Wabi-sabi

37

Dear Artist,

I recently visited a new-to-me forest near my home. Sycamore and oak leaves draped yellow and orange over a black pond. I stood barefoot and let November swirl around my ankles. In the dusk, I found a nest inside a fallen tree trunk that reached over the lake. I took it as an invitation to embrace nature’s coming sleep.

010915_gordon-smith

“Winter Pond II”
oil painting by Gordon Smith (b.1919)

In Japanese art, the term wabi-sabi revolves around an idea: nothing is perfect, nothing is permanent, and nothing is finished. Intuitively, we sense that things are most beautiful when they begin to wither. Here in the forest, autumn advances nature’s guileless process, her integrity intact, unashamed by my presence.

Before the 14th century, the term wabi was only awkwardly translated into English as an idea: the loneliness of living remotely in nature. Sabi meant roughly to “chill” or “lean.” The term suggested an indifferent universe inherently beautiful in her austerity. Modern definitions are more gentle and include the possibility of an artist’s hand — wabi is translated to rustic simplicity, freshness, quiet and understated elegance, and sabi is connected to the serenity that comes with age, including an object’s patina or signs of wear and even repair. Think of rust, the patched eye of a child’s stuffed animal or the coaxed and grafted limb of a hybrid plum. Haiku, ceramics, flower arranging, tea ceremony and the wandering, polytonal plucks of the samisen de-clutter for contemplation and heightened awareness. Here are the principles:

wabi-sabi_Hon.ami-Koetsu

​Akaraku ware tea bowl with kin-zukuroi technique (repairing with gold)
Hon’ami Koetsu (1558-1637)

Asymmetry: arrange, then un-arrange.

Asperity, or the roughness and irregularity of things: let your materials tell the story.

Simplicity: describe less.

Economy: describe with less.

Austerity: be bold with space.

Modesty: speak in a whisper.

Two_Sara-Genn

“Two”
watercolour on arches paper by Sara Genn
“Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry.” Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers

Intimacy: tell the truth.

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.” (Andrew Juniper)

Esoterica: In decay and transformation is hope. As the forest grew silent, I wanted to join her, imagining, longing for her mysteries. In his 2003 book Wabi-sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence, Andrew Juniper describes a kind of pleasure gained through appreciation for the transience of earthly things. This acceptance is a benchmark for beauty. As artists in the pursuit of creating evermore earthly objects, might we re-commit to this perfect imperfection?

If you’re in New York, a show of my paintings and those of fellow abstractionist Joshua Avery Webster will open on Thursday, November 19th at Voltz Clarke Gallery on 62nd Street. http://voltzclarke.com/exhibit_genn-webster.html

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37 Comments

  1. Artists may pursue creating ever more earthly objects- because those objects may have a very long shelf-life- (hopefully) guarantying that the artist’s vision will be recognized and appreciated for generations to come- regardless of whether or not it happens during the artist’s lifetime. This is somewhat the ANTI to wabi-sabi’s suggested impermanence.

      • wabi sabi has long been a part of my life since I was introduced to it by a fellow New Yorker named
        Morley Morgana, an architect turned “beaurocratic worm” (his appellation), who lived wabi sabi. I think it helped that he was raised
        in Berkeley…

      • Good to see fellow artists catching on to the concepts of wabi sabi…hopefully to expand with complementary awareness and pursuit of shibumi….especially useful.by, if not crucial to those pursuing composition of haiga.

        Dave

  2. Sara, It has taken me a lifetime experience to begin filling those cracks with gold; now it’s in creating art…beautiful!

  3. What I really got from this letter is that nature can helps us understand Wabi Sabi and its perfection. Your words pierced a beautiful part of my soul as I read: “Here in the forest, autumn advances nature’s guileless process, her integrity intact, unashamed by my presence.” And I too can be unashamed of the Wabi Sabi in my work – I actually welcome it. Thanks for a great letter!

  4. And within that simplicity, fragility & imperfection of the natural world there is infinite variety, strength, complexity & symmetry. Wonderful & without contradiction.

