Nakamura navigates through Life

Steven Ward, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Vivacious. It is the first word that would come to mind, perhaps surprisingly, when one earned their first glimpse at the humble and gentle form of Yoshio C. Nakamura. His features lined with a lifetime filled with weariness, but prominently outshined by a solemnly inviting smile, that might’ve said, “Come, gather around to not hear me talk about what I’ve seen and felt, but show you.”

And show he did.

A USC alumni, former teacher at Rio Hondo College, an award-winning artist with pieces displayed at the Smithsonian, a decorated member of the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. Army, as well as dozens of other honors, Yoshio holds an abundance of life and inspiration that shined through in all his pieces. Nakamura, with the help of Robert Miller the Gallery Director and the rest of the staff, condensed over six decades of strife, learning, traveling, silent reflection and observation of war and nature into 41 chosen pieces out of 110. Which he talked about at the artist reception on Oct. 4.

Retrospective. It is the second word that a visitor would form in their mind, gazing into the brilliantly versatile pieces that hung along the walls; it is also the fitting title of the art show. From the depth of his experiences, Nakamura found outlets in numerous medias ranging from oils, watercolors, woodblock prints, sculptures, neopastels, and stencilgraphic monotypes. His choice of expression is as diverse and colorful as the life he has lived.

Sculptures like his Tumble and Tricycle Trio, allude to Nakamura’s intricate and conceptually unique view of the world around him. Each sculpture blended the often-crude forms of the physical world, like the human body, to the purpose of portraying it as something infinitely more elegant.

With their abstract shapes, overlapping colors, and surreal take on breathtaking landscapes, each of Nakamura’s pieces conveys, powerfully, the emotions he might have felt when he first gazed at sights like Bryce Canyon or the fields in Alabama. Pieces like Bryce Canyon and Bellrock Fantasy, with their red and orange hues and rocky forms, capture the simple ardor of the beauty in stagnant nature. Others like Paper Lantern and Crane and Generation of Kokeshi, expose his rich Japanese-American heritage that lines his life. A heritage that was the source of immense suffering later in his life in the form of internment in Arizona at the Gila River incarceration camp from 1942-1944.

This immense injustice was met, years later in 1990, when Nakamura and his wife, Grace Nakamura, revisited the internment camp at Manzanar. There they composed from the barbed wire and dirt fields a body of pieces that offered an inspiring glimpse into the beauty of nature, untarnished by years of cruel prejudice. In an interview conducted for the Densho Japanese-American Legacy Project in 2011, Nakamura stated that although art was a form of sanctuary for him, he said, “I haven’t dwelled on negative aspects. Being a victim doesn’t release you. Forgiveness frees you.”

No other theme or philosophy can be found so prominently displayed clearly throughout his multitude of works, within each brush stroke and piece of clay molded, Nakamura has infused the lessons learned of every obstacle faced and the joy of each happy place visited. From his time spent in Florence, Italy while on leave during his military service, to the moment he signed RHC’s first faculty contract in 1963, introducing printmaking to the curriculum and teaching a number of other mediums, Nakamura has lived a flourishing and colorful life forever defined in his pieces.

Staring deeply into the earliest work in the retrospective exhibit, a watercolor titled Nebraska at Dusk, 1949, it isn’t hard to imagine that as Nakamura dipped his brush into the water and paint, that he didn’t see something eerily promising hidden in the murky green fields and aging skyline. It might’ve been a sense of overwhelming desire to recreate the complexities of nature, to redesign it in his mind and with his own hands, or to share with others exactly what it is he feels and sees when he opens his eyes every morning.

Clarity. Purpose. Understanding. Overwhelming wonder. It is an emotion that cannot be constrained to one word, but expanded over a lifetime and 41 pieces, that define and illuminate Yoshio C. Nakamura. Not as a man who portrayed his life through art, nor as an artist that used his life as fuel for his creativity, but as something decidedly more unique.

Both a man and an artist; soldier and prisoner; teacher and student; honoree and honored—like the molding of clay and melding of colors, Nakamura is a singularly rare creation of his own making. And quite possibly, his own masterpiece.

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