Wednesday, August 31, 2011

the drama of autumn (north seas series)

Autumn is full of drama in my part of northern Japan. Take salmon, for example. The way they are drawn irresistibly to the rivers where they were hatched, so they, in turn, can spawn the next generation of their kind. Though sea fishermen haul shiploads of this delicious fish to coastal markets, once they have entered the river, salmon are, for the most part, off-limits to humans.

But the salmon's drama has just begun. They must survive the body-crushing, skin-flaying, fin-nicking obstacle course of boulders and rapids as they defy the river current and push further and further inland. They must escape the claws of brown bears which are busy fattening themselves for winter hibernation. The females must survive these dangers while protecting a belly-full of eggs. The males must compete with other males to fertilize these eggs at the end of this exhausting journey. And, after that-- inevitably-- death. Their lives are exchanged for a chance that their offspring will survive to perform the drama all over again.

Monday, August 29, 2011

illustration friday (disguise)

Japanese folktales are full of stories of how humans are tricked by shape-shifting creatures. Two of the creatures most strongly associated with disguise are the fox and the tanuki. Whereas the fox tends to be sly and somewhat cruel, the tanuki tends to be a buffoon. My submission to this week's Illustration Friday illustrates a famous folktale called Bunbuku Chagama involving a tanuki that disguises itself as a ceremonial tea kettle. There are many versions to the story, but this is the version I learned as a child:

One day a tanuki is chased around the monastery grounds by a Buddhist monk who has come to the end of his patience over the tanuki's mischief. In a last-ditch effort to escape, the tanuki changes itself into a ceremonial tea kettle. But when the unsuspecting monk fills the kettle with water and places it on the hot coals of a hibachi in preparation for tea, the tanuki suddenly starts reverting to its true form. For some reason, it gets stuck half-way between its true form and the kettle disguise. The tanuki does manage to escape the monk, however, and in the end, it achieves success as a circus performer.

The accompanying quote is from a popular English nursery rhyme. I find the imbalance between the cultural background of the image and that of the words to be amusing. ;p

Saturday, August 27, 2011

ice and claws (north seas series)

A polar bear walks gingerly across the ice. The accompanying words quote from the last stanza of the poem Arktos by Ari Berk:

Wind of knives and fury born of stars
May not deter a giant built of ice and claws
Unless the sleep of solstices be on him
He, Son of Sedna and the Northern Waste

Friday, August 19, 2011

illustration friday (influence)

One of my favorite musical instruments in the whole wide world is the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute). My earliest memory of this soulful instrument is connected to an LP record (remember those?) that my father used to play for me when I had trouble falling asleep at night. The record was a selection of music composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, and performed on the koto and shakuhachi. By the time I grew up and had developed a full appreciation for it, the record had disappeared from my father's collection. I've never been able to find another one just like it.

Many years later, I was homeschooling my son and trying to decide what to do about music lessons. Like me, he was more interested in listening to music than playing it. I asked him if there was any instrument he had the least bit of interest in learning to play. After giving it some thought, he replied, "shakuhachi, because it sounds like the wind." So he and I both began to take lessons from a Zen priest who gave shakuhachi lessons in his spare time.

It was a fascinating experience that, for several reasons, lasted only one year. I hope to resume lessons one of these days. I dream of improving my skill enough to play Christian hymns on the shakuhachi, something that shocked my old teacher when I mentioned it to him, and may even be one of the reasons why our lessons didn't last. oops ;p

Today's etegami depicts a komuso, one of the wandering Zen Buddhist monks who used shakuhachi as a means of meditation. The accompanying words are a quote from a longer poem by Ikkyu, an eccentric 15th century Zen priest, poet, and shakuhachi player, and who-- to this day-- has a huge influence on popular Japanese culture.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

peachy links

Every once in a while I'm stunned and honored by being featured or mentioned on some very cool blogs. Here are some links to just a few of the most recent ones. I hope that you will make some new discoveries (as I did) and decide to follow some of these sites.

Mama Lisa's World is a treasure chest of International Childrens Songs, Nursery Rhymes, Culture and Traditional Music.

Sketches and Jottings looks inside the sketchbooks, journals, diaries and notepads of artists, writers, travelers and other interesting people.

Hello Seven has a cool Friday Favorites section that links to selected posts from each week's Illustration Friday submissions. The list and accompanying links are great for discovering new artists.

My thanks to Vicki of Vicki Smith Art, who awarded me the Sunshine Award and to Linda Hensley who credited me for inspiring her awesome cockroach art.

