It’s fortunate for us here in the 21st century, that a man of the 20th century saved many things – letters, books, travel notes, photographs, business records and drawings among them.
Both George Nakashima, a major figure in the American Craft Movement, and his wife, Marion, were savers who left a treasure trove of objects and writings.
In the group were letters home during George’s world travels, letters to friends and associates, letters to René d’Harnoncourt (curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), notes and drafts for speeches and his autobiography, drawings, photographs, architectural assignments from college, and well-used passports.
Now his nephew, John Nakashima, an Emmy-Award winning public television producer, is closing in on completion of a documentary about George Nakashima’s life.
John is one of the sons of George’s brother Victor, a physician. Of the four children of Katsuharu and Suzu Nakashima, Victor is the only one who was not sent to an internment camp during World War II. That’s because he was a major in the U.S. Army, when the war began.
John had been thinking about doing a film on George Nakashima for years but it was not until 2000 that he was able to start the research. PBS had done a short film and National Geographic Explorer made a 15-minute film in 1987 but John Terry realized those films had barely scratched the surface.
“I thought everything that needed to be done had been done,” John said in a phone interview shared with Mira Nakashima, George’s daughter and leader of the Nakashima Woodworkers Studio today.
“When I started looking into it, there was a lot more to tell. It’s an amazing story, his searching for knowledge and enlightenment.” After years of searching, George would reach his goal at 30 years old.
When George was a teenager, he wandered the forest on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, where he lived. He studied architecture at the University of Washington and won a scholarship to Harvard – he stayed only a few weeks. He found another scholarship at MIT and earned a second architecture degree there. He worked for the Long Island State Park Commission but lost the job during the Great Depression, in 1929, then set off to see the world, with a $295 open-ended steamer ticket that let him hop from one country to another.
George stayed a while in France, living a bohemian life, studying at the Ecole Americaine des Beaux-Arts, He had a job, copying sheet music and delivering the copies backstage at Paris music halls.
The next stop, Japan, would lead George to his vocation.
He worked in the studio of Antonin Raymond, who had been sent by Frank Lloyd Wright to work on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. At the Raymond Studio, Junzo Yoshimura, helped George immerse in the aesthetics of Shinto and the belief that all of Nature is spiritual.
Although George had grown in the Japanese culture in America, the deep experience in Tokyo was a significant influence.
“Yoshimura, at the Raymond office,” Mira said, “took George under his wing, took him to hidden places in Japan.”
In 1936, Raymond sent George to the ashram of Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry, India, to help design and supervise construction of a dormitory. George stayed for two years; he became a disciple of the ashram’s leader. George’s notebooks and drawings, still preserved at the ashram, became one of the sources for John’s research.
Amid rumbles of war, George returned to Tokyo, where he met Marion Okajima, a graduate of UCLA and teacher of English and, like George, a descendant in a Samurai family. They married in Los Angeles in 1941.
Mira was born the next year in Seattle. Soon after she was born, the family was relocated to a camp in Minidoka, Idaho.
And in the camp, an unexpected opportunity arose for George Nakashima. He found Gentaro Hikogawa, a woodworker who had been trained in traditional Japanese carpentry. George learned to use the Japanese tools and the techniques of traditional Japanese joinery.
In Japan, Mira explained, woodworkers and carpenters had to be born into a Daiku family. Others were prohibited from doing that work. “But when we were incarcerated,” Mira said, “Dad was put on a project with a master carpenter, doing work that real Japanese could not do.”
Family members, including uncles and aunts and cousins managed to live close to one another but Mira pointed out that George’s brother Theodore was placed under high security. He had protested that the internment was unconstitutional because members of the family were American citizens.
It was through Antonin and Noemi Raymond that the Nakashimas found their way to Solebury Township. Noemi petitioned the War Relocation Authority (WRA) for a laborer on the farm where the Raymonds moved after leaving Japan. George was hired to take care of chickens but he eventually was able to buy three acres on a south-facing slope, on Aquetong Road where he could make furntiure. That is still the site of the Nakasima workshop and homes, and a National Historic Landmark.
Among the fascinating interviews of George Nakashima that are included in the film are a Studs Terkel radio show and an early “Fresh Air” piece with Terry Gross. Mario Golia and Adam Martini, woodworkers in George’s studio are interviewed and John especially enjoyed an interview with Tom Hucker, a woodworker from Hoboken, N.J. Hucker is featured in the book, “The Makers Hand: American Studio Furniture, 1940-1990.”
In 2000, Mira and John traveled to India and Japan to find material for the film. Mira, who had studied in Japan, was able to conduct interviews in Japanese. That was the beginning of research that has continued.
“It’s a super-complex subject,” John said.
From 1:30 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21, the Nakashima Foundation for Peace will host a benefit preview with John of an excerpt from the definitive documentary, “George Nakashima, Woodworker in New Hope, Pennsylvania.”
In support of the documentary an exclusive reception will be held in the Nakashima Conoid Studio. Max Hansen is the caterer and Celtic harpist Darcy Fair will perform. Members of the public are welcome to attend the reception for a donation of $175 per person.
Following the reception, at 3 p.m., a benefit screening will be held in the Nakashima Arts Building.
The Arts Building was donated to the Nakashima Foundation for Peace in 2004 by George’s widow, Marion, to provide the Foundation with a permanent home. It features a soaring plywood hyperbolic paraboloid roof cantilevered from stone buttresses over two glass walls, built around a small pond.
This event is a 30-minute showing of an excerpt of the documentary Tickets are available to the public for a donation of $100 a person with all proceeds supporting the documentary and preservation of the architectural structures of the Nakashima compound.
For tickets contact nakashimafoundation.org/events/documentary/