The Death of Nature
By Meg Quinn
Tom Nakashima climbs a wooden ladder unconcerned about the height he is ascending or the shaking of the ladder. He climbs to a large rolled canvas and begins to untie the fabric, a series of strings that otherwise keep the canvas suspended and tightly rolled. As he unties each string, the canvas begins to drop.
Nakashima continues to climb, working his way up and down the ladder, moving along the length of the canvas until it is completely unfurled. At first glance the size is what captivates; but soon the image draws the viewer in.
Standing back a life-sized landscape of an abandoned field emerges. The focus of the image is a large pile of trees--with limbs reaching out in every direction, thrown haphazardly one atop the other. Looking closer still, the viewer takes in images and text partially obscured by the paint and pile of trees.
Nakashima’s work process is something that he has mastered over years of creating these large-scale paintings--sometimes stretching to dozens of feet long, rising floor to ceiling in ordinary-sized rooms. He begins with a photograph.
He next lays a grid atop the photograph, which corresponds to another he has measured and carefully mapped onto a large sheet of canvas. He then turns his attention to one section of the photograph and paints along the canvas working square by square.
This technique allows him to create large paintings one piece at a time. Some of Nakashima’s paintings are layered over images culled from magazines and newspapers. This is done to create texture and to increase the feeling of objects being piled on top of one another. The artist sometimes uses only strips of newspaper to create the entire image.
Nakashima’s work typically revolves around a central element in each painting, whether a bird, boar, or pile of lumber.
“I tend to take one single object and place it more or less in the center of the frame of the painting, so that the composition is basically symmetrical,” the artist observed.
The size of the painting is also very important to Nakashima. He prefers working in a large format, especially with his series of tree pile paintings. “I did the tree piles very large because I felt like they had a kind of heroic feel to them and I knew I couldn’t convey that with a small scale.”
Nakashima’s work is inspired by images that affect him strongly. Tree piles from an orchard in Virginia inspired the tree pile paintings. The trees that caught his attention had been pulled up by their roots and then piled: not strewn but deliberately and purposefully layered.
While these may have looked to the casual observer like discarded wood, they were in fact used to draw bees into the orchard where they might build natural hives among the decaying branches: a preferred habitat. Having bees at the margins of the orchard is useful because it brings them closer to the fruit trees and encourages their pollination.
There is also a kind of paradox in the organic structure of these hives against the carefully configured rows of fruit trees. Nakashima has formed a strong sense of the ecology of his subjects and sensitivity to methods involving deforestation.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that an orchard, while it can appear to be nature to people of the modern era, is a synthetic forest--grown not in the way nature intends it to be grown, but how man deems it necessary. Man has given meaning to the trees saying that these trees are for him--which, to me, is the wrong way of looking at nature.”
The Fire House Gallery is delighted to exhibit these extraordinary paintings, including several of the artist’s largest tree pile works and many of his smaller studies and painted mosaics.
Among the unusual accompanying pieces is a beautiful byobu or painted Japanese folding screen of invisibly hinged, joined panels that allow the work to fold completely closed whether turned in either direction. The artist helped to bring this technique to U.S. audiences in workshops for artists and woodworkers.
Other work includes a series of five small portraits to complement the 30-foot canvas “Brothers Karamazov.” Reading Dostoevsky’s novel,
Nakashima explained that he “wrote in the back cover of the book, the names of several friends who would remain in [his] mind’s eye as stand-ins for each of the members of the Karamazov family.”
Thus Derek Guthrie became Fyodor Karamazov and his oldest son the soldier Dimitri (Mitya) was represented by Ray Whiting, an administrator at Georgia Regents University and husband to a former Fire House Gallery exhibitor.
The kindly monk Alyosha’s (Alexey’s) image was filled by Nakashima’s friend Aaron Brock and Aaron’s real-life brother Ethan Brock played the part of the philosophical atheist Ivan (Vanka). Joey Hart stood in for Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov.
Nakashima’s exhibition Nature Morte will run at The Fire House Gallery in Louisville from Dec. 4 through Dec. 21. There will be an opening reception, free to the public, on Saturday, Dec. 7, from 7 to 9 p.m.