David Nakabayashi was born in Germany and grew up in Japan, Oklahoma, and Texas. He is a self-taught artist with a wide range of experience working as a cook, a cotton chopper, a musician, a naturalist, a graphic designer, and an urban designer. His rootless childhood evolved into a lifelong exploration of the American landscape with its homogeneous sprawl, forgotten architecture, untamable nature and chance cultural encounters, all of which filter into his artwork, which includes painting, works on paper, collage, ceramics, mixed media sculpture, photography, installation, music and video.
David has exhibited his artwork throughout Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma at venues including the El Paso Museum of Art, the Museo Regional in Chihuahua, Mexico, Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin, Living Arts of Tulsa and Box Gallery and Zane Bennet Gallery in Santa Fe. David has lived and worked in New York City since 2013 and has exhibited at Bushwick Open Studios 2014 – 2017, The Sheen Center for Thought & Culture in Manhattan and lorimoto gallery in Queens. He is currently represented by Judy Ferrara Gallery in Three Oaks, MI and Jay Etkin Gallery in Memphis, TN.
1962 - Wurzburg, Bavaria, Germany
Father: Herman Masaichi Nakabayashi from Hana, Maui, Hawaii
Mother: Helen Blanche Gardner from Lone Wolf, Oklahoma
Eastpoint Elementary School, El Paso, Texas
Christ the King Elementary School, Okinawa, Japan
Loma Terrace Elementary School, El Paso, Texas
Wilson Elementary School, Altus, Oklahoma
Edison Elementary School, Mangum, Oklahoma
Tomlinson Junior High School, Lawton, Oklahoma
Eastwood Junior High School, El Paso, Texas
Eastwood High School, El Paso, Texas
University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso, Texas
Waiter - Hotel Franklin Coffee Shop, Mangum, Oklahoma
Cotton Chopper - Rio Grande Valley, Acala, Texas
Door-to-door Advertiser - Eastside of El Paso, Texas
Cook - Various Suburban Restaurant Chains in Texas & Colorado
Shop Assistant, Truck Driver, Laborer - Jancar Construction Co., Clint, Texas
Art Supply Salesman - The Art Center, El Paso, Texas
Technical Illustrator - U.S. Army Dept. of Training Aids & Doctrine, Fort Bliss, Texas
Freelance Illustrator - Various Publications, El Paso, Texas
Graphic Designer - Perrault & Associates Advertising, El Paso, Texas
Teacher - "Junk Man" Recycled Art Workshops, El Paso Independent Scool District
Exhibit Muralist - El Paso Zoo Tropical Pavillion, El Paso, Texas
Artist - Studio Art, Welding, Metal, Wood & Recycled Materials Fabrication, Research, Conception
Homeowner - Carpentry, Sheetrock, Electrical, Plumbing, Roofing, Sheet Metal, Landscaping
Graphics Technician - City of El Paso, Texas, Department of Planning & Urban Development
Entrepreneur - Buddha Head Arts (Design, Advertising & Architectural Rendering), El Paso, Texas
Junk Salesman - Altura Avenue Driveway, El Paso, Texas
Urban Designer - City of El Paso, Texas, Office of Mayor Raymond Caballero
Advocate - Alternative Transportation, Smart Growth, Native Plants & Open Space
Musician - Guitar, Bass, Trumpet, Mandolin, Shakuhachie, Piano, Percussion, Recording Engineer
Texas Master Naturalist - Trans-Pecos Chapter, El Paso, Texas
Handcrafted Soap Apprentice - Cactus Mary's Soap, El Paso, Texas
Handy Man - Santa Fe, New Mexico
Deliveryman - Edible Arrangements, Santa Fe, New Mexico
House Sitter - Santa Fe County, New Mexico
Elderly Caretaker – High Rolls, New Mexico
Artist, Laborer - Lemur Media Services, Inc., New York City
Art Services - Hirsch & Associates Inc. Fine Art Services, New York City
A radio announced the assassination of John F. Kennedy while my family waited on the pier to board the boat for the Atlantic crossing from Germany to America. My first memory of Texas is watching my dad burn the dead grass in our suburban backyard. For my fifth birthday I received a plastic combat helmet and double six-shooter cap guns. I wore a gray suit to Catholic school in Okinawa and spent my days being chased around the playground by little Asian girls.
