I was looking at a picture of bamboo. I love bamboo. I have spent so many hours painting it. In my sumi-e practice, I have painted a million bamboo plants. In the beginning, I thought this was insane repetition. In Western schools you don’t sit and write the letter “e” a million times. Maybe that’s why I always flunked handwriting.
I used to sit and work on the same image or same kanji hundreds of times. Eventually, I learned, it was all the same. To create an image a thousand times is to create it once. Bamboo, chrysanthemum, a cherry blossom–whatever. The goal is to reach perfection. The reality is that perfection doesn’t exist. The perfection is, in fact, in imperfection. Sometimes, our drive to be perfect consumes us. We suffer. Practicing these arts teaches us eventually that the learning–the experience–is in the journey–perfection is just a destination to imagine in the meantime.
What I liked about creating sumi-e was that it seemed unfinished. The Western eye saw that and said “Oh, you forgot half, you moron.” But truly, that was its perfection. How liberating to jump that line. To realize that simplicity was, indeed, complete, and that the mind’s eye was charged with filling in the details. That the truth of the image could lie in a single leaf. The mind does the rest. This totally changed the way I looked at nature.
Bamboo was always my favorite. I’m not sure why. When I was younger, I always drew a couple things over and over. One was a big tree. It’d start on the side of a page, and cover half. Sometimes, I’d insert a river with a little boy fishing, a fence…Often the tree emerged in a graveyard. I always loved graveyards. Still do. The colonial graves would appear around the tree, one by one–always slightly out of artistic proportion, because every time I put in details, the picture got skewed. Seems a fitting metaphor for life.
Bamboo was different…a single sweeping line with a couple interruptions, flowing leaves. The unfinished tree picture was always that…unfinished. The bamboo was complete in its simplicity.
Years before I studied sumi-e and shodo, I lived in Russia for a short spell. I saw a Matisse exhibit at the Tretyakov Gallery. There were tons of Russians standing around with hands on their chin contemplating a picture of a house that looked slightly less skilled than a similar picture I drew in kindergarten. I stepped away, trying to hide my laughter at the scene of these art aficionados contemplating what seemed to be a child’s mess. My friend Svetla was concerned.
“You don’t like it?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “I’m just not sure why everyone’s so serious about that picture.” Seems I’d thrown out a judgment. I should have been embarrassed, but I was too ignorant to suspect the magnitude of my own stupidity.
She proceeded to talk about line, form, and other things with which I neither agreed nor could have processed at the time. Sometimes life throws depth at us that we’re just not ready to ingest. I tuned out, wondering which subway station would have farmers with the best vegetables to assemble for lunch. I also wanted some cheese.
Years later, after I had studied years of Japanese sword, calligraphy, and art, I ran across Matisse again, seeing a full catalog of his works. I stopped. I noticed the mastery of each line, color choice, form. I looked at this stunning catalog, researching Matisse further–how he evolved from what I would have understood to be a “proper artist” to one who liberated himself from the constraints of the establishment to transcend the rules. He was, indeed, a true master worthy of the time those dozen Russians with their hands on their chins spent contemplating his mastery.
This was an epiphany. I was finally embarrassed by my earlier assumptions. I took a moment to apologize to Matisse.
In Japanese culture, there is a concept of “shu, ha, ri.” Shu: is when you learn something and repeat it over and over, following the rules. Ha: you make it your own, adding style and flourish. Ri: You forget the rules. Leave them behind. Transcend them.
Henri Matisse was at “ri.”
This lesson never leaves me. I consider it when I think about self-development, improvement, and simplicity. 1. Sometimes the simplest things are the most profound. They are the truth. 2. Often times, society makes us stop before we approach “ri.” Society laughs at “ri,” It cannot comprehend that degree of freedom, always forcing us into boxes, expectations, and rules. 3. In order to achieve our greatness, we must make that jump from the safety of the rules to the exposure of mastery.
All the great artists, musicians, thinkers, and creators were at “ri.” It’s difficult to understand, and harder to measure. Society doesn’t always approve, and often, it’s only in the end that people step back and say, “Wow.”
These are lessons I’ve learned, but not always practiced. I see that in my writing, in my approach to education, in my willingness to take chances in life, I often stop at “ha,” conforming to the rules of society when there is so much more to be done. Truth is, most of us do just that.
Reblogged this on Dogpatch Writers Collective and commented:
I lovely take on the learning process, whether it is painting, composing, or writing. Owning and then transforming “influence.”
Thank you, Jilanne–I love the Dogpatch! As in the writings–haven’t yet been to the geographical Dogpatch, but I hope to this year. Thanks for your kind words.
Now if I could just pass a typing test. I corrected the typo in my post–just can’t do it in other blogs’ comment sections.. :o) Drop the dogs a line when you’re in the hood!
I shall. Maybe you can give me an honorary remote induction in the mean time.
Depends on what you mean by “remote induction.” If that means you’d like to be a guest contributor, then just let me know. If you’d like to know where some of our favorite water bowls are in the hood, we can let you know before you show up in the patch, looking for a place to wet your muzzle. Or if you’d just like to be an honorary “barker up all things treelike,” then we can induct you immediately.
Oh, I’ll take all those honors. I haven’t been to CA in quite some time. Do you have watering hole meetings?
We usually Skype our meetings now since one of our members, Laurel Leigh, moved to Washington. We did have a gathering at the Chuckanut Writers Conference two years ago that Laurel helped organize. She emceed the event. Anyway, when Laurel’s in town, we definitely head to the watering hole. Just drop me a line when you’ve got something you’d like to guest on DWC. Otherwise, let me know if you’re ever in town, and I’ll rustle up the some dogs.
Oh, and I’d like to tell you that you have my deepest respect for being a teacher. I’m going to be volunteering in SF soon for 827 Valencia Street (Dave Eggers’ organization) to help high school kids write their personal statements for college applications. Can’t wait!
That’s really cool. It’s a tough gig these days–sadly, ed reform has stripped away most of the time I spent doing those types of things. I have to get creative–for example, I have a couple business plans kids are working on via g-docs and I’ve been struggling to do most of that mentoring stuff on the side. The college thing–that’s tough. I can’t sell 300K debt anymore. I’m doing a lot of recommending ROTC and teaching networking. Why pay 30K for Johnson & Wales for culinary when I can hook you up w one of the best chefs in the city. Later go to J&W, but this man will teach you more. I have them look way outside the region and box for affordable schools, as well. There are more outside of my region than close by…
Check out this link. Dave Eggers wants to take this effort nationwide.
There’s also a great film called “First Generation” that I saw in SF at the end of January. It made a pretty good argument for getting a college education. One of the panelists that spoke afterward had gone to a two-year community college here in SF and is moving on to a four-year private school–with the help of DonorMatch funding and help with navigating the financial aid system. Here’s the link about the film:
I don’t know if you can get a copy or not. It’s worth a try. Ciao for now!
I love this and hope you don’t mind if I reblog it at DogpatchWritersCollective: http://dogpatchwriterscollective.com/
Your posts are thought-provoking. Thank you!
I am truly honored, to be honest. Thank you:)