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American artist breaks boundaries with "nihonga"

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1999-10-01

Allan West has a gift for creating scenes of nature that transcend the boundaries of our senses. He does this through an ancient form of Japanese art called "nihonga," and in doing so the American artist has captured the attention of many collectors of fine Japanese art, with his pieces featured at numerous exhibitions. His work is currently on display at the Garden Museum in Chatan until October 24.

Standing in front of any one of West's paintings, you immediately notice the power behind every swirl, every line. He has managed to utilize the special technique of nihonga to bring out the wind, warmth, and vigor behind the nature around us - things that can not be seen, but only felt. He paints these creations mainly on folding screens, making its energy become separate from everything else around it.

West's career began at a very early age, when he used whatever was available during his childhood years to draw, paint, and create. "At that period the thing that was already interesting for me was plant life," said West about his favorite subject. "Essentially, that was the beginning of my most favorite theme, being the vitality and energies we see in nature."

While West was still attending high school he started to explore different mediums to better express his ideas and thoughts about nature. "You know the wind is there, but you don't see it. I was looking for a way to paint that, but oils were too thick." he remembered. "To get that kind of a fluid line, you need a fluid paint, so I decided to make my own."

Although at the time West did not realize it, his search would bring him a step closer to discovering the Japanese art form of nihonga. "I was taking an art history class in high school and we were studying medieval paintings. We were working with rabbit skin glue, which was used during that time to prime an artist's canvas. (West explained that the material used was not actually a canvas but something similar.) I decided to mix powdered pigments with the glue to see if I could get the fluid paint that I was looking for," recalled West.

The experiment worked, but West was still not satisfied. His restlessness grew after entering Carnegie Mellon University to continue his art education, and after his second year, West decided to distance himself from Western art. The young artist left for Japan to travel, and came upon nihonga at an art exhibit in Tokyo. "I saw that the materials used looked very similar to what I had been using," he recalled.

The paint West was looking at was made from deer-bone glue mixed together with pigments derived from natural minerals. "It was much more transparent. It had a much more natural feel to it; the chemical pigments I had been using had too much of a plastic look to them."

West decided right away that this was the form of art he wanted to work with. He went back to finish his education and quickly returned to Japan through a temporary job offer. West then enrolled as a graduate student at Tokyo University of the Arts to learn the technique of nohanga - an art form that is facing extinction.

"Everything used for nihonga is made by an artisan," explained West. "The brushes are made by hand, the pigments, the gold leaf, everything."

West began painting his work on folding screens after failing to achieve the effect he was searching for. "I kept feeling that the flatness of the surface of the painting was acting as a barrier, so I began cutting holes in the canvas and creating layers and layering on top of the canvas. But I kept finding that the painting was looking more like a sculpture," said West. He found the folding screens were able to produce the images he was striving for, and has been working with them since.

Although many feel his work exemplifies Asian art, West says he gets his inspiration from his experiences with nature while he lived in Washington DC. Wherever his influences came from, one thing is for certain, West is helping to keep nihonga alive and giving pleasure to many lovers of art from around the world.

Directions: To get to the Garden Museum, turn left out of Kadena Gate 1. Turn left at the next traffic light onto Kokutai Road and continue going straight. After passing the restaurant "Hammer" on your right, turn right at the next light. The Garden Museum is located on your left, before the General gas station.

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