My friends and I played in the Shinto shrine near my house where a stream came out of a hole in the cliff. We thought a witch lived in the hole. On Halloween my brother had to explain that I was white or the Americans wouldn't give me any candy. My parents divorced when I was seven. I refused to say goodbye to my dad. The plane home from Japan stopped on tiny Truk Atoll. On take-off it ran off the end of the runway and sank briefly, the ocean just below my window, before slowly climbing into the sky.
Little Brown Kid
On Nanakuli Beach a wave knocked me down and sucked me into the undertow while my grandmother sat knitting nearby. A grinning Hawaiian man plucked me out of the water and set me upon the sand saving my life. When I was eight I was walking in the east El Paso desert near my house when three boys approached throwing dirt clods and shouted for me to go back to Mexico. When I told them I was white we became buddies.
We moved to Oklahoma when I was nine. Rather than let the kids make fun of my Japanese name I told my third grade class that I was a Comanche Indian. I played in the wheat fields surrounding uncle Tom's house until he suddenly died that year of heart failure. In the coffin his skin was blue. One summer I was playing with matches and started a grass fire. As I ran away I saw Uncle Clarence race by in a fire truck. Later Mom and I drove by the fire and I saw a man with a garden hose trying to keep the flames from reaching his house.
I liked playing with girls and one day I was caught in a closet with a half-naked Sherry Shepherd. Her mom called my mom and I wasn't allowed to play with Sherry anymore. On Saturdays I assembled epic battlegrounds in the living room of our trailer house using toys. One day I saw TV images of an airport full of frantic Vietnamese scrambling to evacuate Saigon. Too many clung to an American transport plane causing it to crash in a rice paddy. Soldiers walked through a field strewn with body parts looking for survivors, of which there were none.
Don't Tell Me What To Do
My mother and I lived in the first federal apartment complex in east El Paso, Texas. Sometimes I had my friend's drop me off after school a block from my house so they wouldn't discover I lived in the projects. My mom worked in a beauty shop and sometimes I would wash her customer's hair. In high school I drew unicorns on t-shirts and made bongs out of whiskey bottles to sell for extra money. Sometimes mom took me to Dutch and Gerry's in the Black Range near Lake Valley, New Mexico. I would wander the hills and canyons alone from sunrise to sunset. Dutch showed me how to trap coyotes and grow grapes.
My parents told me to join the army so I went downtown, scored 98 on the exam and stood in line with naked young men coughing while a doctor felt my balls. I didn't join. I studied engineering in college but dropped out to follow Tamara to Colorado. She owned a Fiat convertible in which we sped through the Rocky Mountains. Her husband was in prison in Arizona and I thought she was leaving him for me, but she wasn't.
I went to work illustrating Army training manuals at Fort Bliss. My friends and I were civilians hired to replace four enlisted soldiers, who were told to sit there until the Army found them new jobs, which took six months. One day a helicopter flew over and soldiers began jumping out of it on ropes. One soldier fell too fast and hit the ground so hard that he died.
I fell in love with Mary the first time I saw her, through a take-out window at Red Lobster in El Paso. Mary and I used to stay in my apartment that had no phone or television. After several days alone in there we decided to go to Juarez, Mexico. It took us seven hours to re-cross the river because, while Mary and I had been oblivious in my bed, DEA agent Enrique Camarena had been kidnapped and U.S. Customs had shut down the Mexican border.
In Hawaii I would swim in the ocean, spear fish and drag them through the water hoping to attract a shark but one never came. On my last day on the island I came upon five topless girls on the beach. I thought I had stumbled into heaven until I realized they were all lesbians on shore leave from the US Navy. I was recruited to work in 1980's porn but when I got to San Francisco the woman who had recruited me from a Waikiki nightclub was still on vacation. I didn't want to spend all my money waiting a week for her to show up so I went to Utah instead.
