Painter: Brooklyn, NY
This story begins in Kanazawa, Japan.
Fortunately and unfortunately, what I've written about the city of Kanazawa has been verified by these disasters.
May we all be inclined to send whatever love, resources, and positive energy we can; and may we also continue to extend our confidence that the nation will rebuild and emerge stronger and even more brilliant than before.
The city of Kanazawa is green. And gold. And deep blue. And bright red. And perhaps in part from its geographic location—lying quietly between the Japan Alps on the east and the Sea of Japan on the west—many of its ancient roads, structures, landscapes, and colors have been preserved, uninterrupted, into the 21st century.
Not long after that century turned, artist Rebecca Bird finished her undergraduate studies and emerged in Kanazawa. Painting. Cradled in the lower back of the dragon that is Japan. Not exactly close to home.
“It was really important to me to go. I wanted to learn about painting from a different perspective, you know? We have our history of painting, it’s like a straight line, and I kind of wanted to approach it from a different angle. It didn’t have to necessarily be the Japanese history of painting, but at least one other history of painting.”
Japan did have a certain appeal. She studied the language for three years, fascinated by the sounds, the characters, the ways in which they can be written with a brush. Then she’d earn a Fulbright Grant to study Nihonga, a way of painting that recaptures and protects the methods and materials used over thousands of years of Japanese art, at the Kanazawa College of Art and Craft.
“One thing that’s very interesting is that art training in Japan is completely different than art school here. There are really specific steps you have to take. First you draw the chicken, and then you draw the fish, and everybody does the same thing, and you really are not supposed to do your own thing at all until maybe your final year, or when you graduate.”
There’s an ultra-traditional kind of elegance to the method. Yet in another way it led to a very difficult situation. Rebecca’s proposal was to do a series of paintings, and she only had one year in which to complete it. But the four-year structure of the school was set. No changing that. And no one was sure how to fit her in.
“Basically the instructors at the school wanted me to try to do the whole undergraduate course in one year, which was pretty time consuming. So after about six months we kind of had…we didn’t have a conflict. I just stopped going. The rest of the time I was there I was pretty much living in an apartment and working by myself, just living in Japan alone. And striking up some random friendships. It was kind of intense.”
Still working through the Fulbright, she’d explore areas less explored: the nearby Noto peninsula. Kyoto. Temples. Mountains. Historic sites. Painting all the while, and still embracing Nihonga.
“I’m really interested in materials used for painting. I learned all kinds of really interesting techniques. Things about how they use pigments, how they use materials there that is different than what I have learned here.”
Now, when you look at Rebecca’s paintings today you’ll be aware that she didn’t become a Nihonga artist. But speak with her for a moment and you’ll sense that much of what she learned and experienced in Japan remains with her in more diffuse ways. She’d take it all back to the states, to Brooklyn NY, and would continue painting. Things, thoughts, feelings would develop inside her for years before I’d come across her work. And what first caught me, when I first came across her name, was this.
Explosions. Isolated in watercolor. For me, it’s the most basic little boy inside who reacts first. And he loves what he’s seeing. The massive energy. The bright colors. The shapes and patterns. Just awesome, he says. He can’t get enough, wanting to create a different sound effect with his mouth for each explosion as he looks on. Jumping up and throwing his arms out wide to help describe the scene. Each outburst louder and more emphatic, again and again, as long as the images keep coming.
But in all the excitement, I’ve overlooked something. These explosions are occurring in empty space. There’s nothing else around. No land. No buildings. No human element. And therefore, no scale. Suddenly it hits me – there’s no way to tell how big or small the explosions are. I can’t tell how hot or cold they are. I can’t tell how loud or quiet they are. I can’t even tell what materials they’re made from.
Or how destructive they might be. And there’s the thing. I hadn’t attached anything negative to them. That suspension – it leaves me feeling a lot of things. Confused. Unsure. Sad at the devastation my mind is now linking to the paintings. For Rebecca, this is by design.
“It made me think of knowing something, but not knowing it, not having access to the knowledge in a useful way. Like how we all know that there are enough nuclear weapons in the world to kill everything on the planet, but that knowledge doesn't provoke a particular response or action in any of us, myself included. For this reason, it made sense that the explosions are somewhat difficult to identify. As I've painted them, they look like mushrooms or something organic. So I felt like the imagery functioned as a kind of exaggerated, overblown metaphor for my own trauma, and that relationship was in turn a reflection of a very human lack of proportion in how we understand.”
Something that floored me is that each painting is a re-presentation of an actual photograph found in the New York Public Library picture collection. Rebecca studied them hard, and very carefully recreated every minute detail she could. Look again. Try to concentrate on one little section. In a very small area you have months of studying and months of work. Imagine her getting into each part of the explosion. Each chemical reaction. The heat. The smoke. The physics and gravity and air. Each particle in its place. Painstaking. She smiled and showed me paintbrushes with the smallest of bristles that she’d use in order to control the watercolor, to keep it tight.
But I feel like behind those casual smiles there’s always intense focus and thought. She gets so close to the paintings, literally, figuratively, emotionally. Maybe that’s part of the reason why she says there’s so much emotion and personal content in her paintings that others don’t see.
“When I began that body of work I was at an impasse. I decided to try to directly represent what was happening in my imagined interior. I have a habit, probably other people do this too, of containing some negative emotion in a mental image—picturing some kind of violent force acting on my body. It may have to do with the irrational fondness we have for violent imagery in this culture. Anyway, I decided to look for images that had the kind of static force I had a habit of picturing to myself.”
Can you feel the tension and energy in that statement? Rebecca worked through the series of explosions for years. How and what she experienced inside one can only imagine. There are dozens of paintings. And I think there are still more to come. But lately she’s also been formulating new ideas and preparing new material. Searching, finding. And painting.
“I feel like I’ve been letting things really go in whatever direction, just to try to feel out possibilities. I’ve been more direct in a certain way about stuff. I’m doing stuff that’s like a specific, direct, readable story, maybe? Maybe it’s not as readable as I think it is.”
Maybe more than it was before? She agreed. But when I said I liked the direction in which she was going, she put her hand to her chin, looked into space, and after a long silence, said:
“I’m not sure if I do or not.”
Another silent moment. Then, as if she pulled herself out of a very deep place, continued.
“But anyways. Yeah. You kind of have to do things to find out whether you like them or not.”
Here’s the thing: Rebecca Bird’s story doesn’t begin in Kanazawa. It doesn’t end with these explosions. And even though she’s shown me some of her new paintings, I’m reticent to reveal much more. There’s something very deep and very special about what’s going on inside of her; something very valuable that is still taking shape.
Which I think is really good. It’s necessary. It’s a wonderful process. And I’d guess it’s always been there.
(images c/o Rebecca Bird)