Tag Archives: Sumi-E

The Bonds of Bonsai

The bonsai trees are back out in their courtyard at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  I went there today to teach my class on Calligraphy and Floral Decoration, and it was hard to walk through the garden to my classroom without “stopping to smell the roses”.

After three hours of demonstrating how to twist and turn the brush to evoke the vitality of living things in sumi ink, I walked outside to see the real thing.  I came upon this ostentatiously robust  bonsai azalea tree.

I’ve felt some ambivalence about bonsai, ever since Ted and I followed the signs to an artist’s ceramic studio while visiting wine country in Sonoma County, Callifornia.  The signs said “Pottery and Bonsai”, and sure enough, the studio had pots and little trees.  I’ll never forget overhearing a guy say, “I hate bonsai– they torture the trees, man!”  Which may be true, inasmuch as one can torture a vegetative life form.  But, we human beings also submit ourselves to torture for the sake of art and beauty– bonsais are the ballerinas of the plant world.  They’re trees in tiny toe shoes.

Even calligraphers can be tortured for their art.  During months of physical therapy to untie the knots I created in my neck by spending hours hunched over my drafting board, my physical therapist told me that I’d been in training like an athelete, only I had trained my body to be deformed.  After so many three-hour painting and calligraphy shifts, I actually felt I was turning to stone, like a gargoyle.  I contemplate my output,  what must be miles of border designs and lines of lettering that would stretch from here to Milwaukee, and sometimes I wonder just how much a person must paint.

And I answer myself, until she drops.  But, at least she can stop to smell the azaleas.

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East vs. West

Egret, by Regina Siske

“I am totally captivated by the beautiful, challenging art form of Asian brush painting.

‘The rhythmic ritual of grinding my own ink feels very meditative.  It prepares me to paint with a certain calm and presence, while connecting me to the daunting knowledge of a ritual that was practiced 4000 years ago.

‘The spirituality of Asian painting is an inspiration in its reverence for nature, from the most imposing mountain to the tiniest insect.  It is permeated with a spirit of gratitude– starting with the ink, brushes and hand-made papers.  It is said that an old brush is never thrown away, but reverently buried.

‘Studying with local teachers and international masters has been an evolution for me, as each teacher imparted his/her lessons of essential brush-strokes, which grew out of traditional Chinese calligraphy.  In the beginning, I tried to emulate the style of my teacher, in the old Asian tradition of learning.  Now, I am finding my own way, my own style and my own ‘landscapes’”….  Regina Siske, artist

Reggie is a friend of mine.  In the spirit of this blog, I have been helping her prepare for a solo exhibition of her paintings this summer, providing “technical support for a creative life.”  This took the form of designing her postcard and business card, photographing her work and digitally correcting the photos, uploading her work to a website, providing editorial feedback on her artist’s statement and bio, etc.

As I listened to her read her artist’s statement, I was struck by the dignity and beauty of her words, and how these qualities are mirrored in her paintings.  In an elegant way, she describes the humility and reverence with which one approaches Asian brush painting.  As a Hebrew calligrapher whose work is also tied to an ancient tradition, her words resonated with me.  For years, I refrained from signing my ketubahs (decorated Hebrew marriage contracts).  I felt that I was a link in a long chain of scribes who wrote Torahs and other sacred texts, anonymously.  The ketubah isn’t a sacred text; rather, it is a contract and a work of folk art, and eventually I put my stamp on it, creatively and appellatively.

More significantly, Reggie made me think about the contrast between an artistic tradition based on humility and gratitude, rather than ego and self-promotion.  As I work to make a living as an artist, I need to “get the word out” about my work.  Additionally, one of my professional gigs is art coach, to help others promote their work.

There is nothing wrong with all this horn-tooting, but at times it still makes me cringe.  I keep coming back to the bedrock of all this activity:  it is all about the work.  In other words, if we just put the work out there, it will speak for itself.  And, conversely, no matter how much hoopla we make, if the work isn’t speaking to people, all the noise will fall on deaf ears.

I think you will agree, when you regard Reggie’s work (above), that it speaks with a strong, gentle, lovely voice.  See more of Reggie’s work at her website, and August 5-30 at the Wilmette Public Library, 1242 Wilmette Avenue, Wilmette, Illinois.  Opening reception:  Friday, Aug. 5, 6-8 p.m.