Norma: Gift of Spirit
© Dawn E. Nakanishi, 1993
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Dawn E. Nakanishi, 1997
My art develops from a variety of different sources. As a third generation Northern Californian, I have been fortunate to grow up in an area with diverse natural beauty. My close knit family and Japanese American heritage are roots from which I continually draw strength. Personal environment is a key inspiration to my work. The house where I grew up had a major influence on my early perceptions. It was the quintessential "California" home, designed by an architect named Eichler. He believed western homes should take advantage of the temperate climate and bring the "outside in." All of his tract homes were designed with open beamed ceilings, enclosed private atriums and floor to ceiling windows. Some windows soar to 14 feet high. Our atrium was landscaped by my parents with many tropical plants that grew right next to the window. I witnessed the appearance of new shoots in the early spring to the budding and blooming of my mother's Birds of Paradise. I watched tiny black ants through our plate glass window, snaking long caravans to and from their den. Growing up in this home made me keenly aware of natural phenomena.
I grew up a swimmer, swimming competitively for fifteen years from age five to twenty. California in the sixties and seventies was the world capital for Olympic class swimming, especially in the Santa Clara Valley. I swam for the Santa Clara Swim Club, the same team as Mark Spitz, Don Shollander, and Donna de Varona, all gold medallists. I too had success in becoming an age group national champion at age ten. Mild climate enabled year round training in outdoor swimming pools. My swimming regime helped develop several skills. The day-to-day training was a ritual experience for me, placing my mind in a meditative state. I would be in the pool for two to four hours a day, six days a week. The sounds I was most aware of while swimming were my breathing and heartbeat. I would dream while swimming. The discipline required to train for many hours taught me lessons in patience and fortitude. My early experiences in swimming developed a capacity for concentration, mindfulness and love of training and skill, which have contributed to my work as an artist and teacher.
My interest in jewelry making and teaching began in high school. Mr. John Fagrell was my art teacher and mentor. He taught me jewelry making as an art form and inspired a commitment towards art and education. For two years I was his studio assistant. I discovered a love for tools and a talent for teaching craft skills. In my senior year, I was awarded a commission by the Fremont Union High School District to design and execute a pendant for their retiring superintendent. I decided in high school to set my goal to becoming a metal artist and college educator.
I attended graduate school at San Diego State University, where I studied with Professors Helen Shirk and Arline Fisch. There I concentrated on metalsmithing with an emphasis on jewelry. My thesis work was entitled "Shellforms and Fragments" based on the forms inspired by marine shells.
neckpiece, sterling silver
11" x 8" x 1/2"
© Dawn E. Nakanishi, 1982
This body of work developed during 1979 to 1982. I concentrated on mastering smithing techniques as well as finding my own aesthetic. It was important for me to capture the beauty of natural form and line, without copying nature in graphic rendition. Manipulating metal so it appeared "soft" and to "float" on one's clothing or body was a desired goal. Dynamic forms and asymmetric compositions were favored elements in this series.
After graduate school, I began to teach in the Bay Area at various institutions. In 1985, I joined the faculty at San Francisco State as their instructor in Metal Arts and Jewelry.
In 1990, I entered the MFA program in Spatial Arts at San Jose State University. I decided this was the perfect time in my life to achieve this goal. I chose the Spatial Arts program because I wanted to explore and stretch my capabilities. During my graduate program at San Jose State, I maintained my regular teaching load at SFSU. Going to graduate school and being a teacher at the same time was extremely rewarding for both myself and my students. Sharing information and discussions from seminars added another dimension to my courses. I was fortunate to be able to participate as both student and instructor. As a jeweler and metalsmith, I am accustomed to making small objects that communicate, command a sense of themselves and are frequently presented as a gift to another person. I began to regard my MFA experience as a gift, and my peers to be an important part of my growth. The "Gift of Spirit Series" grew out of this need to commemorate individuals who were a part of that growth. I made a gift for each member of our seminar. Each gift was made from selected rocks gathered in the San Juan Islands years before. Certain rocks by their appearance suggest an inherent power. Many cultures throughout history attributed power to rocks. I chose a rock with specific qualities for each individual in our group, and added copper, brass, or other elements to emulate that person. In making each gift, they became the individual. I presented each gift after telling a story of how the earth was created by fire, mineral, and water. We are all these elements, and this gift was to mark that moment in our lives touching together as we continued down the river of life. It symbolized our exchange and acknowledged our spirit. For many of my colleagues, the gift has become an object of power. The presentation was made in a darkened room. There were small plants and a receptacle of water with beach rocks on a table. This was personally a powerful experience and led to working with room size environments.
Norma: Gift of Spirit
San Juan Island Beach Rocks, 4' x 1'
© Dawn E. Nakanishi, 1993
I became interested in experimenting with larger rocks and bodies of water. My MFA Candidacy exhibition was an installation entitled "Cycle: Voices Remembered." It incorporated pieces from the "Gift of Spirit" series and other natural materials. The presence of the gift rocks were to imbue the space with my interpretation of soul, and the cycle of life. My intention was for this to be an interior garden and a meditative space. The finished piece yielded a profound sense of time standing still. The gallery was very dark with only two light sources. Brilliant gold gingko leaves line the floor and scent the air with autumn perfume. I had built a pond that presented a cave-like coolness to the air. Suspended gingko and flame red maple leaves float in space surrounding two water sculpted boulders. The boulders were surrounded by black and red river stones suggesting the fire of creation. There are small droplets of water that fall from a concealed bucket from the ceiling. Each drop creates echoing ripples on the pond and creates silent, watery reflections on the walls and ceiling. There is almost a sensation of being underwater.
