Kenjilo Nanao: Hand of a Master
“Boxes in Terra Rose I,” oil and silver leaf on canvas, 2009 (courtesy of the artist)

Kenjilo Nanao, printmaker and painter, passed away on Monday. He was 83.

Born in Aomori, Japan, he came to San Francisco in 1960. He studied printmaking with Nathan Oliveira, married fellow artist Gail Chadell, and together they spent most of their lives in the Bay Area.

I became acquainted with Kenji’s work through my friend Kevin Simmers who studied printmaking with Nanao in the 70s. I have been a fan of his work ever since.

While I was in California two weeks ago we stopped by Kenji’s studio to see him. Frail and faltering, he spent time with us on the afternoon of April 29. Gail took him to the hospital that night. Two weeks later he was gone.

From the essay by art critic Charles Shere in the catalog for Kenji’s recent show at the Triton Museum in Santa Clara, “Pacific Paintings, 1986-2011”:

After nearly a lifetime of work these painting have attained a rare mastery. Thankfully, Kenjilo Nanao continues to paint, patiently following his muse, his eye, his hand, the evolving vision.

Their first element: transcendance. They are pacific paintings, serene yet energetic. Too often painters approaching these visions find the merely tranquil. There’s nothing soft or merely decorative about this work, though the surfaces are indeed beautiful, often even sumptuous. There’s much going on in and under those surfaces—gesture, memory, attentiveness, intelligence—revealing life, vitality, even power behind the beauty. Not behind it: informing it.

And from Preston Metcalf, curator at the Triton:

Seen in this sense we get a hint of Nanao’s exploration of the nature of humanity. We are not interruptions in the vast transcendent field beyond the physical, but we are all a part of it and so we are all connected and one.

Kenjilo Nano says he makes art to improve himself by the journey, rather than making art for art’s sake. Fortunately for us, by sharing the boon of his explorations, he improves us along the way.

Whether working on his prints or his paintings, Nanao had a master’s hand. The magisterial quietude of his work is undeniable. As Shere observed, “There is nothing more beautiful, in all its generous modesty than this mastery.”

This is the Irreplaceable: that which cannot be replicated or reproduced. Adieu Kenji. And thank you.

Photos from our last studio visit with Kenji:

Kevin Simmers and Kenji

Kevin and Kenji

Kenji sitting beneath one of his luscious red paintings

Ed Carrigan, Kevin and Gail Chadell Nanao

Ed and Kevin

Ed, Kevin and Kenji

Works in progress in Kenji’s studio

16 Comment

  1. I’m sorry to hear of Kenji’s passing, Deborah. When you posted his photo originally, I was so struck by that red painting behind him. It is just gorgeous. Perhaps that’s the way we should all go – painting one day, a brief respite and then the end. My sympathy on your loss!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Oh to be so lucky, to exit with a brush in the hand…Thanks Nancy.

  2. Altoon says:

    I’m sorry for your loss of what looks like a wonderful painter and human being. It sounds as though he had a very good end to his life. How lucky that you were able to see him.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      He was such a playful and engaging human being, right up to the end. And he had the good fortune to live a life devoted to doing his work. Thanks Altoon.

  3. What beautiful work he made, Deborah. I am glad you could be with him
    and Kevin at that time. The energy of his work is so complex and deep. What a rich life.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I think you would love his work Steph. Exquisite sensibility.

    2. Rachael Eastman says:

      What a wonderful posting this is! I am grateful to be introduced to his rich, resonating works. I think of the trail of energy that each of us has the potential to leave behind, in love, vitality, and belief.

  4. Thalassa says:

    What an extraordinary artist! How amazing that you were the last three people to talk to him about art.

  5. Maureen says:

    Such a lovely appreciation, and how lucky you were to be able to spend some time with him in his studio. I love that notion of making art to improve oneself by the journey.

    After your first post mentioning him, I looked at his work online. I was so taken. (His use of grays, blues, and reds is marvelous.) How stunning it must be to seeing the paintings in person.

    1. Di Johnson says:

      Deb, a beautiful story of a master being honored and served for a final good bye before a final journey.

      1. deborahbarlow says:

        His lesson of how to live is an extraordinary gift.

  6. Geri @ Don says:

    He must have been a marvelous artist and person. It is a great loss for you, sorry.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Geri, Kenji had the ability to pull amazing work into being and do it while keeping a playful delight in tact. An extraordinary man. Thank you for your comment.

  7. Cindy says:

    Deborah, thanks for this intimate and inspiring post. I love his work and his spirit. He reminds me of you. I love this quote “revealing life, vitality, even power behind the beauty. Not behind it: informing it.” Again, thanks for enriching my life with your discoveries.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      What an honor for you to see similarities between us. And I do love that quote about power informing beauty. Thanks so much for this.

  8. ご冥福をお祈り申し上げます 橋本/青森市

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