“What are you doing?” a voice asks from behind me in clear, almost musical English. Turning around I find a saffron-robed monk. He is a round little man with a round, shaven head, flatter than it is deep — a face like a bas-relief. He is smiling, friendly.
“I’m trying to paint an elephant,” I say. He moves closer. “But are you doing the power of the elephant, or the patience of the elephant, or the spirit of the elephant?” he asks. At the point when the visitor appeared I was thinking I was running low on Payne’s gray, but now I realize I have a force to contend with. While I’m working on some sort of a smart or even intelligent reply my model lets out a prolonged and agitated trumpeting. I’m in the Karen village of Kareang Rummit on the Mae Kok River near Chang Mai in northern Thailand. There are several elephants tethered at the river’s edge. These are working elephants, used for moving teak logs in the forest. On their days off they can be hired to take tourists on treks along the river. Brightly-clad handlers stand around their charges as if they were the owners of giant classic cars. If there were running-boards to put their feet up on, they would. There’s no business today. One of the elephants is getting soaped down with a long-handled mop.
“It’s my first elephant,” I say. My visitor puts down a plastic shopping bag and points to the tusks on my elephant. “They curve more. Yours are like a fork-lift,” he says. I thought I knew what I was doing. I thought I had them just about right but when I take another look I have to agree that something might be gained by making them more dynamic. Showing off a bit, I quickly put them in again: bigger, longer, more curved. I improve the shape with the negative area around. “Yes, yes, yes,” he says. He picks up his sack. “I’ll be back,” he says, as if I might be hopelessly and forever in need of his artistic and perhaps spiritual guidance.
Esoterica: He came back. His name is Jibba and he has become my friend in these parts. Yesterday I followed him in his daily routine. A record of this day can be found by going to http://painterskeys.com/monk/
The following are selected response to this and other letters. Thanks for writing.
The challenge is about meaning
Margot Hattinge, Cape Town, South Africa
The elephant is one of the major themes that run through my own work. The monk is absolutely spot on. I think most people mistake technique or the ‘thing’ for the challenge. The challenge is about meaning, not another pale copy of the physical reality.
Become the elephant
“To learn about the pine, go to the pine. To learn about the bamboo, go to the bamboo. But this learn is not just what you think learn is. You only learn by becoming totally absorbed in that which you wish to learn. There are many people who think that they have learned something & willfully construct a poem which is artifice & does not flow from their delicate entrance into the life of another object.” (Basho) quoted by Gary Snyder.
Just become the elephant. And stick with Jibba.
Narang Pata, Thailand
There is our word “Pansemyo” which means the ten flowery arts. They cannot be offered to gods and Lord Buddha. “Pan” means beautiful fragrant flower that naturally grows. And “Pan” also means artifact, which are beautifully created by arts. There are ten kinds of arts with the second meaning. They are Pan-Pe (craft of blacksmithing), Pan-Htain (art of making items in gold), Pan-Tin (art of making item cast or wrought from bronze, copper or brass), Pan-Taw (art of making decorative work in relief with stucco), Pan-Yan (craft of a mason), Pan-Pu (art of carving wood or ivory), Pan-Tamaw (art of stone sculpture), Pan-Put (craft of a turner), Pan-Yan (art of making lacquer ware) and Pan-Chi (art of painting) Good luck with big gray elephant painting you Pan-Chi guy.
Elephants on lacquerware
Ngan Kwok Mar, Myanmar
There are four types of drawing on Myanmar lacquerware: They are Kanou, Kapi, Nari, and Gaza. Kanou is art of depicting lotus, stems, buds and blossoms. It is used in drawing floral or intricate designs. Kapi means monkey in Pali and is art of depicting monkeys and the like. Action and movement depicted can be called Kapi. Nari means girl in Pali. Nari is the art of depicting the female figure or all human figures. Gaza means elephant in Pali and is art of depicting any massive objects like enormous waves. Traditional art here is not the art of drawing models. The artist can draw freely to express his concept. The colours used in painting are natural things — trees, lime, earth, sand, rock, bones, animals, smoke, charcoal and egg. It is important for Myanmar to grow Thitsi trees for they are essential raw material for lacquer wares. It is also important to hand down traditional Myanmar lacquerware art to the posterity.
Gary W James, UK
Thailand’s elephants, both wild and domesticated, are now struggling for their survival. The wild elephant population is declining steadily, due to destruction of forest habitats, poaching of elephants for ivory, and the slaughter of mother elephants and subsequent sale of their calves for domestication. Increasingly, owners are mistreating and neglecting domesticated elephants that can no longer help owners generate income from logging, which was recently banned in Thailand. These elephants have become a burden to their owners, who in many cases underfeed or simply give away their elephants. Other owners continue to use elephants for illegal logging, often abusing and injuring the elephants or feeding them amphetamines to boost logging productivity.
