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  Issue Date: 5 / 2017  

Art Adventures in the Genius Belt: Bucks County, Pennsylvania

Iris Brooks


       "I decided early on to choose as my subject the entire earth, all terrains, all peoples, all animals . . . To know this earth as I have known it is to know a grandeur that is inexhaustible, and it has always been my desire to communicate that sense to others."
        -James A. Michener
       What do groundbreaking anthropologist Margaret Mead, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Michener, and lyricist/playwright and producer Oscar Hammerstein all have in common? These and many other cultural luminaries have lived in what has been dubbed "The Genius Belt," of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Writers Dorothy Parker, Nobel Prize for Literature winner Pearl S. Buck, and satirist S.J. Perelman were all drawn to this sought-after destination attracting creatives in many fields. Another visionary among them was architect and iconic furniture designer, George Nakashima, who worked with wood both skillfully and soulfully. His creations may be viewed in the permanent reading room at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown and on his estate in New Hope, with their arts building celebrating its 50th anniversary this month.

        Raised in Doylestown, prolific, best-selling author James Michener (1907-1997) was also an avid art collector and philanthropist who helped found the Michener Museum in a re-purposed building, which originally functioned as a prison dating from 1884. The museum's mission is to collect, preserve, and interpret American art with a particular regional focus on the cultural heritage of Bucks County. Striking contemporary sculptures and impressive, historic stone walls surround the exterior of the museum while the permanent collection houses world-class paintings. Those of the Pennsylvania impressionists include romantic realist Daniel Garber (1880-1958) who created "A Wooded Watershed," the largest painting in the museum and works by American tonalist William Langson Lathrop (1859-1938), the "grandfather of the New Hope Art Colony," who invited his students and colleagues for Sunday afternoon tea at his home, creating a sense of community.
        Pennsylvania Impressionism was considered to be among the first art movements to create a true form of national expression embodying a popular, pioneer spirit. Their focus was on the light, color, and time of the day as they explored and appreciated regional scenes. These artists were inspired by the local landscape and many, such as Edward Redfield (1869-1965) painted outdoors (en plein air), completing an entire painting in one day, working quickly with heavy paint brush marks to capture the light and essence of that location. This technique was borrowed and adapted from French impressionism (beginning in the 1860s), an important influence on the Pennsylvania impressionists, many of whom traveled to France but retained an interest in their local, American landscapes, often painting scenes along or near the Delaware River as their primary subject matter.
        Other paintings at the Michener, such as "After the Rain" by Rae Sloan Bredin (1881-1933) capture industrial history along the canal path of New Hope with coal barges, before this locale became primarily recreational. Pennsylvania impressionists in the exhibit also include Fern Isabel Coppedge (1883-1951), who chose a more saturated color palate with a lot of motion and movement in her playful and whimsical landscapes. She is said to have braved low temperatures in a bearskin coat to paint winter scenes with frozen fingers.
        Inventively curated temporary exhibits also showcase modern and contemporary pieces in Polaris: Northern Explorations in Contemporary Art (through April), Light & Matter: The Photographic Object (through June), and Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography, and Sculptural Form (through July). Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) who worked as a painter and a commercial photographer for magazines including Condé Nast, Vanity Fair, and Vogue, was also a founding figure of American modernism. He captured striking, black-and-white portraits of Ziegfeld Follies dancers and Broadway actors as well as the more expected fashion models from the 1920s, each presented in this exhibit. But not all of the art at the Michener is from the past.
        Kelsey Halliday Johnson, who curated and wrote about the Light & Matter show in an accompanying book for the 3-D photo exhibition, explains that frames are restrictive. "The driving necessity behind a framing device is a logical desire for focus and purpose: frames tame the subject they contain in order to be understood as ordered and rational." But she is more interested in what lies beyond this limitation. In the exhibit, the viewer is invited–with the aid of new technology–to redefine contemporary photography, sometimes reframing and re-contextualizing works by using apps in an augmented reality project by Christopher Manzione, allowing new perspectives and frontiers of 20th century works in the 21st century. A selection of pieces, jump off the page or gallery wall, in what feels like an interactive piece or installation, where photography is transformed.
        The same curator is responsible for the group show, Polaris: Northern Exploration in Contemporary Art, which examines fragile and endangered land in the far north with artists functioning as global explorers, some of whom have participated in the Arctic Circle Residency. Throughout history, explorers point their instruments toward the north for map-making, industry, and adventure. Contemporary artists are also attracted to the north, working on interdisciplinary projects with poetic meditations on place. Some art is embedded with hidden stories and coastlines, which are becoming lost. Interestingly, as the glacial ice melts, this multi-media exhibit disappears just after Earth Day. Wanting to feel warmer, I head for a cozy spot in the museum.
        The Nakashima Reading Room is a place within the Michener Museum to sit in a Japanese-style room with furniture in the Nakashima tradition. Unlike other shows where you are forbidden to touch the art, here you are welcome to not only feel the texture of the impressive table–respecting the natural form of the tree–but also sit in the organically crafted chairs and become part of the exhibit.
        Melissa Easton-Sandquist, a community program specialist at the museum, speaks of the unparalleled beauty of George Nakashima's furniture design celebrating the soul of the tree: "The coffee table is a slab, a slice of a burl, a growth on the side of a trunk of a tree made of claro walnut with wild patterning. He wants to recognize the beauty of the tree as it grew naturally, leaving the raw edge in the natural, organic shape. In some cases there is a crack in the wood and that did not bother him; it is part of the organic growth of the burl. So he uses the butterfly joints, which were used as far back as the Egyptians, but that becomes his signature. They sand the surface hundreds of times so it becomes so smooth and add an oil to give that little sheen and satiny finish."
        George Nakashima was a leading member of the first generation of American studio furniture designers, but it is his daughter, Mira, who designed the Reading Room environment paying homage to traditional Japanese aesthetics and to her father, George Nakashima. At the Reading Room, I discover George Nakashima believed "the goal of life was not to conquer but to harmonize the quiet rhythms of nature and the human soul." This encounter encourages me to visit the Nakashima studio complex in nearby New Hope, Pennsylvania, where I have an opportunity to become more familiar with the Nakashima aesthetic and to interview Mira, an artist in her own right.
        NEW HOPE, PA.

