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Friday, May 24, 2002

JET STREAM

Off home in a blaze of space, light and shadow


By EVERETT KENNEDY BROWN

For the past three years, the painter Beau Bernstein has lived a quiet and contemplative life in Kyoto. That is not to say he hasn't been busy. When the native New Yorker closes his Kyoto studio in July and returns to Manhattan, he'll take back with him an impressive new series of oil paintings.

News photo
Manhattan-bound painter Beau Bernstein, who has spent the last three years in Kyoto immersing himself in traditional Japanese arts, takes back with him an impressive new series of oils.

Contemplative may best describe the quality of Bernstein's new work. "It is the result of an almost total immersion in the traditional Japanese arts," says the painter. When not in school working as an assistant language teacher, Bernstein spent much of his time putting paint to canvas as he explored the traditional landscapes and architecture of Kyoto. And when not painting, he was studying the bamboo flute under the tutelage of shakuhachi master Yoshio Kurohashi.

Bernstein's Kyoto series reveals more than just a remarkable skill for representational painting. Each canvas took up to three months to complete and represents the artist's endeavor to clarify his insights into the emotive qualities of space, light and shadow. These insights he attributes in part to his experience with the traditional Japanese flute.

"The intervals of silence that you find in shakuhachi music, and the use of empty space in much of Japanese artwork and gardens, have led me to a deeper perception of shadows and empty spaces, both of which have become stronger compositional elements in my work."

Life has not always been quiet for 31-year-old Bernstein. As the son of music impresario Sid Bernstein, the legendary music promoter who championed such jazz greats as Count Basie and Miles Davis and first brought The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to America in the 1960s, childhood was nothing less than extraordinary.

The fourth of six children, Bernstein grew up on New York's Upper East Side amid a circle of family friends whose names read like a Who's Who of jazz and rock music.

Following graduation from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1993, where he studied Renaissance painting techniques under the painter Bill Drew, Bernstein worked briefly with his father in the music business. This was followed by a short stint at Newsweek, where he worked on the team that designed the magazine's covers.

Eager to find his own way as a painter, he moved to Spain where he spent a year sketching. At the time, Bernstein's younger brother, a former JET, was living in Tokyo. Through his brother's introduction he was invited to experience a homestay with the Japanese artist Teruko Matsuzaki.

While in Japan, Bernstein visited Kyoto in the autumn of 1996 and was struck by the meditative beauty of the temples and gardens. "I knew then that I must return to Kyoto and paint," Bernstein says. "There was much that I could learn from Japan's aesthetic traditions, and Kyoto has been the best place to do that."

Intending to realize his dream of living in Kyoto, Bernstein returned to New York to apply to the JET program. During his interview at the Japanese consulate, he showed the judges a painting of a shrine he'd done in Tokyo.

They were impressed. "I told them that I wanted to go to Kyoto and paint and learn about the culture," Bernstein explains. "I also emphasized that I felt I had more to gain from the JET program than it from me."

This may not be true, according to Krishna Kondiah, one of Bernstein's supervisors at the Kyoto Municipal Board of Education. "Bernstein's reputation among the teachers and parents is fantastic." Kondiah says.

Part of his reputation is due to the popularity of the portraiture class he organized at his junior high school during summer vacations. He still frequently receives e-mail from his students -- even those that have already graduated.

"He's influenced the lives of over 1,200 kids during his time here," Kondiah says. "During recess time, he often shared his artwork and played with the students, and when he visited another school, they'd often ask when he was coming back again."

According to Bernstein, his reputation comes from simply being himself. "On the surface, I came here to teach English, but the flexibility of the JET program has allowed me to use my strengths to help the students develop themselves in ways beyond just English proficiency," Bernstein explains.

"Many of us go through life having given up on our dreams, having them taken away or never quite finding out what they are; thus, my most earnest effort has been directed at inspiring the kids to do nothing less than follow their dreams."

What are Bernstein's plans for the road ahead? "I've done everything I came here to do," he says. "Much more, in fact. The time now is to move on." Deeply influenced by the events of Sept. 11, Bernstein feels a strong need to return to New York. Once he's back, he'll meet with publishers to discuss his first illustrated children's book. It's a story about someone who follows their dream.

A biography of Bernstein's father, Sid Bernstein, has recently become available in Japanese.


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