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.