I hope to post more peachy links in the future.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

illustration friday (swell)

You may recognize this etegami from my Japanese Proverbs series. The writing translates to "a bee [sting] on a crying face," which refers to a misfortune that occurs on top of a previous misfortune (like the English saying rubbing salt in a wound).

Monday, August 8, 2011

illustration friday (imperfect)

In contrast with the typical Western view of imperfection as being something to overcome and eliminate, much of traditional Japanese art idealizes the concept of "imperfect." The term used to summarize this is Wabi-sabi, an aesthetic that sees beauty in the imperfect and incomplete. It has its roots in the Buddhist worldview that "nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect." In the art world, the term is often translated into English as "flawed beauty."

I've written before about the Etegami motto which was popularized by artist Koike Kunio. It goes: Heta de ii. Heta ga ii, which translates roughly to "Clumsy is not a problem. In fact, Clumsy is desirable!" I think this is Etegami's way of expressing the wabi-sabi philosophy. The shaky lines, the blankness of the background, the spaces left unpainted even within the outline of the image-- these and other characteristics of traditional etegami go against the grain of an artist who seeks perfection and completeness. An etegami artist has to be willing to give up a certain amount of control and see imperfection as beautiful.

When I make etegami, I have to resist my natural impulse to control the process. One way I give up control is by holding the ink brush by the tip of its long shaft with just two fingers, and moving the brush ever so slowly across the paper to create the outline of the image. I've written about this in my post on "living lines." In the wabi-sabi view, the clumsy jerks and bumps and blotches that result from this method are beautiful.

When I add color to this clumsy outline, I lay the paint brush against the paper and let the weave of the paper control the spreading of the paint. This is why I use washi cards with a high "bleed" factor. If I'm not careful, the paint quickly spreads beyond the border of the image. So I hold back on the paint, allowing plenty of blank margin between it and the border of the image. These blank areas add to the feeling of wabi-sabi incompleteness.

I find that if I forget the wabi-sabi attitude (which happens a lot), I end up with artwork that may be attractive enough on the surface, but lacking in something at a deeper level. It looks too controlled. It becomes difficult to distinguish from other kinds of art. To my eyes, it is no longer etegami.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

sketchbook project 2012 (third tale)

The Ainu word that usually gets translated as "god" is kamuy, and it basically applies to all things other than humans (ainu). This includes both living and non-living things. In the traditional Ainu worldview, kamuy spirits normally live in kamuy moshir (the land where the kamuy dwell), living just as humans do in ainu moshir (the land where the humans dwell). But once in a while, the kamuy borrow the forms of animals, plants, tools, and so forth, to visit the human world. And when they are freed from those forms (usually when their form dies or is used up in service to the humans) their spirits return to the land where the kamuy dwell, until such time as they desire to visit the human world again.

If the kamuy are not treated with honor during their visit to the human world, they are less likely to come for another visit. The forms which kamuy leave behind when they return to their own world are the food and other necessities that humans require for life. A steady supply of these necessities depends on humans showing proper respect and thankfulness (through various rituals) to ensure that the kamuy will make regular visits to the human world.

So, while there are many, many kamuy, some kamuy have higher status than others. The Owl Kamuy takes the form of the Blakiston's Fish Owl, probably the largest species of owl in the world. It is the guardian of the human village and has very high status. That's why I kept the word "god" in the title of The Owl God's Song, even though I omitted it in the other titles as being irrelevant and potentially confusing.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

eliot's cats

Just as I predicted in my last post, I became hopelessly caught in the grip of T.S.Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, and was unable to paint anything but cats for several days. After making a bunch of more-or-less traditional etegami, I redid some of them as etegami collages. I can't say I'm completely satisfied with any of them, but at least it took the edge off this obsession, and now I can go on to other things. (sigh of relief)

Monday, August 1, 2011

illustration friday (obsession)

I have both rational and irrational fears of many kinds of bugs. But a little over a year ago, I forced myself to paint a millipede etegami to submit to a mailart call on the theme of "Phobias." Ever since then, I've become obsessed with drawing bugs-- even the ones that disgust and scare me the most. Cockroaches, mosquitoes, and centipedes, for example. (I'm still not brave enough to draw spiders.) As I paint them, I discover beauty in the colors and patterns of their construction, and that helps me overcome a bit of my phobia. Just a little bit.

The words are a quote from a poem called The Old Gumbie Cat by T.S.Eliot, from the book titled: Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, on which, I'm told, the Broadway musical Cats is based. I've been enjoying the book immensely, and I see a lot of cat etegami in my future...