthetics and visual art,” he said.
Philosophy and philosophers, however, remain important to his art.
“In undergraduate school, I had a minor in [philosophy], so it’s something I’ve always been interested in,” Nakashima said. “I can always lean on it to go in a new direction.”
Recently, he read The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Russian philosophical novel.
“I felt that I needed a greater grasp of continental philosophy,” he said.
The book inspired Nakashima to do a very large painting and a number of “satellite” works, the only book other than Moby Dick to inspire a series of paintings for him.
Even in his teaching, Nakashima tries to focus more on the ideas behind art than the process of creating it.
“I’m not as interested in technical things — my favorite [thing to teach] is upper level courses, where I can discuss ideas.”
While students can learn about acid etching times and paint mixing from books, discussions on inspiration can only happen among people.
“[In order to do art] one has to have at least a vague understanding of what their philosophy is,” Nakashima said.