It isn't usually the case, when you walk into an art gallery, that you find the artist whose work is being exhibited on the softly lit walls sitting quietly nearby, nodding a welcome to you. But Nicholas Kirsten-Honshin had decided, that morning I visited Sedona, Arizona, to walk the two-and-a-half blocks down from his studio to the Golden Lotus Gallery, and spend some time shepherding visitors through the simple marvels of his paintings. He works (he told me after we had introduced ourselves) by first preparing a large wooden board; overlays of paint came next, oils in delicate and strong colors, forming the austere but beautiful shapes of the moons, ravens, orchids, trees and seeds he delights in; last came the delicate affixing of Japanese washi paper, so closely woven with the work itself it seemed as though the paint, too, were made of thread, in places.
"Where did you learn to paint?" I asked, impressed.
Nicholas touched his gray beard. His eyes were peaceful behind very bright, very clear, and perfectly round blue glasses. Under his white shirt he wore a necklace of his own design, a silver pendant with a glowing stone in the center that, if held up to the sun at the proper angle, directed the light safely and soothingly through his eye and into his brain: he called this color therapy.
"I'm from Seattle. My father was a painter in Seattle who was involved with the Chicago Art Institute and studied in Japan. When I was a boy, he let me play in his art studio and watch him work. My brother wasn't at all interested in the brushes and colors, but I wanted to be in my father's studio all the time, because I loved it there. Then later I studied in Japan myself, the way my father did." We were standing and talking in front of one of his newest works: a silhouetted tree shedding dark leaves which fell to earth, then transformed into seed and rose again, renergized by a strange, stirring symbol spiraling just below the surface.
"I also write a poem to accompany each painting," Nicholas said.
My writer's ears pricked up. "When did you start writing poetry?"
"Ah, that started during a time when I couldn't paint."
"But why couldn't you paint?"
He hesitated. Then he told me, carefully, that he had gone to live in a place that didn't really lend itself to painting--a small cabin without electricity in the wilderness of the North Cascades. He had taken his son there because, quite simply, his son was going to die if he didn't remove him from the city. Nicholas made a broad gesture with his hands and said, "He was going to die an urban death. From urban dangers. My son had gone down the wrong path, with the wrong people. He wasn't going to make it if I didn't do something." And so the two of them went to live in the green, cold, deep wild. Nicholas had no light to paint by, and no room for his canvases; but his son worked and chopped wood for fires, and slowly healed and changed course.
"Now," Nicholas said proudly, "he's a manager at Whole Foods."
I looked again at the painting of the elegant tree dropping its leaves only to have them radiate upward again, reborn thanks to the churning, hidden, spiraling force underground.
"Your father must be very proud of you," I said. "Is he still living? Does he still paint?"
"Oh yes. He can't see very well now, and he's lost all of his fine motor skills, but what he's doing is absolutely wonderful. He's like a child all over again. He doesn't care a thing about being perfect, or feel the need to fill in detail. It's all big, beautiful, bold strokes of color." And to show me, Nicholas wove his arms freely through the air, as if, with his father's hands, he was painting and washing away, simultaneously.
(To learn more about Nicholas and his work, visit www.honshin.com.)
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