Thursday, 16 October 2014

Sumi-e With Words

Back to my Sumi-e painting class. I find through teaching, out of necessity, I find ways of making the inquisitive Western minds relate and let go of the habitual ways of seeing and creating. This is the space where Eastern and Western concepts merge......

So what is the difference in Eastern and Western way of creating or living? Living is a form of creating, isn't it? We do indeed create our own lives....

I am using a Western means (that is using words) to explain this, but words don't reveal the meaning to the Eastern ( Zen and Tao)  way . As Lao Tzu says in “Tao Te Ching", first verse “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.....”

I think one of the most important differences is the control. The Western mentality has always been occupied in manipulating nature and the natural. Directing the events and actions towards an outcome (a goal) and in the process loosing the understanding of the natural flow of things/life. The result becomes the only purpose for the actions.... very little importance is put on the process itself. 

Can one describe the process with words, I wonder? The words only explain what has happened or is about to happen but not the experience as it is happening.

We humans are part of the universe (the natural), part of the process of creation. The only way to feel whole and complete, is when we are aware of that.* We do that when we let go of the control for the outcome as we create art/life... something so foreign for the Western way of being. This can happen by accident and in small spurts when one is in the creative space, engrossed by the process. It happens also when one purposely creates that awareness: the awareness of the present moment, the awareness of the course of creating/living itself. This awareness is essential for painting in Zen (Sumi-e ) way/style.

There are so many more nuances to this topic....will be back on this....will gladly respond to your enquiries or comments though.

* This sentence can be a topic of debate, I agree. Before doing so you might want to remember times when you felt complete. Was there struggle, goal or control in these instances?

Friday, 10 October 2014

The Art of Leading "Tao Te Ching" verse 17 for Artists

Verse 17
The highest rulers, people do not know they have them
The next level, people love them and praise them
The next level, people fear them
The next level, people despise them
If the rulers' trust is insufficient
Have no trust in them
Proceeding calmly, valuing their words
Task accomplished, matter settled
The people all say, "We did it naturally"

This verse is Lao Tzu's advice on leadership. There are leaders in every level of life, starting from the government to single household, even within oneself. These are principals/virtues that I try to be aware of as a mother, a sumi-e teacher or as any other human being who shares thoughts with others.

Also, what are the Artists, if not leaders? The artwork is the means of leading the viewer towards a message, idea or an experience. The skills remain the same; that is to be able to reach and direct the viewer(s).

The “highest” Artist is satisfied with the artwork created, without expecting praise and recognition. This means leaving the ego behind. In verse 7, "To create Selflessly" Lao Tzu shows the virtue of it.

By keeping oneself out of the picture, by not using attention getting devices (be it in excessive gesture in the artwork or self promoting techniques), the artist shows his/her trust in the artwork and the viewer. This is how the viewer will trust the artist's genuine intentions.

Is this too much to expect from the modern Artist who wants to communicate through artwork and wants to be seen? Is this possible in the media/Internet promotion driven society?....

 * I am using  Translation by Derek Lin as examples of verses, but there are many different translations with different nuances and sensibilities of the translators.  

Friday, 3 October 2014

Eastern Art, Western Mind

I remember when I was a student learning Sumi-e. Having former education in Fine Arts; Western approach, aesthetics and of course the mentality, I was eager to understand, to figure out things and had many questions. My Japanese teacher's (Tomoko Kodama) English was not very good, so I wouldn't understand everything she would say. Besides, there would be very little verbal explanation anyway. Actually there was just the right amount and what was needed.... I understood this later. Needless to say I was frustrated, and was thinking of quitting. But something kept me there and I would go back again and again, even if there was nothing to show for it at the end of most of the classes. What kept me there was that feeling of total surrender to the moment, the process of the total involvement (with Body Breath and Brush), without even knowing what exactly I was trying to achieve. This kind of learning made me understand something important. It is that not everything needs to be understood (mentally). It is by practice and patience that you understand, through your body, experientially.
Now,  I teach Sumi-e. My students are of Western/modern background . They want to understand and they want to know it fast (like I did), and my English is good :) So my approach is to start the class with a meditation, where I guide them to let go of the thoughts and tensions they brought with them, find their centre and let the body and the brush do the painting. I try to keep the class as quiet as possible, to allow the individual student to remain in their space, to connect, become intimate with the subject matter, allow it to reveal itself. When the questions arise, I try directing  them to find the answer by themselves, through their inner enquiry. The best answers to everything (in life) come from there anyway.
Sumi-e is a process where one learns and practices the art of connecting and seeing the spirit, the underlying essence of the subject matter. It is not result oriented but if one does practice painting from that space the result can be breath taking.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Returning to The Source "Tao Te Ching" verse 16 for Artists

Verse 16*

Attain the ultimate emptiness
Hold on to the truest tranquility
The myriad things are all active
I therefore watch their return
Everything flourishes; each returns to its root
Returning to the root is called tranquility
Tranquility is called returning to one's nature
Returning to one's nature is called constancy
Knowing constancy is called clarity
Not knowing constancy, one recklessly causes trouble
Knowing constancy is acceptance
Acceptance is impartiality
Impartiality is sovereign
Sovereign is Heaven
Heaven is Tao
Tao is eternal
The self is no more, without danger

What a beautiful verse. It reminds us of something that somehow we tend to dismiss  and even fight against, forgetting that it is what life is all about - the understanding that everything in life is circular; seasons, planets, all the living things, including us. We come from the source, expand, proliferate, and then go back to that origin....the Tao.

