I have long had a concern that in our ever growing world of distraction we are becoming more and more removed from our senses of seeing and perception. I'm not particularly insightful in making this observation, the media is filled with the commentaries warning of a generation or even generations "lost" to the vacuous, highly curated digital world where one can truly know longer believe what one sees, hears, or reads and we carve true connectedness and real human interaction but lack the skills to achieve them for lack of practice. And if that weren't enough, there are volumes of academic studies documenting the many and serious detrimental effects of social media, video games, etc. on the mental health of people of all ages.
I am no journalist nor am I an expert in mental health, but I do know what I see in my own high school students and I do know my own experience:
I have observed that all people experience a special satisfaction and sense of accomplishment when they create with their hands.
I have observed that working with one's hands is one of the quickest ways to achieve what brain experts refer to as the positive state of "flow."
I have learned that there is a beautiful, unique, non-verbal, dialogue that humans are capable of between their own mind, hand and eye.
I have learned that to become comfortable with quiet is to become comfortable with oneself.
I have learned to do anything well takes time and practice.
I have learned that knowledge comes from reflection upon experience and if there is no time for reflection the likelihood of learning becomes slim.
Why am I writing about this? The Art of Seeing has been a kind of reoccurring theme of late in both my art work and reading. I have included with this post a picture of a beautiful Chinese painting on silk from my recent visit to the Freer Gallery of Art. Of all the paintings and exquisite ceramics I saw that day, this work stood out to me the most. He is an average workman, pausing in his day not to only rest his body, but renew his spirit and mind by observing a chrysanthemum. He is seeing and perceiving the flower. In many ways it seems to me almost a symbiotic relationship. The flower needs the care of the human to thrive and the human needs the beauty of the flower to thrive.
I had my own small experience of this as I spent another three, three hour sessions drawing the bonsai at the National Arboretum over these past 14 days since my last post. I have decided to make my pencil drawings on watercolor as detailed as possible. And I reached a major milestone: I have decided on my three focus trees. You may recall the project is three trees: four seasons. You can see pictures of the trees (and me) below: Japanese Black Pine, Trident Maple, and a Crabapple. I have started however, several drawings of details of other trees, simply because I love them. I'm not quite ready to post any of this work yet. But, I promise too in the future.
While I have been continuing my work on this project, I stumbled upon the work of two women botanist. The first is Agnes Arber whose distinguish career and scientific contributions spanned over 50 years in the 20th century. Her research focused mainly on flowering plants. And to be completely honest, I'm not sure I truly can wrap my mind around her scientific works. However, later in life she began, through her writings she began to explore more philosophic realms including the activity of the human mind and seeing as well as the sense of "oneness" in nature. I have been reading her books The Manifold and The One as well as The Mind and The Eye and have been amazed at the similarities of the scientific mind in field observation and that of the artist in observation of their subject. I also find it fascinating that she risked discussing openly her experiences as she worked in the field as being one of the many but holistically complete parts of the "one" of Nature. Pretty risky stuff its seems to me for the empirical world of science. She also discusses how this experience is essential to the overall health of humans. Indeed, I don't think it is too far fetched to call her the mother of what is now tritely termed "forest bathing." Although I sincerely doubt she would like that.
After seeing the Academy Award winning documentary, "My Octopus Teacher" recently as well. I am assured that my experience of deep observation of my "little trees" as I have come to affectionately call them, is a shared experience of many (although I feared of late all too few) who spend hours being part of the living world and not just in the living world y trying to be truly present to other living things.
Of course now the question becomes, how do I bring this to my students? I'm hopeful through my development of my new lesson plan, "The Walking Sketchbook," I can help them to find their own way in the natural world. I have set up 14 different readings (all about walking in nature from many different historic periods and cultures), one per week as a text preface to a class walk outside, where the students will need to take at least 30 minutes and fill a page in their sketchbook. My hope is that text creates the mindset, the walk the mental quiet, and the drawing the flow. Ultimately, I hope in this experience they find themselves part of the world around them. But I have to keep reminding myself, it will take time, it will take practice.
