Nagano Explores Balinese Culture in his Artwork
Paul Nagano ’60 is a synthesis of East and West. Born
in Honolulu and living in Boston, his artistic inspiration for almost
two decades has been Bali.
Watercolor, 22" x 30"
“I have been going to Bali since 1984 to pursue my career
as an artist concentrating on watercolors,” he says. “What
has made this possible is the interest and generosity of an Indonesian
patron whose Bali compound is at my disposal for two months or more
whenever I wish. Since it is cool(er) and drier in Ubud [a center
of art and painting in Bali] in our summer (their winter), I usually
go there in June. This year, my stay culminated in an exhibition
Many of his classmates will recall Nagano’s work as it appeared
in Jester when he was editor-in-chief. Reflecting on that experience,
Nagano notes, “I met a number of wildly different young men
bursting with talent and found that we could all be interested in
the same thing and work together creatively to accomplish something
we could take pride in. We all wanted to produce something polished
and wonderful that would communicate something to others. That ambition
informs my work still.”
Upon conclusion of his three years of service in the Navy, Nagano
enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he
studied for three years. A traveling scholarship awarded by the
academy in 1967 afforded an opportunity to travel through Europe.
As an “itinerant artist” working primarily in watercolors,
Nagano captured nature’s beauty in the places where sky, ocean
and mountains intersect. His work, influenced by post-impression
and the Nanga style of Japanese watercolor painting, has been displayed
in solo and group exhibits and has been collected by major museums.
Split Gate. Watercolor 30" x 22"
The year 1997 marked a turning point in Nagano’s life. Having
until then painted primarily objective, naturalistic landscapes,
with his 60th year a liberated, more introspective genre emerged,
drawing inspiration from his observation that there is in Bali an
“intense sense of life rooted in nature” and from the
ever-present symbols of Bali’s spiritual life.
Nagano penetrated the surface of Bali’s striking landscape
to release the echoes of its rich religious and cultural heritage.
In colors that are at once vibrant and delicate, he has created
a series of complex, multi-layered, subjective dreamscapes: lyrical
meditations in which the rules of time, dimension, space and gravity
are suspended. A profusion of symbols and human and animal figures
inhabit the Balinese mountains, rice terraces, sky, seacoast and
soaring temple stairways: semi-transparent but precisely delineated
ethereal portraits, silhouettes and impressionistic human shapes.
Among others, a musician in ceremonial mask striking a gong, another
playing a traditional drum, women bearing offerings from atop their
heads, a priest intent on his devotions, a female dancer, a man
bent to his labor in the rice paddy; hounds (a frequent leitmotif)
tranquil, snarling, sniffing the ground, baying at the sky; cocks
fighting; ritual processions winding their way through several paintings;
a hand holding a lotus blossom; and Balinese parasols, almost always
parasols — parasols in processions, parasols borne by the
wind, parasols carrying human figures aloft. Nagano has aptly labeled
the unique style of these paintings SymBALIsm.
Sound of the Gong.
Watercolor, 22" x 30"
ARTWORK COURTESY OF Paul Nagano '60
Asked to reflect on how Columbia influenced his life and his career,
Nagano says, “As an NROTC scholarship student, I was not permitted
to major in art, which ultimately made me thirstier for a career
in art after graduation. I received a B.A. in English Lit instead,
and that reinforced my tendency to continue to be a reader. That
simply means that I have had a wide range of interests, and that
has kept me open to all sorts of experiences that included, 18 years
ago, my first brush with Bali.
“It think that without the background of the humanities
education that Columbia provided me, I would not have been the open,
seeking individual who can express his interests visually as I do.
I would not have been prepared to explore the culture in all its
manifestations — its religion, philosophy, art, dance, music,
its ancient and modern history, even its rice cultivation —
had I not been so well grounded in a liberal education of the depth
of that I received at Columbia. And it pains me to hear dissenters
argue that a liberal education has no practical use. For me, it
is the core of education, the means by which one makes a meaningful
Robert A. Machleder ’60