The secret life of trees: Ayako Harashima’s ‘Portraits of Nature’ at the Berkeley Public Library

“The Peace Tree,” 39”x27”, oil on linen

Rolling hills, brown fields, clusters of light-dappled olive trees and not much else surround a medieval church in rural San Galgano, Italy. For a year, Ayako Harashima and 12 other artists lived in the church, entirely removed from society, with only the barest necessities. They would occasionally make the hour-and-a-half walk through the woods and across a river to the nearest store for supplies, and once in awhile the seven-hour bus trip to Florence, but, on most days, spent nearly all waking hours devoted to their art. Harashima has always felt an affinity for trees, and spent much of her time gazing at her neighbors’, sketching and painting. Harashima was fascinated to find their appearance change with the light and her mood: One day, the trees were parents standing with their children; the next, they would transform into a group of young friends huddled together.

“The Family,” “The Youth” and “The Secular Tree” — a few of Harashima’s paintings of the trees near that church — are on display at the Berkeley Public Library through Feb. 6. The exhibition, entitled “Portraits of Nature,” presents 11 Van Gogh-esque depictions of nature by Harashima, who, in 2009, returned from Italy to the Bay Area, the home she adopted after leaving Japan 10 years ago.

“Living in the city, it’s hard to realize there is nature here too,” Harashima said of the show. “You don’t pay much attention. I want the audience to recognize the beauty of nature.”

Harashima didn’t move to the Bay Area with the intention of pursuing a career as an artist. She had long dabbled in art as a hobby, but since she had worked in media in Japan, she began working at a local newspaper in San Francisco. An interview with a famous Japanese trumpeter forced her to rethink her life’s path — with lasting consequences.

“The Youth,” 20”x30”, oil on linen

“He asked me, ‘Do you like your job?’ and I was struck,” said Harashima, who worked at the Nichi Bei Times, a Japanese American newspaper. Though she answered positively, she couldn’t answer with enthusiasm, telling the musician that her actual life’s dream was to paint. “He said, ‘You have to do what you want to do. You came all the way here, to the United States. You can do what you want.’ His message was so powerful.”

Right after that meeting, Harashima began taking art classes for the first time, eventually enrolling as a full-time student and moving to Italy to study for a year, following the path of an influential teacher. She ended up staying for more than four years.

From her first day, she was impressed by the Italian methods of teaching art — her professor stood in the front of class, reading poetry by Rilke. “I was very struck by the way he taught art, because it wasn’t about colors or objects,” she said. “He was talking about how to approach your art in the long span, in your life… I ended up taking his classes for four years.”

After completing studies with this renowned professor, she joined one of his art projects, which gathered artists for a year in that isolated church, followed by a huge show, for which the participants decorated a medieval town with their year’s work. It was a time, Harashima said, of extreme productivity. “You are not distracted. You don’t have any Internet or TV. I didn’t talk to my friends for a year. I didn’t have contact with almost anybody,” Harashima said. “I learned you don’t need much luxury. But the luxury of being able to paint everyday, to concentrate on art everyday, that was enough. All I thought about was, ‘What can we eat for dinner tonight?’ and ‘What can I paint tomorrow?’”

The experience also drew her focus to the natural beauty surrounding her. “Nature was my world in a way, because every day I was sketching and observing how the trees change and how skies are,” Harashima said. “Everything was, in a way, mystical.”

"Strawberry Canyon," 12"x36", oil on canvas

She’s always felt a connection to nature, since childhood when she played in a Shinto shrine, and had a sense that she was somehow being protected by the trees. “At a certain point, I started painting trees, and I always felt like I was watching someone, like there was a presence there,” Harashima said. “Whenever I see trees, I pay attention. And sometimes in the city I feel sorry for them, especially when they are right by the freeway.”

The transition back to life in the bustling Bay Area was tough at first. “Everything was so easy, so fast,” Harashima said. “I felt like I was from medieval times; I felt so old-fashioned.”

But for Harashima, living here makes more sense than returning to her homeland. “Being a woman who has done so many things, it can be tough to assimilate to Japanese society again, at least I feel,” Harashima said. “Here, I feel much more comfortable and accepted, in a way. I get encouraged to follow my path, more than in Japan.”

Harashima stands next to “The Unity,” 73”x67”, oil on canvas

Harashima now teaches art at public and private elementary schools around the Bay Area, in addition to working on her own paintings. “It’s amazing how lucky I feel that I can be with art all the time, and showing it to kids,” she said. “It took 10 years to be able spend all my time on something related to art. This is the first time. I’m so happy about that.”

“Portraits of Nature” is on view through Feb. 6 in the Berkeley Public Library Central Catalog Lobby, 2090 Kittredge at Shattuck in downtown Berkeley. Access to the exhibit is available during the library’s open hours: Monday, noon to 8 p.m.; Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Harashima will present another show at a library in Orinda later this year.

For more information on Ayako Harashima, visit www.ayafinearts.tk.

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