The other botanist who was inspirational to me since my latest post is the 18th century British woman, Anna Atkins. A pioneer in both botany and photography, she created the first botany text, British Algae, to use a photographic process, the cyanotype (more commonly known as the blueprint in modern times). I was fortunate enough to get a copy of limited edition text which documents her life and work from an inter-library loan. It is filled with compelling images that I find myself tracing. For the first time, I am thinking of plants not just as forms but of the space their forms create, almost like living architecture. I'm not sure where all this is going, I have considered using some of my tracings as inspiration for a series of woodcuts, but for now, I'm enjoying this intricate world of the tracery of delicate plant structures. In case you are interested, the book is: Sun Gardens: Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins.
I have continued my printmaking work, specifically the foxes and the rabbits these past 14 days. I have posted the final work on my Works in Progress page. I have also been experimenting with multiple color printing on one woodblock. Somewhat tedious, but, I am enjoying the results (see flowers below). I can now write my name in Chinese! But, as you can see, I have to keep practicing. A wonderful exercise in the subtle use of the brush, but that is another topic for another blog post (it's been a busy two weeks as you can see!). And I have continued my work in my Japanese style album sketchbooks, the gold fish as well as started new one I call "dragon fly pond" and a second orchid. I am also completing a folding album of a daffodil that I began sometime ago and expect to post soon.
Lastly, below I have posted a picture of two more albums I have prepared using the plastic wrap technique in case any folks are interested in giving it a try for themselves. Well, for now that's a wrap! Stay tuned for mid-post updates for works as I complete them on my works in progress and portfolio pages.
When I haven't been painting in Japanese albums, I've been tinkering with printmaking. I've worked on several rough sketches for some new projects and promise to post those sketches once they are more refined. Last spring however, I was charmed by a pair of blue birds that fortunately, chose the nesting box on our upper deck as their home to start a family in. I sketched these little birds from life directly on to the wooden blocks. This month, I was able to complete carving the blocks and begin test prints. This is the mokuhanga technique, so I am using watercolor with rice paste and printing with a hand barren on rice paper. I'm still mastering the art of two color printing, but I'm pretty happy with this little fellow.
The subtlety of tone as well as that of the brush have given me a new appreciation for the range of nuance in human expression. There are simply tones and lines I am hearing and seeing for the first time. Recently, I watched the Academy Award winning documentary My Octopus Teacher and I could not help but think about this as I watched the beautiful, subtle relationship grow between two very different lives. So much of our being is defined by what we see. It seems to me the more we can see the broader and deeper our understanding of our own being and openness to the being of others. I feel myself growing, but I am not exactly sure how, just enjoying the practice and journey for now.
I kicked off my summer creative endeavors by beginning the sketch phase of a project that I had been hoping to start almost two years ago. For I long time I have been fascinated by bonsai. On a field trip to the National Penjing and Bonsai Collection, I asked my students to be Poet/Painters. That is, they were to select a subject tree from the collection and write and illustrate a poem inspired by the little tree. While there I wondered, what would it be like to pick three different trees and draw, paint, and create block prints of each in the four seasons. So a project was born! Just as I was preparing to begin the project, the pandemic happened, and I found that all of my potential subjects were sequestered behind closed doors. What a joy to begin my summer by finally being able to visit museums and galleries again! A most especially to visit one of my favorites: The National Arboretum and in particular the National Penjing and Bonsai Collection.