Installation work has challenged me in different ways compared to working in jewelry. In jewelry, I have complete control in terms of picking up the piece, turning it around and altering it. Making spiritual gardens has taught me how to rely on people and forced me to work in community with others on large visions. Still in many respects, there are close similarities in the process of how I work in both formats. Sensitivity to materials and their essence is important in both forms of communication. Care must be taken in washing each rock before it goes into the pond, or else the pond will be murky. Placing rocks gently down by hand or by an engine hoist must done carefully lest the plastic liner punctures, creating a disastrous leak. The craftsperson's attention to detail is important in the grander scale of my environments.
My MFA exhibition was titled "Elements of Life and the Soul." It dealt with similar themes of nature, life, death and the metaphysical. Reference to my Japanese heritage was made by asking viewers to remove their shoes before entering the space. This was a symbolic invitation to the viewer for transformation. A stone path to the main room had words etched on each step: "Life is a River, a Journey of the Soul." The pond and rocks were larger and more problematic than the prior show. A garden soaker hose was suspended above the pond to create sound and water reflection in the space. A circulation pump attached to the hose supplied a quiet trickle of water through the system. California bay leaves were placed on the floor providing an earthy aroma. These trees are commonly found around the creeks and streams in Northern California. Their smell immediately reminds me of summer outings and contemplation.
Elements of Life and the Soul
Indigo boulders, river rock, gingko and maple leaves,
monofilament and water
© Dawn E. Nakanishi, 1993
I was invited to do a show at The University of The South in Sewanee, Tennessee. This installation was a new challenge because it was a collaboration piece. I worked with Robert Coogan, a metalsmith and jeweler. He had been working on creating vessel forms that evoked a sense of ancient cultures. We titled the exhibition "Poetics of Time," before specifically knowing what it would be. I knew we would use all materials indigenous to the area in Sewanee. I had one week on site to plan, gather material and develop the work in the gallery. Robert joined me on Thursday. We also had the assistance of several enthusiastic sculpture students. Doing an installation can be a bit of a roller coaster ride. A lot of things are unplanned and done by the seat of your pants. This was an entirely different way of making art from what I was accustomed. It is rather exhilarating! Unplanned things happened, like a snow flurry, which delayed the forklifts from bringing the sandstone to the gallery. We saved 5 hours of time when a sculpture student-volunteer fireman brought his fire truck to fill the pond. The gallery went from empty, to a completely installed show in 24 hours. The human dynamics of our group was incredibly effective.
Poetics of Time
collaborative installation, sandstone, copper vessels
© Dawn E. Nakanishi and R. Coogan, 1994
The work in Sewanee communicated on many levels. The word "Sewanee" is traced back to an Algonquian tribal word meaning, "south". The school sits on a high flat mountain, once the home for indigenous people. The university's roots grew from theology since the school was established by the Episcopalian Diocese. Using material that had a natural connection to the area, combined with Robert Coogan's vessel forms, created a space steeped in time and history. The suspended sandstone over the pond has a natural pattern of a landscape, much like a Chinese brush painting. Two small water pumps percolated water through rock formations creating water reflections on the walls and ceiling. The gallery was dark except for a few spotlights. The stone pendant suspended above the water creates a white reflection in the water, like a light of energy. A visiting cleric commented that our work reminded him of the Bible story of Bethesda. An angel comes down and touches the water, which becomes the pond that heals those who seek it.
As an artist living in a multi-ethnic area which celebrates and honors diversity, I was invited to participate in a "Dia de Los Muertos" exhibition at Laney College in Oakland. I was the only Asian artist installing an altar among many other artists from Mexican American, Native American, and Salvadoran backgrounds. Although we were from different cultural backgrounds, the spirit of our pieces flowed from one source: honoring our ancestors, honoring the spirit of the earth, and viewing death as only a part of the experience of life and the hereafter. My altar was a quiet fountain surrounded by rocks, leaves, and leafless tree branches. I placed tangerines and a small bowl of rice by the water as an offering to the spirits of the dead. The words below were written near the pond to remind us that we are elements of the earth:
My most recent installation, which was on display December 1997, is a collaboration with Terry Acebo Davis, a fellow artist of Anglo and Filipina extraction. The piece is titled "Walk in My Shoes," and is a participatory work involving the community. The "community" refers to the family and friends of Terry and myself, including the community where the piece is being exhibited. The community may participate by bringing their rubber sandals, often called by other names as "zories," "thongs," "flip flops," and placing them in the installation. We chose the rubber sandals because almost everyone owns a pair. The sandals are cheap and egalitarian. The concept of the piece was born from our friendship. As a Japanese American and a Filipina American, we realized had we grown up in our mother country, it was quite possible that we would not be friends due to World War II. We wanted to honor our parents and grandparents for risking their lives by coming to this country and enduring racial and economic hardships. This piece is about honoring one another. Each sandal has the name of the donor and their mother's maiden name and their father's name handwritten on the sandal. A guest book was placed next to the installation to allow people to write about whom they were commemorating. The people who responded left beautiful tributes and dedications to their loved ones. Many stories of appreciation of parents' sacrifices were commemorated on pages by loving children. The piece became the community's artwork.
As an artist who has worked from wearable to room size, I appreciate how all these expressions share a common human spirit. It is probably the major reason why I became a teacher and an artist: to share spirit, knowledge and experience. As a teacher I am both gift giver and receiver. This exchange makes my life incredibly meaningful.
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All text and and artwork are © Dawn E. Nakanishi,
unless otherwise noted.