Miller Gallery reveals Nakashima

Walking into the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery, visitors enter a dimly lit room containing a taste of what’s to come: one of Dee Briggs’s steel sculptures and two of George Nakashima’s wooden chairs. Friday, Aug. 31, the space hummed with voices of visitors at the opening reception for the Nakashima Revealed and Dee Briggs exhibits.

Nakashima Revealed showcases Carnegie Mellon’s collection of Nakashima’s work, which has never been exhibited. This collection, which comprises 60 pieces, is over 40 years old, and is still in use at the university.

At the Nakashima Revealed areas on floors one and three, Nakashima’s correspondences, sketches, and price sheets hang on the walls alongside photographs of the furniture around campus, in addition to a large portrait of Nakashima in his workshop. Visitors are also able to explore a touchable display of different kinds of wood Nakashima used when creating his designs. The furniture looks beautiful, so well made that even the corners are executed with extreme exactness. But this exhibition is not only about the furniture and Nakashima’s trademark, timeless design; it is also about the collection owned by Carnegie Mellon and how the university acquired it.

The second floor holds the other exhibition, featuring the work of Briggs. As Briggs works with metal, her art proves quite a contrast to the organic wood furniture on the surrounding floors. Some of her pieces are massive steel sculptures, standing as tall as the people walking around them. Her display also includes small paper models and steel structures.

“It is a great honor to have my work standing next to his,” said Briggs about having her work shown with Nakashima’s. Briggs had the option to have an exhibition later in the year, which would give her time to create a body of work specifically for the show, but turned it down, enthusiastic to share a space with Nakashima’s work.

Both artists were formally trained as architects prior to pursuing careers in art. Briggs turned to sculpture with steel, although she lacked any formal training. She has been learning from experience, and is currently focusing on creating larger sculptures, since she is always interested in making her sculptures could be more accessible to the viewer. “My work is about spaces, I think a lot about spaces because I was trained as architect,” Briggs explained.

Until recently, Briggs taught in the School of Architecture, before she decided to leave her teaching position so she could take time to fully devote herself to making sculpture. Briggs is excited to simply focus on her work, but she admits that she will miss teaching; the work she was doing with her students informed and challenged her sculpture. Briggs devoted her summer to the creation of the pieces now on display at the gallery, and she made the large hanging piece just a week before the opening. To create these steel sculptures, Briggs looks to the relationships and experiences she has with other people for inspiration. “I think my work is alive in a lot of ways,” Briggs said.

Nakashima’s artwork is also alive, but in a different way than Briggs’s. Designing furniture, Nakashima believed he was giving trees a new life. He worked with and around pieces of wood, embracing the imperfections, knots, and irregularities in his work.

Nakashima Revealed is the result of an academic project, which was the focus of an exhibition class last spring in the School of Design. Led by instructors Rachel Delphia and Laura Vinchesi, students designed and put together the exhibition, website, and catalog.

The story of Nakashima’s furniture for Carnegie Mellon began in 1957, when a campus development plan featured a push to erect some new buildings around the school. The plan included the construction and furnishing of Warner Hall. The university hired one of Nakashima’s previous clients, interior designer Paul Planert, who commissioned Nakashima’s furniture in 1965. The furniture was meant to outfit the president’s office, vice president’s office, and other administrative offices in Warner Hall. In addition, Nakashima also created three custom wood screens that once stood in the faculty dining room in Skibo (the former Student Union) that were 54 feet in length. After the building’s demolition in 1994, the three panels had to be put in storage, but recently two of the panels have been moved into the library to the first floor study area.

Regarding the relationship between the two exhibitions, at first it may seem as if the two different bodies of work lack congruency and that the artists have nothing more in common than their backgrounds. Both Briggs and Nakashima were trained in architecture, but chose to devote themselves to their respective creation of art. It is interesting to note that this is Briggs’s first solo exhibit in a gallery, and Carnegie Mellon’s collection of Nakashima’s work has never been published or exhibited either.

As for the Miller Gallery, the two bodies of work are able to form a cohesive exhibition, despite the separate mediums. “The passion and relationship with materials [is what really connects and unifies our work], although I work with steel and he with wood,” said Briggs.