    My mandalas always contain an imperfection (or 2 or 3). If I haven’t managed one by ‘accident’ I’ll make sure and include one before the process is complete. However small. A touch of wabi sabi I guess.

    Here in North Northumberland this Autumn has been awe inspiring in its beauty. Walking the beaches & woods I breathe in with gratitude the creative inspiration of sky, earth & sea as we travel from autumn into the dark of another winter……..

  5. Dear Sara, have you seen the children’s book “Wabi Sabi,” the story of a cat named Wabi Sabi who goes on a quest to find out what his name means? It’s charming and beautifully illustrated… Thanks for your wonderful letters!

  6. Thank you Sara for reminding us of a principle we can explore ever more deeply. Your somewhat intriguing, beautifully simple painting is particularly to the point, also inviting meditation.
    Thank you for another inspiring letter!

    • I fully can understand the beauty in objects about to go in decay . I one can see it in nature but also inhuman built . Otherwise why would we stand and admire a ruine of an old city or look at the wonderful form of an old dead tree !

  7. Rachel Bushnell on

    Beautiful truths! This fall I painted the glorious colour of our Ontario trees. But then they began to fall away and I’ve discovered the organic grace of the trees behind the leaves. Every time I am out driving I am constantly wanting to capture the trees and take them home to remember.

  8. Polonca Kocjančič on

    Beautiful. Thanks for posting wabi-sabi on this list. We all need wabi-sabi to move away from the apps, gadgets, quick solutions, attention to perfectionist details, and life seen through numbers. The easiest way is to switch all man-made stuff off, go out, stop and observe nature. The funniest thing I find about observing nature is that it is a mixture of both: attention to detail as well as countless irregularities and roughnesses. I could do this for hours on end.

  9. This letter comes at the best point in time. As I begin a new series the listening, the waiting and the choosing move more closely with the flow. I wonder how simple my images will be….

    Congratulations and may your new show attract many new customers and admirers!

  10. This week I made a collage in a shadow-box which I consider Wabi-Sabi and used it as my entry in an exhibition whose theme is “Nostalgia”. I called the piece “I was once a Rolls Royce”. It is collage (torn pieces of a map) and a piece of rusted metal found on the street years ago. Oddly enough, the metal is shaped like a map of P.E.I. where it was found. I have been interested in Wabi-Sabi for a while, having read the book by Leonard Koren, but wasn’t sure what or how to depict it. I feel I have succeeded.
    Sara, the article was ‘right on’ and I felt your emotion when the dried leaves caressed your bare feet.

  11. Loved this letter, Sara. I have been easing into “wabi-sabi world” without knowing it. I love to paint watercolors of flowers and studies of individual leaves in autumn. I find the flowers which are starting to wither and the leaves filled with holes more beautiful than “perfect” specimans. And, late Fall and Winter are becoming favorite seasons with their simplicity and solitude. Perhaps it because I am also entering the “winter” of my life. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights … your brighten my days often.

  12. Here’s a weird thing – was just finishing off a painting of a lovely old rusty truck (if you’re interested you can see it on my FB page Korimako Studio) – and into my inbox popped your blog about wabi-sabi. So now I know what to call what I’m doing- thankyou! There’s something fascinating about old manmade objects slowly decomposing…

  13. Brian Dickinson on

    I believe that the Artist sees the beauty in decay as part of the eternal cycle ,and, the Artist who can par down the extraneous to the simple and beautiful is a master

  14. Sara

    Just what I needed this morning. More imoortant to create from the soul and worry less about what people think of your art. Sometimes only you get it.

    I donated some of my encaustic pieces to our church Bargain Box thinking it would give some of these people Christmas gifts. As I cashiered all morning I was so embarrassed when people looked at them and passed them up when they were marked 5 and $10 and purchased prints because they liked the frames or colors.

    They didn’t have a clue that a part of me went into those pieces.

    God gave me a dose of humble pie yesterday. I think He was telling me I didn’t give my best, just my okays.

    I just recently bought Two wabi sabi books. Love the idea.

    Thank you so much.
    Blessings, Sue

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