“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 painting 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 running low on Payne’s gray, but now I realize, with this guy standing behind me, I have a more serious force to contend with. While I’m thinking about some 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 from the forest to the river. On their days off they can be hired to take tourists on treks in various directions. 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.
All this time I thought I knew to some degree what I was doing. I thought I had those tusks just about right, but when I take another look I have to agree that something might be gained by making those tusks 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. “I’ll be back.” He picks up his sack and disappears.
For a few moments I had the fearful feeling that I might be hopelessly and forever in need of his artistic and perhaps spiritual guidance.
PS: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” (T. S. Eliot)
“Teach me to hear the mermaids singing.” (John Donne)
Esoterica: A little later that day, while I was working on my second elephant, the monk came back. His name is Jibba and he has become my friend. Yesterday, I followed him in his daily routine. He is very well informed and well spoken. He told me he learned English while working as a laundryman’s helper in Leeds, England.
This letter was adapted from a twice-weekly letter previously published on November 9, 2001. My two (and only) elephant paintings have long since disappeared into the Diaspora.
by Arlene Woo, Honolulu, HI, USA
My two and a half year old granddaughter had a friend who loved elephants. Eliott was moving away, so I decided to give him the elephant portrait I had painted after our visit to the zoo. His reaction was better than any artist could expect. He looked at the painting, at me, and then kissed the elephant painting.
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Remover of obstacles
by Cheryl Braganza, Montreal, QC, Canada
Every now and then, elephants keep stomping on to my canvases and I can’t stop them, especially during these cold wintery days here in Quebec. It must be to do with the fact that these mythical creatures immortalized in stone for centuries evoke protective and life-sustaining energies, vital to us all. Both gentle and destructive, they are the epitome of gods and goddesses as is Lord Ganesh, remover of obstacles, who is so revered by Hindus the world over.
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The power of a line
by Darrell Baschak, Manitou Beach, SK, Canada
Your mention of painting elephants and the encounter with the monk reminded me of an experience I had in Saskatoon a number of years ago. I make it a practice to visit the Mendel Art Gallery in the spring of the year when they host an annual exhibit of Art created by K to 12 school children. One of the most memorable pieces I saw, and remember to this day, was a drawing by a grade 3 girl of an elephant and mouse. A simple and powerful drawing of the elephant using a heavy, dark line to express the essence of that beast. The mouse was drawn with a light and delicate line, so exquisite. It occurred to me that many artists might struggle all their lives to achieve such an effect.
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The dynamism of horses
by Cheri Isgreen, Montrose, CO, USA
Have you ever moved your hand quickly back & forth in front of your face? When you do, you don’t see your hand; instead you see the background — what is behind your hand. The color passages, (from the powerful violets directly behind the horse’s body to the attention grabbing roses where the next footfall will land to the lyrical yellows trailing behind this horse) manifest all the beauty & joy a horse expresses through movement. The heavy and lighter blue lines indicate a powerful mass moving through space; yet this 1000 pound animal appears weightless. The ground line is dynamic, changing from thin blue to heavy red at the last point of thrust. I never tire of observing and painting horses; they range from gentle giants, wise teachers, dancers beyond the tether of gravity, to powerful primeval forces, depending on their needs or emotions. All this can be conveyed through distilling their elements into an interplay of shadow & shape, line & color, rhythm & texture… whatever the painting calls for…
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by Jean Belluz, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
I was painting a fall landscape and over my shoulder I heard the voices of two ladies. One said, “Oh look at the bright colours.” I cringed. The second voice replied, “It shows the joy in her heart.” I finally plucked up the courage to turn around and see who it was. Lo and behold there stood two nuns in their long black habits smiling sweetly. I have never painted fall colours again without hearing those remarks and now I try to keep the colours somewhat subdued!!
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Profoundly wise woman
by Rice Honeywell, White Rock, BC, Canada
One of the most interesting and wonderful people I’ve met is an old woman who is a local Buddhist nun. For a time she was a regular patron at my restaurant; showing up in her saffron robes and close-shaven head and I would sit with her for hours chatting. Although originally a farm girl from the prairies by the name of Anne McNeill, she studied in Tibet as one of the first white western women to be accepted into that world.
Her truths are simple, her smile is easy and genuine and her knowledge, deep. Although sadly I hear she has been affected by dementia these days, her acceptance of all things and all people as part of “the whole” will never be forgotten. I only wish that all people who fancy themselves belonging to one “religion” or another could have at least a smidgen of the power and goodness of knowledge that she possesses in her simple, easy-going (yet profoundly wise) style.
Art and Gestalt therapy
by Oscar Bearinger, Killaloe, ON, Canada
I retired from my clinical career in Gestalt therapy a few years ago. In my work I developed a model which I have since published in the Gestalt field, which links the creative process to the model of Gestalt therapy’s Cycle of Experience. Through my work in art therapy and in my own artistic pursuits, I have come to understand the process of creativity is essentially the same as the experiential model developed in Gestalt therapy.
Think before you throw out the interloper
by Mary Susan Vaughn, Weddington, NC, USA
This absolutely validates a similar experience — without the elephants, although the “elephant” was surelyin the room!! My studio is in my home — in my dining room to be exact — and that makes it all too convenient for other family members to wander in and express their opinions as I progress with my painting. At first, especially with my husband, who works from home most of the time, this became quite the annoyance. He would tell me my perspective was off, or the nose was wrong, the pitch of the roof is at the wrong angle. It would make my blood boil. Sometimes, I’d hear him coming and tell him if he got anywhere near my studio I was going to throw paint in his general direction. Such are the deep-rooted feelings of an artist! But over the years, and there have been 21, I have learned that his perspective is most often than not, correct. He offers me a fresh eye, a fresh perspective that I need to make my paintings come alive. And yes, I am afraid, I am going to need him the rest of my artistic life, to offer me his opinion, or my paintings may surely fall apart.
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Painting at the top of the first group
by Fernando Tomas Barboni Urraburu, Montevideo, Uruguay
I read your mails daily and I think that there is plenty of knowledge there. I think that’s a special moment to think, to be reflective. Life gives us good things and several of the others. Painting is at the top of the first group. It makes me feel happy, giving me lovely moments of introspection. Thanks for your support. Very happy Christmas and prosperous 2014!
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Stewart Turcotte of Kelowna, BC, Canada, who wrote, “As proven by the monk who unnerved you a bit, it is not necessarily the information that you get from what you are looking at that is important, it is asking the right question to get the information that you need.”
And also Ginger Rouse who wrote, “Your letters make me feel like an old friend, even though we have never met. Recently a potter passed me as I painted a longhorn cow. She said, ‘The horns are larger.’ She, too, was right.”
Enjoy the past comments below for A memory of Thailand…