I found my brother DeWayne drunk in Oklahoma City living out of two milk crates on his friend's back porch. We retrieved his bass guitar from the pawnshop and went to Austin where he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Mary came to Austin and we used to lay around naked on Lake Travis. While snorkeling in Florida we floated in the clear surf watching millions of tiny mollusks buried in the sand extend their mouths into the waves.
It was too humid in the south so we went to Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. I crossed the path barrier and walked to the edge of a thousand-foot cliff. I stood there looking down, mesmerized, unable to hear Mary shouting for me to come back. I felt like maybe I could fly but I didn't try it. Mary and I got married in front of a judge in the El Paso County Courthouse. One summer we were hiking in the Gila Wilderness during a thunderstorm when we felt electricity in the air, saw a bright flash and heard an instant boom as a bolt of lighting exploded a nearby tree.
Mary and I raised and buried two dogs, five cats, five birds and fifty-three fish. One day we sat on the roof watching a springtime dust storm roll over El Paso from the west. It came towards us slowly like a brown wall until it engulfed everything and we had to climb down. After 25 years Mary and I got divorced.
I met Sarahummingbird. On our first road trip we went to Three Rivers to look at rock art where I fell down and dislocated my pinky finger. She instantly grabbed my finger and yanked it back into place with a loud pop. I immigrated to Santa Fe but Sarahummingbird stayed in El Paso. I lived in a garage. One day, as I watched from my easel, a coyote came walking out of the acequia and trotted down the road.
Don hired me to take care of his animals in Arroyo del Agua for the winter. I burned wood to keep warm and got my drinking water from a spring a few miles up Coyote Canyon. One day I walked out onto the mesa to look for arrowheads and clear my mind. I searched for hours and finally laid down in the dirt. A gray fox sat down nearby. The fox circled me, took a crap and eventually laid down about 15 feet away. We watched each other for awhile then the fox suddenly strode off into the trees. I followed but could not find him and gave up. When I looked down I found a perfect obsidian arrowhead by my foot.
The day after Christmas Don suddenly told me to get out. For three weeks I defied him and was afraid he might shoot me. I made an effigy of myself in the bed and slept on the floor with my gun. Finally, I called Mary to help me move with her van. As we drove out a wild turkey ran onto the road, hopped up on the fence, looked at me and flew away.
Sarahummingbird and I went on a long road trip. There is a pier jutting into the Atlantic Ocean at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Every morning Sarahummingbird and I would hang out with the retirees as they started their day of fishing. I learned that in spring fish migrate north and in autumn they swim south. I spotted a blue shadow in the distance that turned out to be five large stingrays swimming in a row, eating breakfast in the rich waters.
My Old Folks At Home
I moved up into the Sacramento Mountains to help my aging mother and stepfather. Albert got pneumonia and was hospitalized for weeks, including a ride in an emergency helicopter. When he got out he proceeded to go crazy and sat at the table, not eating and talking crazy for 36 hours. I took him back to the emergency room where he gave me his confession. He was convinced that Jesus was calling him to heaven to be by his side for eternity. Weeks later he said I saved his life and bought me a car. Albert lived another year and then died shortly after his 89th birthday.
I took a road trip and encountered an ice storm in Ohio. At Exit 85 a woman lost control of her car and spun across the median. A semi hit her and broke her car in two. The front half came towards me and I swerved into the median to miss it. The semi lost control and slid into the median almost crushing me as we both slid into oncoming traffic. I hit a car and totaled mine. Nobody was injured. I stood there in the snow and realized that I was alone for the first time in my life. I made it to Washington anyway. On Inauguration Day, Chuck and I walked through 1.2 million people to see Barack Obama.
In Birmingham the artist Lonnie Holley showed me the 16th St. Baptist Church. We ate soul food at Magic City Grille and then I bought him a flash card for his digital camera so he could document all his junk. I met Diane in Jackson, Mississippi and we went to New Orleans, where, after a long night of jazz and exploration, we saw a guy walking down a dark street with his pony. One night Diane got sad and stalked back to the hotel in anger. Later I found the hallway door mysteriously locked and thought she might have killed herself. I stood under the balcony, like Stanley Kowalski, begging Diane to let me in. I finally smashed through the door to find her snoring sweetly in bed, with earplugs.