Understanding of it comes to us when we are in a meditative state. We get glimpses of it when we create, when we lose our Selves in the process of it. Have you felt that place? It is like a space of complete tranquillity and clarity. It feels like the source is creating through you. Sometimes, you wonder how your artwork came about....

Lao Tzu's advice is to really dwell in this place, to not only mentally, but experientially understand the cyclic nature of life. With that understanding we free ourselves from fear, striving for fame and possesions , but enjoy what there is for us in that moment while we are creating our masterpiece of/and our life....flow with the natural... the Tao.

I couldn't help but do an Enso painting. The calligraphy reads "Seeking the Way" .....Seeking the Tao

* I am using  Translation by Derek Lin as examples of verses, but there are many different translations with different nuances and sensibilities of the translators.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Seeing with the Senses

There is a cup, a simple cup on the table with a single flower in it. You are holding a brush in your hand , you are looking at the flower, you are to paint it. First thing comes to mind “flower” and like a filing cabinet, in your mind you are trying to establish it's shape, definition, composition, function.....are you really seeing the flower, or it's symbol, based on your memories and experiences?

Painting from that place is difficult, as one is trying to fit the actual object to the image in the brain. The result ends up being …....just that, a description and sometimes a beautiful one, depending on the skill and experience of the artist.

So how to really see? The idea is to go beyond the mind, try to see with the whole body, using all the senses. This means to let go of the place where we are most of the time, let go of the mind, let go of the descriptions.

But what does it mean “seeing with the senses”? In my Sumi-e classes, this is what I teach to my students and remind myself every time I take the brush in my hand. You look at the object/flower....just have never seen it has no name.....How does it feel? ….Oh, feel it without words....just like you are caressing it. You feel it's lush, cool yet warm texture, you feel that delicate line that holds it up.....but wait, the words are creeping in....let go. Let it take your place, let it paint for you, through you.....Do you see/feel what I mean?

Friday, 12 September 2014

Learning From the Masters "Tao Te Ching" verse 15 for Artists

Verse 15
The Tao masters of antiquity
Subtle wonders through mystery
Depths that cannot be discerned
Because one cannot discern them
Therefore one is forced to describe the appearance
Hesitant, like crossing a wintry river
Cautious, like fearing four neighbors
Solemn, like a guest
Loose, like ice about to melt
Genuine, like plain wood
Open, like a valley
Opaque, like muddy water
Who can be muddled yet desist
In stillness gradually become clear?
Who can be serene yet persist
In motion gradually come alive?
One who holds this Tao does not wish to be overfilled
Because one is not overfilled
Therefore one can preserve and not create anew

In this verse Lao Tzu is showing respect to the old masters. For many centuries, masters have been respected, learned from and considered to be more valuable. The emerging artists would, study trying to understand the master's way of working, their technique, their wisdom and their connection to the period they lived and created in. Student's would copy the master's work to get better understanding, in a way to connect to, or feel the master's spirit. In Oriental art, the closer, more resemblance to the original, the copy was to the original, higher it was praised.

In the west and now in the east as well, this seem to apply less and less. Rather than basing their work on the skilful knowledge/understanding of the masters, the new artist attempts to jump into creating “original” work, very often without basic skills, relying more on the effect, rather than depth.

Maybe one of the reasons is the Internet, which provides is information, rather than personal experience. It is through the experience that the real knowledge is acquired, it is with patience one learns to live in harmony with the surrounding...the natural way...the Tao.

I see this in my Sumi-e classes in my surroundings as well as in my children....

There must also be positive sides to this......I have to think about it......need your opinion.

  * I am using  Translation by Derek Lin as examples of verses, but there are many different translations with different nuances and sensibilities of the translators.  

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Breathing Brush

Here I am in front of my students, teaching Sumi-e painting. They are attentively looking at me with their brush in their hands. I explain to them how to hold it, how to feel that brush as part of their body, how to feel the breath down into their belly ( dantian, hara) and how to feel the brush breathing with them... The mind needs more....the mind needs to understand ….how can the brush breathe?

Do we really need to understand this? I only know that if we trust that it does, we together with that breathing brush will create a painting, a statement that has a breath of it's own.