Interviewsand Articles


Artist Tom Nakashima—A Way of Working

by Tom Nakashima/R. Whittaker, Aug 3, 2014



Tom Nakashima’s resumé is a long one with many awards, exhibitions and extensive university teaching experience. I met him a year ago and saw some of his work in person. I’m now an admirer of his work, both for its depth and its visual power. He sent me the following account of his way of working. – Richard Whittaker

"I make my paintings pretty much without “intention,” just working on an image that’s usually derived from something I’ve seen. Sometimes I’m inspired by something from the world of art and sometimes from quite ordinary things. All of these images would fall easily into a category of “things that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”

Most likely these are not images that would produce that same effect on others, but to me they seem profound. On rare occasions, when I see such an image, I carry it into my painting almost immediately.

I’ve never been interested in illustration and I’m not very good at it. But all of my work, since the introduction of images in 1980, begins with singular images that for some reason have moved me.

In 1982 I began a series of paintings and sculpture called Standing on Ground Zero which addressed the threat of thermonuclear war. Because I am Japanese American I had a special interest in this subject. My father was a medical officer who served in a field hospital in Burma, and later in Pakistan. While he was a patriot he always questioned the internment of his brothers and sister in Minidoka and Tule Lake, and the choice to bomb Japan.

Around 1985 I was studying meditation at the Transcendental Meditation Center in Washington, D.C. When I meditated I almost always fell into a sleep state. I shared this with my guru who responded simply, “If sleep comes, this is good.”

I finally concluded that for me painting is a form of meditation in itself. This is not to say that I’m in trance when I’m working, but rather that I enter a zone whereby I act and think in a manner that’s unencumbered by analysis, a manner of being that seems to follow a cadence (like a mantra) without interruptions for decision making and questioning. Sometimes my logical mind tries to stop me, to make me reflect on the piece. At those times it seems best if I force myself back into the rhythm of painting.

What one of my paintings means is something I ponder over and I often change my mind. I simply make the painting and then try to decide what it might mean. Perhaps I no longer carry with me my Roman Catholic baggage, which led me to believe that paintings had a magical thing called essence, or that they contained any intrinsic qualities. Logic is no longer on my list of necessities for good painting. I now have faith, but not in a God."

—Tom Nakashima,          


About the Author

More about artist Tom Nakashima here.


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