Tom Nakashima - Finding Meaning

By Broadus-Garcia, Cassandra | School Arts, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Tom Nakashima - Finding Meaning


Broadus-Garcia, Cassandra, School Arts


Tom Nakashima is an American of Japanese and Canadian heritage. He is the great grandson of a samurai warrior honored by the emperor Meiji and the nephew of famed furniture maker George Nakashima. But, Nakashima knows what it is like to be an outsider. While many of Nakashima's relatives were sent to the internment camps during WWII, Tom and his family were spared because his father was a physician attached to the U.S. Army. He was left behind being the only Eurasian child in their Iowan community. Although spared from imprisonment in his own country, he remembers traveling around the country to pick up cherished possessions left behind by relatives who were not so fortunate.

When Nakashima recently traveled to Japan to explore his Japanese heritage, he had already "decided that I would never quite convince people of the fact that I was an American, so I set out on my quest to become a Japanese." Nakashima consequently became satisfied with being "neither Japanese nor American, " stating, " That's what my work is about".

Nevertheless, this well-known Washington D.C. artist and teacher, a sansei, or third-generation Japanese-American, has not always identified with his heritage. Growing up as a Roman Catholic in Iowa, Tom was deeply affected by Catholicism and it is reflected in some of his artwork. Although he is no longer Catholic, the ritual aspect of this faith left a lasting impression on him.

Allegorical Images

The background information makes it interesting to try to unravel the imagery of Nakashima's art. This includes an appropriation of Christian iconography from such artists as Giotto and Sasetta as well as cultural icons from Japanese traditions. Nakashima says that the symbols come to him while he is working and suggest possible symbolic meanings later. He considers his artwork allegorical, asking us to view them in many different ways.

Grounded in abstract painting, Nakashima operates more as a Surrealist. He has adopted the compositional device of staging, and often makes use of intense, de Chirico-like shadows and ominous open spaces as settings for his temple-like structures. Nakashima creates a certain mystery by isolating signature images, such as a fish or a turtle, and giving them a visual power by placing them in a central location within the composition. These images have been seen, at times, as having significant meanings. For example, Nakashima explains that, in an earlier work, a salmon "represented his father, himself, the brevity of life, male aggression/obsession and reincarnation."

During a recent conversation with the artist, Nakashima talked about the turtle and how the shell is its protection. At the same time, however, the shell can be its burden. if the turtle tips over, the weight of the shell leaves the turtle vulnerable, unable to move and open for danger.

The artist tries to present imagery that can be read in many different ways. As with an allegory, his works become symbolic narratives. "It gets deeper and more interesting as you try to unravel and comprehend it," explains Nakashima. He wants the viewer to interpret his artwork and draw from it limitless ideas and personal meanings.

A Closer Look at Turtle

In this work, a squared-off, triangular roof structure dominates the composition. Inspired by Italian Renaissance painter Sasetta, Nakashima has redrawn Sasetta's chapel to present an awkward perspective, opening up the sides of the structure so that can easily see what's inside. …

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