sumi ink

Poetry of Wabi Sabi workshop

Last Saturday I taught the mixed media workshop, titled The Poetry of Wabi Sabi, in Ukiah for the Mendocino Art Association . Wabi Sabi, the quality of things that suggests a natural process, vulnerable to effects of time, weathering, human treatment, yet still possessing poetry, poise and strength of character. We explored this esthetic by making textures, and moving inks and paints in spontaneous ways, collaging papers and more, keeping in mind the words of some favorite poets/artists such as:

Have no fear of perfection. You’ll never reach it.  -Salvador Dali

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. – Lao Tse

What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.  -Crowfoot

In the following painting I was demonstrating gesso texture and using a stencil with sumi ink. In the Monday Muse Group this week I had time to finish it and write.

lightgesso texture, sumi ink, acrylic inks, stenciled patterns, cricket stamp, on w/c paper

This piece was prompted by the poem:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

                  -Leonard Cohen

and how the cricket gets inside the house and calls to his comrades on the outside.

We live indoors in imagined compliance with the world outside, forgetting to notice the glory of light shining through the cracks. Nature’s sanctity beckons steady and true, even as we pursue the folly of perfection. (my response)

yugenInks on dry gesso texture, writing with a stick dipped in Diamine Silver Fox  ink

Another workshop demo that I later finished. The word yugen, yoo-gehn, is Japanese and means, “an awareness of the universe that triggers feelings too deep and mysterious for words”.  Enough said!

Wabi-sabi: Day Two

wabi-sabiSumi ink and Walnut ink in Antiquing Solution spray on w/c paper, 10 X 11″

Nature has its way all ways
in drips and accidents
swirls and blots
it shows us the mud
of winter rains and rotting leaves

sometimes it stinks
of fungus and rich loam
we wrinkle up our noses
try to stay clean
sanitize our sinks
wash our hands with perfumed soap

while the wind blows more leaves
onto freshly swept walkways
more debris in gutters
more tree limbs onto roofs

and we miss the point

miss the wabi-sabi

This is one of the demo pieces from the Sunday Muse Group, actually three demos in one.  The lesson started out as black/white studies with ink but branched out into the Japanese aesthetics of wabi-sabi: the beauty of the natural, spontaneous, unpretentious yet character filled (and so on).  We started to really appreciate the loveliness of our unintended “accidents” with the inks, allowing more and more randomness to enter our pieces.

The piece pictured here was an example of three methods of ink blob art.  In the flower shape on the left I dropped a blob of ink on the paper, spritzed it with water to splash ink outward, let it drip down the page, which created a stem, then took a bamboo pen to scrape some ink out from the stem for suggestion of leaves.  The shape on the right is a random ink blob created by pressing another piece of paper, monoprint style, over the blob, then removing.  And the line of thumbprints across the bottom are just that!


mothinbramblesSumi ink, gesso and acrylic inks

Wabi-sabi, the quality of things that suggests a natural process, vulnerable to effects of time, weathering, human treatment, yet still possessing poetry, poise and strength of character.  (Many of us folks of a certain age hope that this might refer to us).  It is the quality of things that are indifferent to conventional good taste, maybe even the product of some (lucky) accident.

Wabi-sabi does not profess to be important or the center of attention.  It is understated and yet has a quiet authority.  It may be coarse or unrefined, but in an earthy way, rich in raw texture and tactile sensation.  It is vague, blurry, subtle with earthy tones or smoky hues, infinite glorious grays and browns and blacks and sometimes silver rusts and green browns.

Simplicity is at its core, a sober modesty pared down to the essence, without removing the inherent poetry.

(To learn more about Wabi-sabi, coming to us of course from Japanese culture, you might want to read Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets + Philosophers by Leonard Koren)

. . .or try playing with black inks on white paper as we are doing in Muse Groups this weekend.

As I starting reading this little book, which we’ve had on our shelves for a while now, I kept thinking Yes!  Yes! this is exactly what we are trying to do in the Muse Groups.  We allow natural processes to evolve without forcing them.  We spin poetry out of accidental occurances.  We throw caution to the wind and thumb our noses at artistic convention.  We champion the accidents of art making.  We love soft edges blooming on wet surfaces and do nothing to draw attention to ourselves, but rather take these sublime art accidents as contemplations to dive deeper into new and thoroughly wabi-sabi destinations!

And so, my new love is wabi-sabi. And I set about looking for all the ways to make black ink do the wabi-sabi. . .

. . .like finger and palm prints and painting the ink through tissue paper and rollering it through gesso and more!


the identity machine charges fingerprints as entry fees
step inside, you might be surprised-
starting with sexual identity
yes, the girl kind and there’s more

don’t be afraid
we all have them
embarrassing ones we try to conceal
yet here they emerge in steady flow
on the conveyor belt, mixed in
with Christmas cookies and plastic toys,
the greed you keep stuffed in your wallet
the envy you put make up on
the superiority you alternate with inferiority
never seeming to get it right

don’t be afraid of the identity machine
it will churn out the candies along with the rest
. . .and perhaps no one will notice