Saturday, May 17, 2008

An Act of Generosity

I have been reading, The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura, a classic text on both the Tea Ceremony and Japanese aesthetics written in 1906. I have always been drawn to Japanese culture since I was a small child. Something about the aesthetics of that culture has always resonated as familiar and true to me. This has grown over the years, showing up as imagery in my paintings.







It has influenced my clothing line, Younger Knits, in design, motifs and use of traditional Japanese dyeing techniques like Arashi Shibori.







My understanding of the broader Asian aesthetic has grown over the years with my study of Buddhism and Kado (the Way of Flowers) in the practice of Sogetsu Ikebana. I, however, hadn't understood the depth of their influence on my art practice until now.

For ten years my creative energy was directed into my clothing designs. When in 2006 I returned to painting and photography I was struck by a major shift in my focus. Humanity had always been my subject in my early art work whether it was the outer manifestation in realist urban settings or the inner emotional and psychological workings. My choice to work in art to wear was even about clothing the human form.

But in my return to 2D media I found I had no interest in the figure as my vehicle for expression at all. Instead I found myself drawn to abstract elements, when painting, and the natural world abstracted, in my photography. Color, form, light and line in their most essential forms became my imagery. You may notice in the work I have posted on this blog and my portfolio website, the scarcity of the human form.

Only this week did I find an explanation for this shift in reading The Book of Tea. The book addresses a lot of my concerns with the power of space and aesthetics to bring mindfulness, peace and harmony to the lives of others. I found here in the art of the tea room, which centered on nature, abstracted scenery and calligraphy, the answer to my own shift in imagery. Okakura explained it this way while discussing the use of asymmetry in the search for beauty, “ True beauty could be discovered only by one who mentally completed the incomplete…. The virility of life and art lay in its possibilities for growth. In the tearoom it is left for each guest in imagination to complete the total effect in relation to himself…. Uniformity of design was considered as fatal to the freshness of imagination. Thus, landscapes, birds, and flowers became the favourite subjects for depiction rather than the human figure, the latter being present in the person of the beholder himself. We are often too much in evidence as it is, and in spite of our vanity even self-regard is apt to become monotonous." Okakura,Kakuzo 1956/s89-90
In this way the viewer is invited to become part of the work of art rather than a mere reflection or an admirer of the artist’s ego expression. It now makes sense to me why many have commented on the generosity of my newer work.

In one incident, I had documented my experience of a group retreat by photographing the spaces and details of our environment. I shared a slideshow of my images with the group. In the show there were no people included in the images. The comment I received afterward was that people appreciated the images because they felt like they were in the pictures themselves. The pictures were so evocative of the space, both mental and physical of our shared experience. If the images had been of the other participants then the experience may have focused on the memories of those relationships or reactions to the people rather than re-experiencing the more internal memories of one’s personal experience of being there in that space and time. I realize that to leave my images un-peopled has a generous feeling because it gives the viewer permission to complete the scene as they see fit.

I consider this similar to the idea of "minding the gap" in meditation. Indeed Duchamp has been known to say that it is in this gap that art happens rather than in the object or the mind of the artist. Instead it is the space between the artist, the artwork and the viewer, the place of connection both internal and external that brings a work to life. The masterpiece is alive and riveting because we each bring something more to it, invited by the artist who shows a glimpse but leaves something still unsaid.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Act of Seeing

It has occurred to me that having presented this array of images for your enjoyment it might be nice to talk a bit about the why and how of my photographic process.
I picked up the camera again, after only cursory use for travel and art documentation, in 2006 when I was recovering from heart bypass surgery. As a lifelong artist, I was looking for a way to express myself in my weakened state and saw the camera as a perfect tool. While I was unable to do the more physical acts of the fiber art I had been dedicated to for years, the act of seeing was what I found most provocative and inspiring. The camera, especially a digital camera, made no demands of me physically. Even in the weeks and months of recuperation lying on the living room sofa, or when healthier venturing out into our yard, I could pull out this tool and make an image. Almost instantly I could witness my creation, or should I say my recollection of seeing. Here was a tool that provided me with instant replay and collected those moments to share with others.
After looking death squarely in the face, I felt pretty fragile and found myself drawn to recording the kindred spirits around me in the even more fleeting and ephemeral lives of flowers. I started with an orchid plant that was given to me in my recovery. I was seeking confirmation of the power of renewal and life after coming to terms with death, up close and personal. What developed was a body of images that were intimate portraits of flowers.
I had been practicing daily meditation for 7 years at this point and found myself approaching the use of the camera as a meditative tool. Here was a way to record the moments of awareness and insight coming from an open, "beginner's mind". Photography is for me a contemplative process; opening the lens to the world as I do my mind to record the places of wonder. Indeed the way of seeing was both an opening and a focusing in. Once contact has been made with a point of energy, something I later refer to as a "flash of perception" that becomes the subject of the composition cropped in camera. This phrase I learned through the contemplative photography workshop I took in 2007. The flash describes that first moment of seeing before all the ideas and concepts about what is seen take over. While we may think we passively receive all of our world through our eyes, in truth we are quite selective in our perceptions, registering only a small amount of the stimuli available to us in any given moment. When we do receive that stimuli we quickly leap to our mental concepts about that vision, labeling, categorizing and deciding if it is something we like, dislike or are neutral towards. We are constantly editing, cropping and revising our "reality" through the filtered lens of our mind. With each image taken I am invited to open the lens of my vision a little further, to see fresh, to challenge my habitual patterns of relating to the world.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

First Canoe Ride of the Year

Spring is finally here! This video was taken on our first canoe ride of the year. Now with my trusty digital audio recorder I am adding more sounds to my videos. The soundtrack for this video is of peepers who rule the evening airwaves around our house in the spring. Night Ripple is the title of this video short. Enjoy!
video The water levels have been particularly high ( just short of flood stage) with the spring rains, in part due to the rapid melt off with our warm sprig weather. While this is troubling to those folks in low lying areas, it has meant we could travel much further up our local creek with the canoe, floating over submerged fallen trees, beaver dams and other debris which normally would block our path. With a sense of adventure we paddled into new territory seeking new vistas to explore.

video

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Spring flower arrangements for Brunswick Shambhala Center

Today was spent arranging flowers at my local Shambhala Buddhist Center.
This was the first arrangement of the year using collected material from gardens rather than greenhouse flowers from the grocer. It is always a treat to have native plants to work with. I am still very much a beginner at Ikebana arranging. However, I do enjoy and get lost in the hours of practice. I worked with another sangha member to produce jointly 8 arrangements for the shrineroom and outer rooms. We started our work session with a half hour of sitting meditation which always helps to settle me so that I can see and respond more clearly to the natural material I am using for the arrangements.
We pruned several of our fruit trees yesterday and I saved budding limbs of apple, crabapple and plum to use today. Over the course of the weekend they should open up their buds and provide some new blooms for the meditators to appreciate as they practice. The tulips and iris will also open and add more color and bold form to the delicacy of these arrangements.
My flower practice creates fairly full compositions, but with practice I strive to simplify so that one day I will be able to express the totality of the universe in 3 or 4 expressive lines of plant material. For now I am learning more about myself and what it takes to work with the world skillfully as I do this practice.


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