(RG note) “Friends of the Asian Elephant” (FAE) is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the elephant. They have a website at
A case of double Paintus interruptus
I was painting a small cafe scene in Vail, Colorado, with people whirring all around me. A middle aged woman circled me twice and said, quite sure of herself, “Not bad.” To avoid this sort of thing, I picked a trail head the next day and hiked four hours up the trail to Booth Creek Falls, climbed up a rock face, positioned my easel at the top of the falls and proceeded to paint a complicated rock and water scene. One hour into the painting a woman and her two children came down from somewhere upstream, stopped, had a look and said, “Not bad.” Same woman. Next time I’m taking a boat upriver.
Taken for granted
Melinda Colbourne, Cornerbrook, Newfoundland, Canada
I painted an old ‘57 Chev and thought it was perfect. I showed it to my son who is a mechanic and right away of course he said mom where’s the back tires — you only have the rims here. I thought something wasn’t quite right but doing it and redoing it I guess I took it for granted.
Peter Collier, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I recently saw a study concerning face recognition. Apparently, we all identify people in somewhat of a caricature fashion. Our minds perceive the ears, eyes, hair… whatever, prominent feature in an exaggeration of the actual image. Changing hair colour or turning the face upside down, throws us off completely from recognizing the person. I think, great… another layman’s perspective, that style is more than just the artistic differences and skills.
I believe that people will do this same recognition and reconstruction of whatever they are viewing and painting in the same manner as face recognition — i.e. accenting the size of a river, colour of a tree, shape of an elephant’s tusk, intensity of cloud, roughness of the bark, etc. It’s endless variations that make the artistic landscape. Ask several artists to paint EXACTLY a face, landscape, ocean-scape… whatever, in a surrealistic fashion, what they are all identically viewing and these hidden perceptions will become more evident. Just a thought… “no two thoughts are alike.”
Monk’s attitude toward death
Brownie Egan, Siesta Key, FL, USA
With tears in my eyes, I read the monk’s quotations on death. Interesting, isn’t it, that their culture constantly reminds their people of the frailty of life, the brevity, the inevitable end awaiting all. Do they, I wonder, accept death as a part of life more easily than we? Part of me is angry at my own culture with TV ads suggesting a life span of 100+ to all with no decline in abilities or powers, at a government moving to insist that anyone under the age of 70 can easily work to produce income, and especially at myself for grasping the truth of the monk’s words so late in my own time span that I can only regret some of the choices I have made. But, it isn’t over yet.
(RG note) The account of a day I spent with a Thai monk is at http://painterskeys.com/monk/
Some things never understood
Last January, my friend Richard drove me from Colorado to Baltimore to see my father. Richard felt that he was finally able to go to the Vietnam Memorial. When we left Baltimore we headed south on the Washington Beltway. We continued to drive and the silence was formidable. About 30 minutes south of DC I gathered the courage to look over. Richard’s face was drenched with sweat and his jaw visibly clenched. We drove on to southern Virginia to a friend’s farm. I was driven to paint the vision in my head and completed ‘Enduring the Ghosts’ upon our return to Colorado. For months it hung glowing and restless on the walls of our apartment. Finally I got the message and one night in May I drove to the Vietnam Memorial in Angel Fire, New Mexico, and left the painting at dawn, among the fragile mementos, flowers and tears of other pilgrims on the floor of the small chapel. For me, love and joy in my work sometimes shares time with pain and the bewildering realization that some things can never be understood.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 95 countries worldwide, including Afghanistan, have visited these pages since January 1, 2001. That includes Bill Cannon of the central coast of California in the middle of a four day Story Structure Workshop, who says, “Hope you have found a store that sells Payne’s gray in Thailand.” And Jack Teague who says, “There’s no Payne’s gray available in Thailand.” And Diane Middleton of Calgary, Alberta, who notes, “For one who leads a simple life by our standards, Jibba is rich in great wisdom.” And Richard Stark who couldn’t help remembering Rudyard Kipling:
Elephints a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy
you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, Texas, USA
Some leading artists from New York and area are organizing a wide-ranging art project to respond to the World Trade Center Disaster. The New York Artists’ Circle is calling on artists to submit square pieces of canvas to be joined together in a huge “Unity Canvas.” You can find out about it at http://www.absolutearts.com/