Since my last visit, like many folks, I had developed a pandemic obsession. Perhaps it was the fact that I couldn't access the collection which spurred me on to start my own humble bonsai collection. I only know that I am so glad it happened. An online class and numerous books on the subject, as well as a local enthusiast club whose dedication to the art form happily spilled into Zoom meetings kept feeding my curiosity. Since then I have learned so much about the art of penjing (the Chinese term for "tree in a tray") and bonsai (the Japanese term for the same). Although I know I have only scratched the surface, I never imagined what a cross curricular adventure it would be! Not only have I learned so much about the history of China and Japan (Buddhist monks brought the art of Penjing to Japan in the early 8th century BCE) but I have also learned so much about the biology of plants, trees in particular, and the environment as a whole. I also never imagined how valuable my knowledge of the visual arts including the elements and principles of design would be in not only appreciating these living works of art, but in understanding how artists are shape them. Lastly, too I was amazed to discover the important role of philosophy, in all this as well. I find myself truly pondering my place in the natural world and my role in fostering and shaping the growth of a living work of art. So I suppose that in a way the pandemic served as not only a true test to my commitment in starting to the the project which I'm calling "3 Trees 4 Seasons" but it thankfully provided an opportunity for me to deepen my understanding before I even lifted a pencil.
When I walked through the Arboretum I could't help be struck by the joyful atmosphere as I a passed by the newly filled koi pond and through the cool evergreen glade at the gate of the bonsai collection. It wasn't just me, it was in the air, everyone was so happy to be there. As I wandered through the collection I couldn't believe how much some of my old favorites had grown and changed, it was in many ways like seeing some of my students with their masks off for the first time in a year! I took my time snapping pictures of trees that caught my eye and their labels with my phone for review when I returned home. Then I found a nice shady spot with cool flat stones to sit on and I began the first sketch, seen above.
This sketch I used water soluble graphite pencils with watercolors highlights. This was my first time using this media, so I was stumbling through the combined techniques of pencil drawing and watercolor and trying to find what worked and what didn't. I was really pleased to discover that the pencils give a beautiful range of values, similar to sumi ink. I'm looking forward to practicing with this media more.
Since that first day, I have returned and started a second, larger sketch that I am hoping will be the underdrawing for a watercolor. The good news is that this wonderful Japanese Black Pine (#130 in the collection, too bad them don't have names!), will definitely be one of my three trees. Stay tuned for more about this project!
My next creative endeavor was participating in an online workshop given by the Delaware Chapter of the Guild of Book Workers. If you would like to learn more about them click on the button below.
The workshop focused on creating a clamshell box out of cardboard, which was a new thing for me. This experience ensured that I will never take a perfectly mitered corner for granted ever again, for boxes excellent construction is everything! To see the entire process you can go to my "Works in Progress" page for the step by step photos. The next part of the workshop was to link the boxes using a Jacob's Ladder. Thankfully, I was familiar with this binding having made a Jacob's Ladder book with fish prints before (again, for this please check out my Works in Progress page). The entire box was constructed with a foundation of Davey's board (a heavy cardboard, typical for book covers) black book cloth, and a beautiful Japanese decorative paper I got from TALAS Bookbinding and Conservation Suppliers. (check out www.talasonline.com). The ribbons used in the binding were some decorative ribbons I picked up from my local Joanne Fabric shop. I used PVA adhesive.
This project really helped me sharpen my cutting and construction skills which were a bit rusty since it had been several months since I had built anything three dimensional. Also, I was very happy I took the recommendation of the instructor and I had all my tools ready and materials cut out ahead of time.
Since attending this workshop, I have been wondering about the future of Zoom learning and the nature of online learning communities. Recently, I signed off of my social media accounts for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I am a teacher and I feel that the social media giants have been increasingly insensitive to the negative impacts of social media on young people. As an adult, in small doses, and through carefully vetted sources, I have greatly enjoyed my online learning experiences. Those that stand out in particular are with this organization, the Morgan Library, and the Prince's Foundation School for the Traditional Arts. I have been amazed at technology's ability to bring the world closer together (the instructor for this workshop was located in Mexico City!) and create enriching, albeit, temporary learning communities. I have no great revelations, but I will be curious to see how the learning landscape changes in the future.