Friday, November 20, 2009

christmas cards

Time passes very quickly for me these days, but never so fast as when I notice that it's time to make my holiday greeting cards. I try to get Christmas cards posted before the end of November, because at this time of the year, even air mail delivery to overseas addresses can be delayed beyond belief.

The etegami pictured here is the one I drew for Christmas 2007. It depicts the berries of the mountain ash (rowan) tree, each berry covered with a cap of snow. Mountain ash is one of my favorite trees, and while they grow profusely in the mountains of Hokkaido, they are also a favorite for planting along city streets. The berries start out pale and yellow, hardly noticeable in the green foliage, but by the end of fall, when the leaves have dropped off the branches and it begins to snow, the berries are bright, bright red.

Snow is a tricky thing to depict on a white card. I added blue shadows to make the snow more distinct, but this didn't show up very well in digital form. Nevertheless, it remains one of my favorite etegami. In my next post, I want to write about nengajou, the New Year cards that are traditionally exchanged in Japan. All the mail art I do now has its roots in the tradition of nengajou. Stay tuned!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

redefining failure

I once received an email from a woman who confessed she had gotten discouraged by her brief encounter with etegami because it was a "one-shot deal." I assume she meant that the success or failure of a piece often becomes apparent with the first few strokes, and there's simply no way to un-do the damage. Not to mention that a perfectly good drawing can be ruined when you add the words. Or sadder yet, a poorly placed or mis-pressed name seal can mar an otherwise well-balanced piece at the very, very end. I am familiar with the frustration this causes, and have filled numerous trash bags with torn-up etegami to prove it.

When I first started Etegami, I was advised that if I was unhappy with a piece, I should set it aside for a time. It often happens that a piece which seems all "wrong" will not look wrong at all when you come back to it later. I've saved a lot of etegami from oblivion this way. But I came to realize that there was something else-- something more troubling-- going on each time I judged one of my etegami a success or failure. I was looking at my work and thinking: "Does this piece reflect well on me?" or, "Will the receiver admire me for this?" And I recognized that there was something very wrong, very un-Etegami, in those thoughts. Etegami is not about making yourself look good. Etegami is about enjoying the process, and about wanting the receiver to feel good, amused, comforted, or maybe stimulated to thought.

I've mentioned before that the motto of the modern Etegami movement can be summarized as: "Clumsy makes good Etegami." Anyone can draw etegami. You certainly don't need to be an artist, and you don't need to have what the world calls talent. The more unselfconscious the mind and unrefined the skills, the more charm an etegami often has. I confess I am weak. Praise is as sweet as honey. But in craving honey I am in danger of losing the Etegami spirit.

This is all by way of explaining the attached photo. Many things went "wrong" with this drawing of a small orange and yellow pumpkin. Almost from the beginning, I was unhappy with the shape. Then I didn't wait for the sumi outline to dry before I started coloring it, so the outline got smeared. By the time I added the words, I had given up on it, so I wrote sloppily and overlapped the drawing, which I usually try not to do. I set it aside for a time, and later decided the squashed drawing and sloppy writing had a sort of charm. Then, as I was writing out the address of a new friend, I inadvertently laid the card face down on a surface spotted from a rubber air mail stamp, and the red ink transferred to the drawing. There was no way to un-do it. What to do? What to do?! I caught myself thinking, "How is this etegami going to reflect on me?" And that did it. I was not going to let my vanity keep me from sending this card. "You don't need talent to draw etegami," I had written in my brief message on the other side. So there was no reason to hesitate. Hopefully this clumsy card will encourage my new friend to give etegami a try. And if not, it may at least amuse her.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

the person at the other end

I spent a morning last weekend reading the September, October and November issues of Etegami magazine (published by the Japan Etegami Society) that I'd been too busy to give proper attention to when they first arrived. It was the title of the September issue that captured my eye, and then my heart. The Japanese title was really quite poetic, but the best translation I can come up with at the moment is: "The Joy of Having Someone who Welcomes Your Etegami."

In my last post, I reviewed the basics of etegami. But there is another-- perhaps more important-- "basic" of etegami: The relationship between the sender and the receiver. Etegami is a form of communication from the heart, from one person to another. A great deal of the value of Etegami is in the fact that there is someone at the other end to welcome it, and ideally, the artist draws each work with the intended recipient in mind.

The sunflower etegami posted here is accompanied by words which mean "Puddle of Sunshine." I drew it to cheer up a friend who loves sunflowers. As the volume of my mailart exchange grows and grows, this is one basic of etegami that I hope I never, ever forget.