As everyone knows, I’m interested in systems that might refresh and reboot creativity. Right now I’m thinking about a short walk in a fresh kimono to the communal bath and then a Reiki massage to soft shamisen music.
Lately I’ve been working on another system. I call it Retsu Wabi-Sabi. This is how it works: Wabi-Sabi is a traditional Japanese idea based on the acceptance of transience. It also means seeing beauty in imperfection, impermanence, incompletion and decay. This sort of beauty can be found both in nature and in man-made things.
Retsu means “in a set or series.” It also means something that is collected, in a line, or added to. My Retsu Wabi-Sabi uses digital photography. You might call it Digital Retsu Wabi-Sabi.
You need to go for a walk and pause from time to time to collect an image. A walk may take a minute or a week. Wide angle, close up, whatever. Retsu Wabi-Sabi is both an event and a collection. It’s a walk through space and time. Images are simply gathered — later to be edited and archived. The screen of a computer is the final home. The set can be shared, held private, misplaced or even forgotten. Everything is impermanent.
The collector has no stress while on the path. The action of the walk and the stations of the imagery do the refreshing and the rebooting. Passage is a privilege. Imaging is honouring. The effect is a reconnection with the power and resource of the great unconscious. The act of assembly is natural to the human psyche and it has more than one kind of benefit.
If you wish, Retsu Wabi-Sabi can be backed up with notes. However, I’ve noticed that note-taking is often distracting. In Japan, there is a concept called “Ma.” It means that items in the world automatically get your attention and direct your mind along specific paths. The idea is to take the pictures in a dreamlike, uninhibited way. When you let yourself “float,” the good stuff bubbles up from a deep well within. The hike back to the studio is alive with plans and ideas.
PS: “In art, Ma refers to the aesthetic and creative sense where the artist knows how to structure the flow of time.” (Boye Lafayette De Menthe)
Esoterica: I’m laptopping you from a small, bamboo-shrouded garden behind a Japanese country inn. An ancient, moss-covered rock-lantern marks the path of the old Tokaido Road. Black carp move slowly among water lilies in a small, man-made pond. A resident Dusky thrush, grown accustomed to my tapping, blesses the spot with a song. From here, several paths lead away in different directions — through a deep pine forest, up a steep mountain trail, down a narrow defile to the edge of Lake Ashi and the village of Hakone.
Expanding the normal
by Marie L Morgan, Santa Fe, NM, USA
I attended a thesis show back in 2005 at Marylhurst University in Portland, Oregon. I bought a photograph titled “Should We Amputate?” of a cluster of daffodils where one of the blooms has already browned. The young artist, Nova Moisa, said in her Thesis Summary that she was hoping to expand our sense of what is normal. “Socially the ideal type of person has been normalized to the extent that imperfections are categorized and often dismissed as if they were expendable to the whole we are taught not to stare at those who are different from ourselves.” Her photographic series depicted a variety of plants and vegetables, each with a “flaw” or “disfigurement.” She says, “We notice the “abnormality” yet at the same time almost deny its existence because we’ve mentally altered the “flaw” thereby making it more palatable.” The gallery space gave us permission to stare, giving “credence to those often denied admiration, respect, or attention.” Integral to her “wabi-sabi” is her personal story. “Having a disability, I have realized the need for our society to break away… and allow the recognition… of alternative forms to exist.” She hopes viewers will question their own definition of “normal” and create more fluid boundaries, realizing that “abnormal” for the viewer may be “normal” for the one being viewed.
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Retsu Wabi-Sabi in the countryside
by Frank Nicholas, Wheaton, IL, USA
I don’t know about this Retsu Wabi-Sabi. I do believe what you say about it has value to all of us in that our hurry up world has caused us to see things in rather a blur. I like the quiet of countryside, perhaps listening to a far off tractor or just trees being blown by a breeze. I also like slowly considering items that have been cast aside as garbage. Lately I’ve been doing watercolor studies of flattened pop cans. The colors of their first life and purpose are still evident but are now re-arranged and crushed down by various automobile wheels and the crevices invaded by small creatures and ants.
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Book identifies elements of design
by Carol Lyons, Irvington, NY, USA
The book by Boye Lafayette De Mente, Tuttle Publication, 2006 describes wabi-sabi and 63 other key words of Japanese esthetics to identify elements that make up the essence of Japanese design. It aids artists to understand and make use of those principles in addition to being intriguing and easy reading. When wondering why my art, especially the Visionary Image series was particularly popular with Asian collectors, I realized that the series epitomizes many of those elements described in the book.
