Although nothing really compares with the landscape view at the top of my blog, or any of the other several thousand images of China, Florida, Oregon, Hawaii in my digital photo library, it is relaxing to play god with my mountain horse (shan ma) brush and ink. Several recent images emerged from the brush during my new painting class. Not what the teacher was really trying to get me to do, but enough already with the plum blossoms and orchids.
How lovely it is to read an old book, well, maybe not that old really, but a letter-press first edition of New Yorker commentaries from the 1950s. Christopher Rand's A Nostalgia for Camels, an interesting Alibris score, has been on my "to-read" pile for months. Who knows why you pick up a book and it resonates when it does. There are plenty of books that I pick up and then put down because the timing and mood just isn't right. I want to read them, and I believe I will, but it's just not the moment. Then, some time later, it's THE book to read.
A Nostalgia for Camels is a collection of some pieces this old China Hand wrote from his observations in Asia from the very late '40s through the '50s. I am struck halfway through by a piece about architecture in Chandigarh, when Corbusier, a prominent modernist form-follows-function Swiss-French architect of the period, was designing buildings for the capitol of this new city in the Punjab in the '50s. (One of my readers will appreciate that Corbusier's name was not really Corbusier, but a nom de plume which, according to Rand, means "The Crow.")
Corbusier was implementing some interesting human/ecological elements into his design for the High Court building, utilizing poured concrete and gunite. But Rand also mentions the living quarters of the laborers who worked on the modern structure. They were built of cheap brick,"a rich, warm red, rather brownish, and give a substantial look. Often they are set off by trim of white-painted plaster, which adds a smart touch like that of white-walled tires or white gloves."
When was the last time you saw a car with white walls or a woman wearing white gloves (and not on Mad Men)? Or even a hotel concierge? I grew up in white-walled, white-gloved America. And I played with Lincoln Logs (as did my son) and American Bricks (which had white lintels for the window construction). I had a friend who lived in a house that looked like it was built from American Bricks, although my own home was a white-painted, lap-sided "Lincoln Homes" plan, the construction of which was directed by my father who did a lot of the work himself, though he called in specialists to do the plastering of walls, laying of plumbing, and stone masonry for the fireplace and flue. (The gray slump brick was later whitewashed.)
I read Rand's lovely book, an artifact of pre-digital publishing (not sure it would feel so sweet as a Kindle version) and think of the white walls and white gloves. Things don't really change. Now kids play with the more abstract Lego bricks, and white walls have given way to weird wheel rims; naked female hands sport manicures with tiny elaborate artwork, sometimes bejeweled. The smart touches of the new millennium.
All is change, but nothing really changes, does it?
Woke up groggy today, probably a side effect of the sense that summer is over, at least the series of events that started last March or April--a moved office, a new job, Beijing, Washington, Portland, and this weekend, Maui.
My reading from 365 Tao today seemed precise and profound: An ocean of ink in a single drop Trembling at the tip of my brush Poised above stark white paper A universe waits for existence.
"...A painter poises above blank paper. But it is not the painting to come that is as important as that single moment when all things still lie in a state of potential," Deng Ming-dao writes. "Will something ugly or beautiful be created? The stately determination to make something worthy of the materials and the moment is reverence."
There was a lot of potential in my summer, all that travel and new possibilities. With my recent visit to the next island over, I concluded something and now feel on the verge of the next roller coaster that will build up speed until the New Year.
"Only when we tire of our excesses can there be esteem," Deng continues. That describes how I felt on awakening this morning.
So much potential in a drop of ink. My new painting class is good, but challenging, because the style and techniques seem not as traditional as my previous teacher's. (Well, not strictly true. I was immediately moved to an advanced level; most of the rest of the students are painting grass orchids, and have been for three weeks. Fortunately I have escaped that boring exercise.) It's all rooted in the "oriental" method, but with different (Japanese) paper, different (Japanese) brushes, different (Japanese) colors. The ink is the same, but I cheat: I surreptitiously grind my ink stick in bottled ink, a quick trick I learned from my Chinese teacher. I feel my old teacher's admonitions and instructions. I think she would say what I am doing is ugly. But, she's not there, and I actually kinda liked the image I made last night (regrettably I had to "turn it in" for class, and I failed to photograph the landscape of somewhat garishly colored trees, mountains, and rocks.) The beholder I suppose determines if it is ugly or beautiful; the painter simply creates a universe. Maybe a Japanese universe. Or Korean--my new teacher is a Korean nun. She is quite kind and patient; I don't expect her to smack my fingers with a brush handle.
I realize other students are not necessarily in the class for the same reason I am; they are undergraduates fulfilling some requirement. I am there to paint, and increase my skill and knowledge. I did not expect challenges to my already acquired method. But I find some wisdom in The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, a classic Chinese text from the 17th century:
"To be without method is deplorable, but to depend entirely on method is worse. ... If you aim to dispense with method, learn method. If you aim at facility, work hard. If you aim for simplicity, master complexity."
And if you didn't think there is Tao in Chinese painting, there it is.
One of the things that all this painting exercise has done for me, perhaps the real point, is to cause me to look at real things a little differently. I notice the structure of trees more, the beauty of a flower, the mist on a mountain, a carp in the koi pond. And at the same time, I look at classic paintings and enter them. They are the original virtual reality. Photos become inspirations for paintings. Like this fish, a denizen of a koi pond on Maui.
But I won't paint that fish. Or even a fish. The aim is simply to paint fish.
NOTE: Not sure if this post is going to publish correctly; I have been having a little struggle session with Windows 7, which seems to exxhibit some quirks regarding my habitual blogging method. Taoists are supposed to cope with change, but not sure that patience with operating systems is what is intended. Those are methods you do come to depend on; why not, when they work? One time when I hate change!
TAO 61: A great nation flows downward into intercourse with the world. The female of the world always prevails over the male by stillness. Because stillness is considered lower, by lowering itself to a small nation a great nation takes a small nation; by being lower than a great nation a small nation takes a great nation. So one takes by lowering itself, another takes place by being lower. A great nation wants no more than to include and nurture people; a small nation wants no more than to admit and serve people. Both get what they want, so the great should be below. translated from the Tao Te Ching, Thomas CLeary