New Mexico Is The Center Of The Universe
Jennifer had buffalo sauce on her lips when we met. She introduced me to her dog and then fell through a window. The first time she drove my car I made her take a remote muddy road through the Sangre de Cristo foothills during a rainstorm, which she did without getting stuck. One day Jennifer and I hiked to Pueblo Alto from Chaco Canyon. We overestimated the daylight and found ourselves sometimes running the last two miles in order to scurry down the cliff before it got too dark to do so. Jennifer is afraid of the dark.
I watched my Step-dad Albert take his last breath and die in a hospital in Alamogordo, New Mexico. He never told me very much about his life but I had to write his obituary anyway. I found his hunting binoculars and a photo of him in his Army uniform and displayed them on a table next to his coffin. The soldier who played taps at his burial was using a digital bugle with a little speaker in the bell.
Life Is Too Short To Stay in One Place Forever
I rented half a house in Santa Fe and grew tomatoes. I cooked curry and listened to all my record albums. I got restless again and went to Nevada where I saw a three story electric rabbit bus. In Utah I happened upon a plateau during a storm and a funnel cloud spun out above me for several seconds. A few minutes later I was painting plein air in the sunshine again. Jennifer and I stored our belongings and went to a Texas beach where we wandered the coast looking at Portuguese Man-of-Wars dying in the sand.
In December we went to Montana. I was reflecting on the fact that I had never seen a moose when Jennifer pointed to a moose. The road was clear when Jennifer and I left Idaho Falls. I thought about turning back when it started snowing but she said she was not scared. We drove for an hour through a whiteout with only the reflector poles on each side of the road for guidance. We were both scared. By the time the sun came out we were sitting in an art gallery in Ketchum.
I ate a rueben sandwich in a Laundromat in the Columbia City neighborhood of Seattle. We boon-docked at the Wal-Mart parking lot in Ranier. One night Jennifer and I walked across the Burnside St. Bridge in Portland and contemplated our homelessness. Just over the bridge we found a long line of homeless people waiting to get into the shelter for the night. High above them glowed a large neon reindeer with a red nose.
The starfish, anemones and clams ignored us as we wandered in the rain for hours on a cobbled beach in Newport, Oregon. I imagined I could see Mount Fuji across the water. Jennifer and I saw our first whale off the coast of Mendocino, California at 7am. That afternoon we ate hot rice noodles huddled against a cold shore breeze.
Jennifer and I stopped at a parking lot for New Year's Eve but fell asleep at 9pm. In the morning we drank coffee in a shop where five of the seven people present were Burners. For lunch we ate burritos at a diner in Santa Rosa where everybody was Mexican. Later we drank wine in a Napa Valley tasting room full of Asians. We spent three days walking Chinatown in San Francisco and eating Dim Sum on every block.
We spent three days at the same pullout along Highway 1 in Big Sur where the only flat space was the surface of the sea. The tourists streamed by, most staying for no more than 15 seconds. The sun was setting as we left and we made one final stop at a beach that was full of cars for some reason. We approached the boardwalk and there below us in the sand were hundreds of Elephant Seal slumbering, nursing their young and fighting for females.
Jennifer and I returned to New Mexico to repair my mother's house, through which 400,000 gallons of water flowed from frozen pipes. In the process I found many of Albert's mementos revealing a personal history which he chose to keep from all of us. I would have liked to interview him about these items but he was already dead. I took some of what he had saved and attached it to firewood he refused to burn during his life and exhibited the resulting sculptures at an art gallery in Santa Fe.
One day a huge elk wandered into the yard and stood outside my bedroom window eating leaves from a vine. One winter our dog got attacked by three mean dogs. I set a trap for them but caught a fox instead. Jennifer and I admired his beauty before letting him run off into the snowy woods. It was autumn when I found the first arrowhead. Jennifer found four more, one right behind the barn where I make sculptures.
Mom is old now and cannot walk much or see very well, is sometimes confused and not very health conscious. I spent time everyday as her companion, caretaker, cook and driver. Friends and family told us that we are noble for sacrificing this time for my old mother, but we don't feel noble. But there are poignant moments like when Mom remembers her youth, sits quietly with the dog or drives around the store in a motorized cart. One day Mom was in the hospital recovering from angioplasty and I fed her soup with a spoon.