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Using Retsu Wabi-Sabi for inspiration
by Janice McDonald, Denver, Colorado, USA
I take lots of “Digital Retsu Wabi-Sabi” type photos when I’m out and about. Most are patterns or composition/color studies and some are glimpses of negative spaces. I’ve used the impetus from the images in both my design and collage endeavors. I used to think the photos would be elements that I’d incorporate into the collages but it turns out they are always just inspiration. I feel that the choice of subject and my cropping of it help me to think more abstractly. When you practice looking, influences abound.
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Tibetan Retsu Wabi-Sabi
by Tom Semmes, Frederick, MD, USA
I have studied and practiced a form of Tibetan Buddhism called “Miksang” which means “good eye.” One of the practices taught at our programs is “aimless wandering” which basically means to go out and take a walk with no goal in mind and notice what you notice. It sounds simple but as human beings we rarely do it and need the structure of a class to practice it. Our built environment with its freeways and parking lots actually discourages wandering. But it is a very rewarding activity especially for an artist and I think the practice benefits the world more effectively than anything else. I recently started teaching a painting class, and though I often work on a painting the same time as the students, I often take breaks to check in to see how everyone is doing. The interesting thing is that my works seems to benefit from this. I have no time to overwork anything and have to take a fresh start every ten minutes or so. This seems to be in a similar vein to what is being discussed here.
Good housekeeping clears the way for creativity
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
I was infected with Wabi-Sabi bug in recent years. Clearly, I still remember the comforting feel of collecting things when I was a kid — napkins, pieces of colored glass, dolls, scrap fabric, magazines anything that would attract a magpie. Later as a teen in my peacock years it was clothes that I made myself, notebooks of designs, collecting anything that had to do with fashion. When I immigrated to Canada I collected nesting things which invoke a feeling of an established household — dishes, pillows, nicnacs. As my art became more and more the centerpiece of my life I have shaded off the need for those silly collections. Every time I clean my home I keep pushing stuff out in armloads. I feel that artistic ideas need the physical space clear of anything else that might steal my attention. I feel that the journey into the mental “float” is all I am seeking. The only thing that I wish could add to the world is a masterpiece.
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Recording transient thoughts
by Lynda Lehmann, NY, USA
For me walking is a familiar dimension of whatever creativity I find in myself. My feet move almost automatically while my mind and eyes wander through the brush and along the country road. This year I have finally begun to carry a hand-held recorder so that all those thoughts that bubble out from my subconscious mind can be captured. It’s easy, fast, can be transcribed at any time and not as painstaking as making written notes. Nothing galls me more than a good metaphor, lines of a poem, or even a full-fledged first draft of a poem lost to the thin air. This way my walks become a source of further creativity and I’m fully relaxed and yet channeling that stream of consciousness for later harvesting. Transient thoughts become the core of a more developed idea for my writing, painting or photography.
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by Raymond St. Arnaud, Victoria, BC, Canada
I am tempted to adopt Retsu Wabi-Sabi as an artist’s statement. Obviously I can’t really do that but it is encouraging to see a form of vindication on process from another culture. Speaking of artists’ statements, they are a curse to have to write and often a greater curse to have to read. The greater challenge is to write for others on how to best write a statement.
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by Ellen Key, Dallas, TX, USA
Thank you, thank you for giving a name to what I do all the time! Now that I have the iPhone I am always stopping during the course of my day to capture an image that catches my eye! This is one image that just “spoke” to me! It may not win any photo competitions but I love it and it instantly brings back the memory of the walk that my dog, Molly, and I were on that day. These flowers and grasses only grow in the springtime before they mow the bike path area so they are only there for a few months.
Featured Workshop: Scott Burdick
watercolour painting by
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 Lori Witzel of Texas, USA, who wrote, “Your emails help me reconnect with what’s important. Although I don’t currently paint, I do use a digital camera to help exercise my eye-heart-mind. For the longest time, when people asked me what I took pictures of, I’d grin and say “rusty things.” Thank you for giving me a new, richer term for my love of entropy. If you’d like to see and share some recent Texas-style Retsu Wabi- Sabi, you can find images on my blog.”
And also Alana Cullen of Halifax, NS, Canada, who wrote, “You have just explained my painting preoccupation with “RUST and RUSTIER.” Always enjoy a cup of tea with your letters and a serious thinking spell afterwards.”
And also Stewart Turcotte of Kelowna, BC, Canada, who wrote, “My need to photograph my passage is constant whether it be what I encounter on a rough path, in a back alley or what I strive to create by repositioning or arranging. The image may not be for someone else but I agree it is honouring and it is reconnecting. If I choose to share the images in the slide show it matters not. The idea of documenting the illusory passage of time in real image is a rewarding and important pastime.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Retsu Wabi-Sabi…