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Jean Nagai | An Interview

This week we introduce Jean Nagai to Tappan. Based in Olympia, Washington, Jean creates intricate paintings that exude transcendental themes rooted in cultural explorations and connecting to our higher self. We asked Jean some questions about his work and what has influenced his practice. Read our interview with him below. 

Describe your work in 3 words.

Celestial, landscape, worship.


Tell us a little bit about this series of paintings on Tappan?

This series is a continuation of some concepts I’ve been exploring in my work for a while now.  Essentially, I’m trying to describe my relationship as a physical being to the spiritual universe; i.e. using physical materials to describe something immaterial.


Each piece tells such a unique story and your dot placement seems so strategized. Tell us about how you make these decisions, what inspires you. Do you see an overarching theme before completing a piece, or do you figure it out as you go along?

I believe I work as intuitively as possible, and that’s because while I can identify the germ of an idea and then be able to innately grasp when the piece has finished, I deliberately allow the work I do in between those moments up to meditative, hypnotic determination.  For example, I might take a walk and notice a cloud or a leaf and forget the literal shape of what I saw, only to see it gradually reemerge after I’ve spent a lot of time alone with a painting.


What is the history and inspiration behind using the blue? Tell us about that.

Blue is the void, blue is the sky, and blue is seas. These elements are all important to me and to think about as a living being on this planet. I am also fascinated with indigo and its universal application and magnetic appeal, but especially in Japanese textile.   Probably the most important encounter I had with the potential of the color blue happened one summer when I went to the  Yves Klein Museum in Nice, France and got immersed in IKB (International Klein Blue), which of course reflects how Klein felt such a compelling attraction to blue that he was obsessively driven to mix his own unique shade and claim it as his own work of art onto itself.  Furthermore on the Klein thread, I’ve come to realize over time that I have an affinity to French culture—it probably started when my parents deliberately gave me a French name.  By the same token, Yves Klein cultivated his own obsession with Japanese art and culture (he had a black belt in Judo), and it could easily be said that Japanese prints inspired the Art Nouveau movement—people didn’t really understand what it meant to flatten an image before they saw those.


Last gallery show you went to?

I just went to the History of Indigo Dye show at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. There was so much inspiring work there!  I definitely felt a kinship with many of the artists, whom I believe were using the inherently mysterious and elusive quality of indigo to try to establish a personal connection to nature or the spiritual world; a connection many of us have lost to creatively neutering modes of thought, like pop culture and religion.


Have the cities you’ve lived in influenced your practice? If so, tell us a bit about that, and what elements in particular steered you in certain directions.

I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest my entire life, and the cities here are fine, a decent mixture of nature and urban. But I used to spend my summers working up in Alaska and the landscape and the vastness of the sky there has influenced me significantly in terms of scale. My first year working up there was on a sight seeing boat and we would spend all day every day cruising through this incredibly massive fjord—it would take at least three hours if not more just to cross it once.  And so, our comparatively tiny boat would glide down this pass, surrounded by whales and porpoises and seals raising their pups, and on either side of the divide you would see waterfalls streaming majestically down thousands of feet of sheer rock.  Then at the end of the fjord you find the thing that carved this incredible path through the land in the first place, and it’s a 400 ft glacier—easily half a mile long.  And on top of that we’d spend the rest of the day watching this ancient glacier fall apart, and sometimes pillars of ice the size of skyscrapers would splinter off into the ocean. 

Once in awhile, the entire face of the glacier would come down at once and that is probably the most beautiful, awe-inspiringly destructive act I have ever seen, and I witnessed it with my own eyes.  And you know, just as a postscript, and it goes without saying, but when you can conjure anything on the internet these days, experiencing authentically clandestine moments like that make them all the more precious and sacred.    


Best gift you’ve ever received?

Having a deep connection to humans and animals. That’s love.


What is your favorite quote?

“listen”- Jon Hendriks


What country do you wish to visit?

I’d love to visit Bali one day to hear people play the gamelan.


Tell us about your community, is there a strong community of artists there?

These days my peer community is mostly web based. I live in Olympia and this is mainly a  rock n roll boogie town and there aren’t too many artists my age here I connect with.  However there is an established artistic community in Olympia led almost exclusively by older women, and their careers and passion are a constant source of inspiration to me.  I consider many of them mentors, I hope the feeling is mutual.


What makes you nervous?

