Standing outside the gates of Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Miwako Nishizawa decided the grand ships and giant cranes in front of her were just the images she was looking for on her trip to Virginia. Taking out her camera, she snapped one picture before three military officers seemingly appeared out of nowhere.
“No! You can’t take a picture!” the Japanese native recalls one of them saying.
“I said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m looking for a beautiful scene.’”
The search for a beautiful scene perhaps is the easiest way to describe Nishizawa’s strange and intriguing years-long journey through the state to create “Twelve Views of Virginia,” a series of Japanese woodblock prints on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
The images use the Japanese shin-hanga style of printing to explore classic Virginia images including Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello, the Cape Henry Lighthouse, Hollywood Cemetery and the Skyline Drive. Shin-hanga melds elements of Western art with more traditional Japanese woodblock prints and paintings. One of the style’s foremost practitioners was Kawase Hasui, who sketched his subjects while traveling through Japan. It was Hasui’s work that inspired “Twelve Views.”
René Balcer, producer and show runner for the “Law and Order” TV franchise, and his wife, Carolyn Hsu-Balcer, have been longtime collectors of Hasui’s work. Hsu-Balcer, whose father worked for Universal Leaf, has longstanding ties to Richmond. To commemorate their donation of more than 600 Hasui prints to the museum, some of which are on display in its “Water and Shadow” exhibit, the Balcers commissioned Nishizawa to prove that shin-hanga is relatable to contemporary Virginians.
It was the project of a lifetime for Nishizawa. Starting in 2009, she visited Virginia a dozen times to sketch and photograph possible subjects. Her five-year quest took her through Richmond, Hampton Roads and rural parts of the state. It was her first time exploring Virginia, and she was surprised by what she found.
At age 10, Nishizawa fell in love with a depiction of Natural Bridge in a book of scenic paintings. But she didn’t know it was located in Virginia until this project. Growing up in Japan, which officially has no military, seeing so many soldiers in Hampton Roads fascinated her.
“I had several nice encounters with the southern part of Virginia,” Nishizawa says, referencing her print of the Floyd Country Store as an example. “They are so happy, they enjoy bluegrass music. … Some family was listening to bluegrass and enjoying it. I felt so privileged to eyewitness that.”
Each of Nishizawa’s prints takes two to six months to complete. Her feat may be even more impressive than Hasui’s, who only sketched his scenes before handing them off to woodcarvers and painters. Nishizawa undertakes the entire process.
“From the sketching to the woodblock carving through the entire process, everything is done by her and done by hand,” says Gina Cavallo Collins, exhibitions project coordinator at VMFA. “It takes a tremendous amount of time and a tremendous amount of skill, and we’ve tried to show that with Miwako’s [exhibit].”
Intriguingly, it isn’t Nishizawa’s finished products that are on display, but her artist’s proofs. To see the fully realized version, museum-goers must visit the gift shop, where her works sell for $500 each. The gift shop originally carried 30 prints of each image, and Nishizawa’s print of her childhood obsession, the Natural Bridge, has sold the fastest.
“Her interpretation is very much in the same way that Hasui’s version was not your picture postcard [image],” Cavallo Collins says. “He was very much looking at a universal perspective on a very famous site, and she’s doing the same thing.”
For Nishizawa, who also has landscape prints for sale at Reynolds Gallery, the plan is to continue chronicling her travels through art. Her next endeavor will be a series of woodblock prints of Route 101 in California.
“If you travel around, you feel you are such a small individual, but you are also appreciative to pass by and hear [people’s] conversations,” Nishizawa says. “A lot of Virginians are proud of their history, and I feel so privileged to share that feeling.” S
“Twelve Views of Virginia” and “Water and Shadow: Kawase Hasui and Japanese Landscape Prints” are on display through March 29 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard. For information, call 340-1400 or visit vmfa.museum. Nishizawa’s work also is on display through Feb. 28 at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St. Call 355-6553 or visit reynoldsgallery.com.