Jenni and I stopped in Oklahoma to visit my uncle Bill in the hospital after his stroke. Speechless, but still a character, he made it clear that he thought Jennifer's breasts were attractive. We found a Middle Eastern buffet in Kansas City, a Polish deli in Chicago and a Moroccan café in Northampton. I collected rope knots that had washed up on the seawall in Acadia National Park. From the apartment where we stayed in Harlem we walked across Morningside Park to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to listen to a young man playing the pipe organ. His beautiful music wafted up into the cavernous church and suspended us in time and space.
We stood under a giant steel vessel made by Anish Kapoor in Chelsea. We ate pig cartilage in Chinatown. I listened to Roy Hargrove play the trumpet two feet away from my table in Greenwich Village. Jennifer and I hung out with Mike, a former jockey, in his Spanish Harlem garden. By the time we got back to New Mexico I had decided to move to New York City.
Black Rock City
One night at Burning Man Jennifer and I: watched a Temple burn; leapt through flames; hitched a ride on a two-story shoe; ate gnochhi given to us by a stranger; drank whiskey with Acacia and Earthala while cruising the Playa; danced to the Thievery Corporation under a throbbing red heart; miraculously found our lost bikes; spent the night in a Pirate Ship; and watched the sunrise with lattes.
My brothers and I decided to sell Mom's property in High Rolls so I started with an estate sale. It took weeks to make the living room and barn look like a vintage store. Then we met our neighbors, strangers until that day, and watched them carry Albert's history away over the next week. We even sold the property. I took Mom to El Paso, Jenni left for New England and I built a 24 ft. tall tower. I spent the next month packing, cleaning, moving, painting and walking the forest. And then one day I left forever.
New York City
I love New York City. My neighborhood is filled with Polish delis. Carlos at the bodega near the Forest Stop is a philosopher and we talk about life if I come home late and need a snack. I have train prowess. I own snow boots. Jenni and I made a replica of a fallen tree out of the cardboard boxes. Our dog lives in Massachusetts.
On late winter afternoons the sun reflects off of the Federal building near the U.N. onto the East River which I can see from the Williamsburg Bridge. I worked for three months in a studio in Chinatown between a dumpling shack, a Chinese Hispanic grocery, a Buddhist temple, a contempory art gallery and a whore house. One winter day I came across a stack of frozen pigs on the sidewalk. This city doesn't care about me.
Tall buildings are churches of granite, glass and grace. There are so many pretty girls. People are nice to me. I am so big that I do not feel threatened wherever I go. I can drive like a cabbie, but I don't drive that much. On the beach I like to watch retired Russians do weird old people exercises while birds eat breakfast around them. I salvaged discarded umbrellas and turned them into an elk bust with a high-voltage transmission tower coming out of its head.
It felt good to go West, to see my friends and family and to walk alone in the desert again, but it did not feel like home anymore. I fell in love with grain elevators in Kansas, which were the only vertical things in sight. But I found that I missed everything about New York, despite spending all my money living there.
I did a portrait series of Mom and so we sat together for many hours. I took pictures of her epic hands. Mom's routine revolves around meals, audio books and television. She is secure and relatively healthy with family nearby, but she still laments her diminished freedom and I feel guilty for leaving.
In New York I have learned to be an entrepreneur again, cobbling together different income streams to survive. But I am middle aged so that is hard and I am surrounded by energetic young people. Sometimes my job requires me to visit art collectors. On one such visit I found myself in a 2-story apartment on 5th Avenue overlooking Central Park. I had never been in a place as upper crust as that in my whole life and it was unsettling. I at once felt that I might be able to live this way one day and that I could never, in many lifetimes, be able to live this way.
One day I wandered over to Union Square as I often do. A demonstration for worker's rights was underway and the people were beginning to march down Broadway. Naturally I joined them and continued all the way down to Foley Square near City Hall. I absorbed the speeches about resistance against oppression. Finally a band took the stage and sang music from the Mexican Border that made me cry.
New York City, May 2019