The government and corporations who work together to trick the public into thinking that muslims or blacks or other marginalized people are the problem in the world when its them who are perpetuating this fear and  destroying this planet and creating disease and poverty for the rest of us.


What makes you laugh no matter what? 

My own self deprecating  jokes.


What's one accomplishment you're most proud of?

Keeping my dog Reggie alive for 8 years.


What's the bravest thing you've ever done?

Hugging a person I despise.


What is one artist living or dead you feel a great connection to? Someone whose work has inspired your own practice and what you’re creating these days?

There are so many good artists out there. I have always been inspired by my friend, Dana Dart Mclean, I’m always baffled and inspired  by her simple and poetic gestures of paint or  a piece of scrap paper becomes art. We have jokes for each other and I like to call her “poor Matisse” based on a dream I had where she transformed an entire house into a work of art using the slightest everyday materials, but these days I think she is more of a “sunny Duchamp” in her practice of art. 


What’s the first thing you do when you begin formulating an idea for a piece?

I crudely sketch it out on a piece of paper and then I slowly recreate that drawing on a canvas. The sketch is extremely vague and generally focused on movement, so a lot of dashes.  It goes to follow that the finished piece doesn’t resemble the sketch much but I enjoy the process of trying to lose control over something I never had control over in the first place.


What work took you the longest to complete?

I made a large drawing (40”x60”) that I started in 2007 and didn’t complete it until 2012? I took many breaks, but it I spent hundreds of hours on that drawing. It’s called “American Dreamer” and I gave it to my partner.


Tell us about some of your favorite artists.

The usual suspects, the classics.  I love  Yayoi Kusama, and Geogia O’keefe’s early work, Helen Frankenhaler, and Robert Morris. Isamu Noguchi, and  I also love Matisse and Monet. I also like Barry Mcgee and Howard Finster.  As far as contemporary artists, I really like my friends who have a practice of focussing on their ideas. Some names I can think of right now are Brent Wadden, Alexander Tovborg, and Alex Heilbron, Louise Despont,  Michael Swaney. There are so many artists out there and I’m really not very informed on contemporary artists.


What’s one habit you wish you could break?

Not being present in the moment.


Who was your favorite teacher in school?

I had a photography teacher named John Wesley. He was in many ways my first art teacher and he introduced me to contemporary artists like Duane Michaels, Robert Frank and Harry Callahan.


What's one thing you still have from your childhood?

I have a hook yarn rug of a polar bear that my mother made.


What's one thing you've always wanted to try but you've been too scared to do?

Live in a big city.


What else are you working on right now?

Right now, I am working on a book and making a kite. 


When do you make your best work?

I make my best work when I am feeling loose and focused.


Regarding your method of making, is it a case of the material or method dictating the idea of the other way around?

I started using correctional fluid because many of my friends were using it to make flyers  and as a general artistic outlet, and I was looking for a medium that was clean and opaque and dried quickly. This was around the time the #blacklivesmatter movement  started and then I began thinking about American history and whiteness  and whiting out culture, also known as silencing of people of color.


Is art making therapeutic for you?

Yes, art making is therapeutic if I want it to be. Breathing fresh air, walking, and sharing meals with friends are also therapeutic activities.


What motivates you?

For most of my youth, I helped my parents run a little cafe.  They worked excruciatingly long hours every single day, for years.  And they fucking hated it.  To me it feels like a huge privilege to be making art as an occupation.  If I’m going to be an artist the least I can do is work as hard as they did.


What’s your studio philosophy?

Keep it clean, keep it fun,  pain is part of life but not forever, and I can’t be satisfied until I’ve proven to myself that I did something worthwhile that day.


How many hours do you try and work in the studio per week?

I spend about 50 to 70 hours a week in the studio.


Silence or sound while creating? If sound, what?

I love listening to something with a beat. That sound that has been around forever. . House or techno. Been listening to much more  jazz  and classical these days. lt all depends  on my mood. I like silence too. I do enjoy the gentle repetition of the record spinning quietly.


Any advice to aspiring artists?

I really think that we should believe in ourselves—partly because if you’re not bravely committing yourself you won’t be doing your best work, so why bother?  That being said, also there is a whole incredible world around us so be aware of how you interact with it.


What’s next? 

I will be working on some larger scale work and I’d like to paint some more murals.This past year, I helped paint a few murals based on Leonard Peltier’s paintings to raise awareness of his wrongful imprisonment for a crime he did not commit. 


Explore Jean's collection on Tappan here.