        "There must be a union between the spirit in wood and the spirit in man."
        -George Nakashima
        The Nakashima woodworking compound with 21 buildings on 12 acres is a place to learn about this significant designer/craftsman, who was an important force in the 20th century American craft movement. George Nakashima, an American (born in Spokane, Washington) of Japanese ancestry with samurai family lineage, believed trees were granted a second life when they were handmade into contemporary wooden furniture. His intuitive approach guided his work, which celebrated the inherent beauty of the wood.
        The complex–now a National Historic Landmark– features Nakashima's architecture in the International Style with Japanese decorative elements such as calligraphic scrolls and shoji screens and also reflects the influence and simplicity of Shaker furniture. His sparse, minimalist aesthetic is welcoming and the buildings (8 of which are open to the public) are made from local stone, white stucco walls, and trimmed with wood. The estate is set in a natural environment, where Nakashima integrated the landscape with both architecture and interior design details.
        George Nakashima (1905-1990) has inspired architects, furniture-makers, and collectors with both his craftsmanship (revealing the fine grain of the wood, inserting his iconic butterfly joints where needed, and incorporating rough edges of burls and knots of trees as rims of tables and cabinet handles) and philosophy, respecting the tree and its distinct characteristics, working with the natural attributes of the wood, honoring its inconsistencies so the soul of the tree could emerge. Rather than trying to conquer nature and start with uniform planks, he opted for natural edges.
        He shunned wood veneer, preferring solid woods with character. "Honesty of concept" was important to Nakashima, who believed "whatever styles and forms we have, should evolve from the methods and materials used." This sense of undecorated simplicity was also important to the American Shakers. In the ashram in India, Nakashima was introduced to the concept of beauty as a manifestation of the divine, a concept he embraced.
        After studying both forestry and architecture, Nakashima–who considered himself to be among the world's first hippies–designed and crafted furniture which is both beautiful and functional. He called upon a variety of woods including black walnut, English oak, teak, tiger maple, mahogany, cypress, and cedar, including the noble yakusugi from Yakushima, the southern island of Japan, known for its ancient forests. But he did not always have these choices. A sense of utilitarianism was of utmost importance during the WWII years of internment in the Japanese camps in America (75 years ago), when working with what was available, became a necessity.
        Nakashima embraced Japanese culture and was also interested in meditation and mysticism, wanting to "give spirit, physical expression." George Nakashima–who spent time in India as a young architect–did not limit himself to a portfolio of pieces such as tables, chairs, and cabinets for the home. He also is celebrated for his Altars for Peace, which he hoped to place on every continent around the world. One is at the Russian Academy of Arts in Moscow and another sacred peace table can be seen at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. This is still an ongoing project, currently seeking sites in Australia and South America, with a large enough community and organization interested in peace, coupled with appropriate sacred spaces.
        In 2014 the Nakashima house, studio, and workshop was named a National Historic Landmark as indicated on the plaque from the National Park Service. "Internationally renowned woodworker George Nakashima lived and worked here from 1946 until his death. The landscape, homes, furniture, workshops, and other structures that he designed and built here reflect his mastery of technology and aesthetics that combined Japanese traditions with modern advanced structural theory." And May 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of his arts building, which is adorned with a large, abstract mosaic created by artist Ben Shahn. Inside a sound sculpture by Harry Bertoia beckons, while other beryllium copper sculptures of his dot the property. A visit to this complex is a quiet refuge, reminding us of the intimate connection of art, architecture, and nature.
        "We try to keep things as simple as possible.
       The wood is always honest, it is what you do with it that is not always honest."

