Will Exhibit at Hillcrest Festival : Art Is a Family Affair for the Nakamuras of Whittier

Times Staff Writer

By all accounts, they are this city's "first family of art."

The Nakamuras--a diverse group of painters, photographers, illustrators and graphic designers--are synonymous with art in southeast Los Angeles County, especially at the long-running Hillcrest Festival of Fine Arts, which opens Friday in La Habra Heights.

Despite growing national exposure and acclaim for several of the Nakamuras, the family has faithfully returned to the festival every year since Yoshio Nakamura first entered the show in 1962--the festival's second year. This year is no different, as six family members will show their works at the three-day exhibition this weekend.

"It's a special show because it is where some of us got our start," said Yoshio, who is dean of community services at Rio Hondo Community College. "It was one of the first shows my children entered."

As a family, the Nakamuras could form their own culture club.

Sons Are Best-Known

Yoshio and Grace Nakamura's two sons--Joel, 25, a commercial illustrator, and Daniel, 27, a specialist in the traditional paper craft of origami--have emerged as the family's best-known artists.

The family's East Whittier home is a cross between a museum and a studio, with family artifacts filling nearly every wall. Through the years, the house has been an incubator of ideas and expression for the couple's three children, including their daughter, Linda Nakamura Oberholtzer, a news photographer and writer before becoming an attorney.

"Experimentation was always rewarded," recalled Daniel, a high school math teacher in Los Angeles. "We were constantly creating.

"Every time there was an art opening . . . we went. Every time a new gallery opened we went. It was non-stop art."

There was a reason for the almost daily dose of art.

"To be a good artist, one must be a careful observer of life," said Grace, whose brother, Larry Shinoda, is an automotive designer and was largely responsible for the shape and styling of the classic 1963 Corvette Stingray. "My family was always taught to study life--the texture of the rocks, the new blades of grass, the clouds and the shape of the hills.

'The Value of Life'

"I tried to teach my own children the value of life through art. I don't think we've pushed them, but we have exposed them to art."

Art has long been a focal point in the elder Nakamuras' lives.

Yoshio, who has several paintings and etchings in the prestigious Guggenheim Collection in New York and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., developed his interest while recovering from a World War II wound in a Los Angeles hospital following a stint in the Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team made up of Japanese-Americans. A water colorist taught the bedridden veterans how to paint to pass the time and assuage the war's pain.

He went on to USC and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in art before landing his first art teaching job at Whittier High School in the early 1950s.

Grace, who coordinates gifted-student programs for the El Rancho Unified School District, also has a degree in art.

When members of her family, along with thousands of other Japanese-Americans living in Southern California, were shipped to internment camps during the war, they were allowed only to take what they could carry.

Valued Possession

Grace took her most valued possession--"my watercolor box."

The Nakamura children point to Yoshio's six-month sabbatical in 1970 from Rio Hondo College as a turning point in their art education. Yoshio, who was chairman of the college's Fine Arts Department at the time, took the family to Europe; they traveled the continent, wandering through dozens of museums and galleries.

"We went to, on the average, three museums a day, studying every period of art," recalled Joel. "It was like a graduate course in art history. As youngsters, we were already forming opinions about art."

Even today, the family takes day trips to hike or walk in the local mountains or botanical gardens, hauling along cameras and sketch pads. Such outings, Grace says, often triggers "art attacks" or "art-ritis."

Despite the exposure to art, only Joel has chosen to make a living at it, although Daniel admits his success has triggered thoughts of leaving teaching and pursuing origami full time.

"I was the youngest, and my parent's last great hope to get into art as a career," Joel said. "But if I hadn't been kicked out of a high school algebra class, it might not have happened."

'Hooked for Good'

Instead of the math class at Whittier's California High School, Joel was assigned to an art class. "It was then," Joel said, laughing, "that I got hooked for good."

This weekend, Yoshio and Grace, both primarily painters and graphic artists, have entered a series of photographs in the Hillcrest festival. Their son-in-law, Jay Oberholtzer, a Whittier attorney and amateur photographer, is also exhibiting several black-and-white prints. Joel and his wife, Karen Payne Nakamura, are showing several paintings, including Joel's original artwork of the festival's commemorative poster, a futuristic-looking robot splashed in shiny colors and wielding a dripping paint brush.

And Daniel will display several of his folded-paper creations, including an origami gangster, a black machine gun on its shoulder.

With their success, it seems Daniel and Joel should have outgrown the show, which has attracted more than 200 artists and is expected to draw up to 20,000 people to the festival site--Hillcrest Congregational Church on 2000 West Road in the Puente Hills.

Daniel's origami, from his quarter-inch miniatures to 18-foot birds, has drawn attention on both sides of the Pacific. His thimble-size crane on a table is on display in Japan's Paper Museum--the only American work there on permanent display.

Corporate Clients

And Joel, a part-time instructor at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, has done art work for Atari, Epson computers and currently is working on logos and magazine ads for a new line of Sassoon designer jeans.

Yet both are showing at the Hillcrest, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this weekend. The festival runs from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, and from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

"The festival is a fixture in our community," said Daniel, one of only a scattering of origami artists displaying work in Southern California.

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