Two robins perch together on a dogwood branch, chests nearly touching. They appear to be conversing — one’s beak is cocked open, while the other looks on, comprehending, engaged. Situated slightly off center of the painting, the birds are framed by an abundance of delicate pink dogwood flowers, some just budding, others in full bloom.
The painting is titled, Here’s Looking at You, and it’s one of 20 works that will hang in the Chilmark Library for the month of September. There will also be an opening reception on Saturday, Sept. 1, from 3 to 5 p.m. for the artist, Hiroko Nakamura Thomson, who has been painting watercolors on gold leaf or rice paper for more than 35 years. Her masterful realism transports the viewer into the serenity of the natural world depicted on the canvas. Many of her paintings showcase her attention to detail, brushstrokes disappearing in the precision of the lines, while others employ broader, flourishing strokes.
The paintings share many qualities with their creator. Hiroko Thomson is a woman who exudes a defiant sense of optimism and who has identified with the natural world since she was a small child wandering the hills outside of Hiroshima, Japan.
“Growing up, I was in nature,” she said. “I used to go to the mountain, in the great nature... to the mountains and streams and rivers, catching insects, butterflies, dragonflies,” she recalled.
Ms. Thomson was four months old when she and her twin sister were trapped, unconscious under rubble during the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Fortunately, she was rescued, and her entire family survived the atomic bomb, a miracle that seems to have defined her world view and fueled her optimism.
Ms. Thomson first started painting in the traditional Chinese watercolor style in 1975 in Manila, Philippines. Later, she studied the Ling Nan style, a more contemporary form of brush painting, under Professor Chao Shao-An in Hong Kong.
“I prefer to do the contemporary, more lively painting,” she said. She has studied Japanese painting in the past, but found it required too much patience, as the artist must wait for the oils to dry before moving on to the next aspect of the painting.
To many of her fans, it is her animals that set her apart. They have character and are animated even in their apparent motionlessness. One watercolor depicts a cluster of goldfish darting diagonally across the canvas, scales glistening. They inspire empathy in the viewer. Another work, which Ms. Thomson refers to as one of her masterpieces, features a stately egret whose tail feathers end in a translucent veil, testament to the controlled elegance of her brush.
One patron said she just couldn’t live without one of Hiroko’s animals in her home.
Ms. Thomson has lived on the islands of Maui and the Philippines but calls Cos Cob, Conn. her home, where she lives with her daughter. Dogwood and magnolia branches appear in many of her paintings due to the prevalence of that foliage in Cos Cob.
“If I look outside, the composition is there,” she said. “I don’t have to compose, I just follow the nature... I am trying to [make a] copy as beautiful as the actual thing.”
Ms. Thomson visits Martha’s Vineyard often to spend time with her son Joshua, daughter in law Rebekah and grandchildren, Leah and Moses, who all live in Chilmark. This is her second show on the Island. Last summer, she participated in a benefit exhibit for the victims of the 2011 earthquake in Japan.
Aside from painting, she cares for her grandchildren and plays the piano. But painting is her true passion.
“Painting is just like meditation or therapy,” she said. “It has kept me at peace.”