        -Mira Nakashima
        Mira Nakashima embraces and preserves her father's traditional methods and techniques of his furniture design and architectural legacy as well as creating her own pieces. "I try to keep my ego out of it, but that is a tough thing. Your ego must be sublimated to make something beautiful. It is contrary to Western thinking."
        When her father died in 1990, she took over the company, maintaining his classic traditions with the team of craftsmen he trained. She had large shoes to fill and it was not an easy task to be the guiding force, balancing the business of the studio, the legacy of her luminary father, and the gentle evolution of the Nakashima brand, which now includes some of her own designs. One example is her organically designed chair for musicians without arms getting in the way. "We work a lot with designers and architects. It is important for people to know we only do things according to Nakashima and will stretch the tradition a bit, but we need to maintain the basic structures. We don't do inlays or add butterflies where they aren't needed.
        When Dad died we had many unfulfilled orders and many piles of wood. I had to keep going. After the backlog ran out we had other challenges and we slowly came back to life. My first show after Dad died was called, "keisho" which means "continuation" in Japanese." She explains: “In Japan following the tradition is a viable thing. Some follow what the master does and you continue the tradition as in the tea ceremony. In flower arranging you learn what your teacher does but as a master you develop your own branch, which comes off of it. In Kabuki, there is a third approach, where an actor will inherit the name of a previous actor but he doesn't have to do the character the same way as the first one did. I worked with Dad for 20 years, and like the flower arranging, I am branching out from the tree and creating something on a new branch off the same tree trunk."
        She did not always follow her own path. "I was interested in languages and music in college and studied linguistics, but then my Dad told me to go into architectural sciences at Harvard. My godmother wanted us to go to Japan with Alan Watts on a tour looking at the artwork behind the scenes at the temples, and absorbing the culture as a foreigner. After that, I also studied architecture in Japan, which involved a lot of collaboration."
        "Dad left architecture when he started his furniture business in 1941 but architecture never left him," says Mira. "He had such a sense of structure and design that it informed his whole body of work when he was making furniture." She clarifies his works are more than slab tables; they are carefully thought out and structurally engineered. "The design of the understructure is what makes the difference of whether it is a Nakashima or somebody else's table."
        But Mira Nakashima–who dreams that the business and foundation can go on without her–is still passionate about architecture and the environment. "Through the creation of architecture in different kinds of spaces you actually influence people's lives. People have lost their contact with nature. Respecting and preserving nature is a beautiful thing. We hope to inspire people to do the same."
       James A. Michener Art Museum
       Housed in a more than a century-old former prison, the repurposed Michener Art Museum welcomes over 130,000 viewers annually to a wide range of programs, educational activities, and exhibits with a focus on American art. View selected works from the Light and Matter show with a free, 3-D app, Dark Matter AR. (This app even works with an art piece in the first montage accompanying this article.)


       Hargrave House B&B
       Adjacent to the Doylestown Historical Center–with rotating exhibits about noteworthy historic figures such as Doylestown's forgotten world traveler, William Edgar Geil–this well-located inn on Main Street (great for walking the town) is complete with in-room jacuzzis and electric fireplaces, amidst an inviting decor. In this home dating from the early 1800s, a mini-bakery has recently set up a shop downstairs, where gluten-free and vegan goodies are now available.
       Honey Restaurant is a boutique, upscale dining establishment serving a memorable experience with inspired American cuisine in a rotating menu featuring daring and delectable small plates, many of which are vegetarian-friendly. Favorites are blackened green beans on curried cauliflower hummus, grilled halloumi cheese with spiced figs, and an out-of-this-world, burnt coffee dessert in the form of a caramelized coffee mocha custard. Reservations are strongly recommended.
       George Nakashima Woodworker Complex
       This is a National Historic Landmark on a 12-acre complex with 21 buildings designed by architect-designer-craftsman, George Nakashima, recognized for his "organic naturalism." His house, studio and workshop are open to visitors only on Saturdays or by appointment. It is a rare opportunity to learn about the tradition and aesthetics of Nakashima and his woodwork inspired by nature and spirituality.
       The Fox and Hound B&B
       Hot, gourmet breakfasts with freshly baked goods are served at the Fox and Hound, a friendly and relaxed, old- style bed & breakfast in a historic home from the 1800s. Each of the quaint rooms is individually decorated. Some are accompanied by gas fireplaces and/or jetted tubs.
       The Mansion Inn
       The sophisticated and chic Mansion Inn is centrally located on Main Street. Serving an eclectic and unexpected menu, it also functions as an intimate inn. Particularly delicious are the shishito peppers with a miso glaze and charred octopus marinated in chili-infused olive oil, presented in an inviting ambience of a tasteful and lovingly restored 1865 Manor House with attention to architectural detail.
       The Raven Restaurant and Resort
       A dark, moody, candlelit restaurant with an indoor fire pit sets the stage for a meal in a brasserie type environment. In business for over three decades, the Raven Resort has a tradition of welcoming an inclusive community in a safe environment with late- night cabaret acts and poolside entertainment.
       Bucks County Visitors Center
       New Hope Visitors Center

Iris Brooks has explored arts and culture on all of the continents–serenading penguins in Antarctica with the pennywhistle, documenting festivals in Bhutan, and writing about a craft trail in Canada–but was pleased to find such a welcoming arts community just two hours from New York. Working with photographer/videographer Jon H. Davis out of NORTHERN LIGHTS STUDIO, Brooks and Davis continue to collaborate and uncover cultural treasures from near and far. Learn more about them at their website,
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