A collection of watercolors by Hiroko Nakamura Thomson is on exhibit this month at the Chilmark Library.
The brush painter’s finely detailed landscapes and studies of fish, birds, insects, flowers, and foliage are executed on gold leaf and rice paper in the Ling Nan style, which originated in southern China’s Guangdong province by painters who had studied in Japan.
The Ling Nan style developed in the 1920s as a reaction against traditional Chinese painting, which relied on copying and rigid rules. Instead, Ling Nan artists work from life, incorporating a fusion of Eastern and Western approaches. The goal of paintings of the Ling Nan School, which became popular in Japan, Singapore, and other Asian cultures as well as China, is to assimilate the essence of a subject and infuse it with emotion, creating a more personal style.
Ms. Thomson’s life follows a remarkable trajectory. The youngest of eight in a family that lived outside Hiroshima, she and her twin sister were buried in rubble when that city was leveled by an atomic bomb in 1945. An older sister pulled the five-month-old twins from the debris of the family’s home, and another sibling remembers eating chocolate, toothpaste, and even dynamite powder, according to Rebekah Thomson.
As a young adult, Ms. Thomson was recruited as a flight attendant for Pan American Airlines, moved to Hawaii, and became a world traveler. After meeting her late husband, James Marsh Thomson, in Bangkok, the couple married in Singapore. They moved to Washington, D.C., where Mr. Thomson joined the Nixon administration and eventually became press secretary for vice president Spiro Agnew. After Mr. Thomson was appointed director of the U.S. Peace Corps in the Philippines, the family relocated to Manila in 1976.
Ms. Thomson did not begin painting until her 30s, after she had begun raising her three children. In Manila she studied traditional Chinese watercolor at the Chinese Artists Guild. Then the family moved to Hong Kong for several years. While buying supplies at an art store, Ms. Thomson asked for the name of a good teacher so she could continue her studies. She was advised to contact Chao Shao-An, one of the masters of the Ling Nan School who happened to be living in Hong Kong. Mr. Chao is said to have helped revolutionize Chinese painting by blending a traditional style with a freer, more expressive one. He has paintings in the Hong Kong Heritage Museum and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
“I went to his [Mr. Chao’s] studio in 1978,” Ms. Thomson said in an interview last week. Studying with the master three times a week, she immersed herself in the Ling Nan style until the family moved back to Manila, where she continued to correspond with her teacher.
Ms. Thomson spent many years in the Philippines and then Hawaii, and now lives in Cos Cob, Conn., where she helps care for the grandchildren of her elder daughter, Julia. She frequently visits her son and daughter-in-law Joshua and Rebekah Thomson, who live in Chilmark. The artist’s younger daughter, Akiko who lives in the Philippines, competed three times in the Olympics as a swimmer, starting at the age of 12.
The majority of Ms. Thomson’s 20 paintings on exhibit at the Chilmark Library are done on gold leaf paper. The artist explained that before switching to gold leaf, she had been mounting rice paper watercolors on scrolls. Changing to gold leaf freed her from that extra step and adds luminosity to her painting. She also paints on rice paper, as well as on Japanese screens. Her work is on permanent exhibit at the Hana Coast Gallery in Maui, Hawaii, and at Christina Gallery in Edgartown. It will continue to be on view at the library through September.