Joel Nakamura
Award winning artist Joel Nakamura is known for his unique style: a blend of folk art and sophisticated iconography rendered in a neo-primitive technique. He is chosen for many of his commissions for his knowledge of tribal art, mythology, and for his ability to convey stories and information in an intricate and engaging manner.

Nakamura's ability to render humanity in such primal, edgy hues has captured the attention of clients like Time Magazine, US News & World Report, and the Los Angeles Times. His paintings have enlivened the pages of many other books and publications, as well as the 2002 Winter Olympics opening and closing ceremonies programs. Nakamura has been profiled in Communication Arts, Step Inside Design, Confetti and Southwest Art magazines. He is proud to be the recipient of over two hundred awards of excellence.

An Appreciation by Matthew Porter
Autumn 2006

Nakamura splits his time between commercial and fine art projects. His work is in numerous private and corporate collections, including Wynonna Judd, Chick Corea, and US embassies around the world.

Nakamura resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his wife Kathleen and children Paloma and Kai. Original works are available exclusively through POP Gallery in Santa Fe. Please contact us directly to add this prolific artist to your collection at 505.820.0788.

Joel Nakamura likes to tell the story about the day he was walking across Santa Fe Plaza, close by the Palace of the Governors where Native Americans ply their arts and crafts to tourists passing on the sidewalk. A tourist spied Joel, resplendent in his Santa Fe "uniform"- well-worn cowboy boots, silver and turquoise belt buckle, bolo tie and cowboy hat. The woman, visiting from Texas, approached him and, gently pressing her hand to his arm, asked: "Excuse me sir, which Pueblo are you from?"

Nakamura's reply suggests the depth of his character: forgiving, generous, compassionate, intelligent and, above all, devillishly funny. "Why lady," he said, without skipping a beat, "the Sukiyaki Pueblo." Nakamura then posed cheerfully while she snapped photos, certain that hers was a "real" Native American. Nakamura neither refuted nor affirmed her Southwestern fantasy: he merely participated in it, with a smile.

So what if tourists cannot tell the difference between a third-generation Japanese American and full-blooded Zuni? Fantasies shape perceptions, perceptions shape private myths, private myths are buttressed by public myths, and public myths excite expectations. She was on vacation, a beehive blond from Texas having some fun in Santa Fe. Of course she was looking for "natives." So why ruina good time with stern and sour political correction? That she believed Joel Nakamura was an "Indian" did not strike him as unusual - or insulting. It was as normal, as commonplace, as tourists, trinkets and beehives along the public square.

In fact, Joel Nakamura is as American as it gets. The son of artist parents, Nakamura was born and raised in Botoxed-butt-lifted-stomach-stapled L.A. Now a husband and father, he calls Santa Fe home, a place where you can get green chili on your burger at McDonald's. Nakamura is a multicultural Asian-hybrid: a student who once considered biology but selected art as his profession, a reader of Joseph Campbell - whose observation, "myths are public dreams and dreams are private myths," helps guide his thinking. He is a mythmaker of enormous talent; his illustrations are a significant part of the American commercial landscape and have been seen in newspapers and magazines across the United States as well as Europe and Japan. His intricate, well-wrought paintings sell well in galleries from Santa Fe to the West Coast. And he is a champion slow-pitch softball pitcher.

In September 2006 Nakamura opened his 30th one-man show at the Hahn-Ross Gallery in Santa Fe. Titled Indiscernible Genus, it was a tribute to the strange hybrid creatures that populate the mythic world of his paintings, and a gentle poke at himself. "A lot of my ideas come from [biology]," he told The New Mexican just before the show opened, "creatures without classification …anthropomorphic or zoomorphic, animal-human or animal-animal hybrids."

In addition to mythology, Nakamura draws inspiration from retablos, a Spanish word that means, "behind the altar." Retablos are paintings of the patron saints commonly hung in churches and cathedrals across Spain and its colonies. There were hundreds of these saints, all believed to provide protection or relief from the inscrutable hazards and hardships of life. The roles of such saints were not always grim, however, as saints were also called upon for blessings and celebrations at events such as births, funerals, weddings, harvests, and feasts.

Retablos are highly symbolic and were often used by the missionaries to convert the natives when neither language nor God's wrath were useful. But the natives themselves had their own images of gods and saints: petroglyphs, hand-drawn characters and symbols, which exist by the thousands on the faces of cliffs and caves surrounding Nakamura's desert studio. Joel studies them - and loves to take visitors on "glyph" hunts and tell what these symbols meant to the long-vanished people who created them.

Both the "pagan" glyphs and the "sacred" retablos appear in his work time and again. They are an example of Nakamura's multiple perspectives and approaches to spirituality and belief. "The glyphs and retablos were used for education, documentation and worship," says Nakamura. "I now use them to sell tennis shoes and blood thinners. Seriously, if you think about it, retablos and glyphs are alike: divinely inspired myths depicted in man-made image. While the modern worshiper considers her or himself monotheistic, we are in fact polytheistic: whereas they worshiped Yellow Corn Ear Maiden and Badger Old Man, we worship Penelope Cruz and David Beckham. Whereas the missionaries worshiped the Patron Saint of Harvest and the Patron Saint of Rain, we worship fast money and fast speed connection."

Look at Nakamura's work closely: a painting or illustration may appear naïve, self-taught, reminiscent of folk art, but this is deceptive. The mystic coyote-man-creature with horns inside an aged frame may appear very old but it is chatting on a cell phone, sipping a latte, checking out a passing babe (represented by a shapely leg in heels). You get the idea. Nakamura's detailed, intricate paintings are often inside jokes buried in visual puns, wrapped in tribal paganism and framed to appear as high Catholic art. But don't be disappointed if you don't "get" all of this: they are a delight to behold, whether you do or not.

Joel Nakamura once called his paintings "folk art with an urban edge." But what they really are are is one talented artist's musings on the infinite balances, imbalances, complements and contradictions that comprise the 'human condition.' Like the myth-seeking tourist who asked Nakamura for the name of his "pueblo," Nakamura views the triumphs and failures of human beings with equal respect and delight. He does not pass judgment on mankind's ignorance or prejudices but sees these behavioral manifestations as nothing more (or less) than myths and fantasies, the daily onslaught of contradiction, inscrutability and randomness that drive us to despair - or laughter - cradle to grave.

Honestly, none of us really ever "get it," at least not all of it. We just fake it, or most of it. In his cowboy hat, cowboy boots, silver belt buckle and bolo tie, Joel Nakamura is just better at faking it than most of us and has good time doing it, too. But fortunately for us, he's an artist, so we get to share his joy through the medium of his fantastic, vivid, detailed illustrations and paintings.

That's what I call a true artist.

Matthew Porter
Independent Critic and Writer for
Communication Arts and STEP magazines
Winter 2007

Born sometime between the Korean War and the Bay of Pigs in the City of Los Angeles, Joel Nakamura is a graduate of the world-renowned Art Center College of Design in Pasadena where he later became an instructor. He, his wife Kathleen and their two children live about 10 minutes south of Santa Fe Plaza. His work has been featured in newspapers and magazines across the United States. He has been the subject of numerous one-man shows, with his home gallery POP Gallery in Santa Fe. He counts today two young persons - his children - as the sources for some of his most compelling and intriguing ideas in paint. "They are my greatest work of art, my greatest inspiration, in life," he says.
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