Retsu Wabi-Sabi

Dear Artist, 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.

Digital permits easy macros

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.

All is transient

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.

Beauty is everywhere

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.

A world of surprises

Best regards, Robert 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.   Retsu Wabi-Sabi 070910_robert-genn       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. There is 1 comment for Expanding the normal by Marie L Morgan
From: Jane — Jun 08, 2013

I’ve just subscribed to the weekly letter and have been reading a few older ones. I’ve already learnt some interesting and useful things. My medium is traditional Japanese embroidery. In old pieces we often see a motif with a blemish of some kind, I had not idea this could be a form of wabi-sabi – so interesting. I look forward to reading more.

  Retsu Wabi-Sabi in the countryside by Frank Nicholas, Wheaton, IL, USA  

“Flat Coke”
watercolour painting
by Frank Nicholas

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.   There are 2 comments for Retsu Wabi-Sabi in the countryside by Frank Nicholas
From: Anonymous — Jul 13, 2010

Lovely. Nature reclaims everything sooner or later. The little spot of green is like a wink!

From: Mary B — Mar 29, 2011

There’s a fun aspect of your painting that makes the can appear to be floating off of the ground.

  Book identifies elements of design by Carol Lyons, Irvington, NY, USA  

“Poetic License”
original painting
by Carol Lyons

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.       There are 4 comments for Book identifies elements of design by Carol Lyons
From: Terry — Jul 12, 2010

Wow, Carol! I love this painting! It makes me see so many things within it!

From: Stella Reinwald — Jul 13, 2010

Carol, you don’t include the title of this particular book. The author has written so many on Japan, it’s not clear which one you are referring to here. I would really like to know as I’ve often wished there was a concise reference for Japanese aesthetic concepts.

From: Carol Ann — Jul 14, 2010

I also googled for the book, can you please send the title or more information.

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Jul 14, 2010
  Using Retsu Wabi-Sabi for inspiration by Janice McDonald, Denver, Colorado, USA  

by Janice McDonald

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. There are 3 comments for Using Retsu Wabi-Sabi for inspiration by Janice McDonald
From: Virginia Wieringa — Jul 13, 2010


From: Mikki — Jul 13, 2010

What a gorgeous photograph! It tells all there is to know. Congratulations!

From: Ellen — Jul 13, 2010

The coolest thing, I’ve discovered, is that you can free yourself from the idea that a photo has to contain ALL of an object. Just capturing part of it seems to set well with me, nowadays. There’s more mystery to the photo and I notice different details.

  Tibetan Retsu Wabi-Sabi by Tom Semmes, Frederick, MD, USA  

acrylic painting
by Tom Semmes

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  

“Alberta Patterns”
acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

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. There are 2 comments for Good housekeeping clears the way for creativity by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
From: Maxine — Jul 13, 2010

There is a face in your mountain patterns just left of center..

From: catherine robertson — Jul 15, 2010

Tatjana, You have added the “masterpiece” you wish for above in this beautiful, stylized painting ! I always love your work !

  Recording transient thoughts by Lynda Lehmann, NY, USA  

“Froth and Foam”
by Lynda Lehmann

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. There are 2 comments for Recording transient thoughts by Lynda Lehmann
From: Ellen — Jul 13, 2010

Awesome! Thanks for that great idea! I will start doing that, as well. I know how one is supposed to keep paper and pencil handy, but this is even better because you can’t always stop to write something down when you’re out walking!

From: Lynda Lehmann — Jul 13, 2010

Just be careful not to record over previous material! You can sit down on a quiet day when you have some time, and transcribe your verbal notes into written notes for poems, articles, etc. When you dictate, you can relax about it because you know you will do the re-writes and editing later on. I’m glad you find this helpful!

  Artist’s statement by Raymond St. Arnaud, Victoria, BC, Canada  

“A Touch Can Mean As Much”
by Raymond St. Arnaud

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.   There is 1 comment for Artist’s statement by Raymond St. Arnaud
From: Terry — Jul 12, 2010

I especially LOVE the way the colors work together in this photo. The textures make me want to keep looking and looking at it… There is so much in so little here. Bravo!

  Capturing images by Ellen Key, Dallas, TX, USA  

“Flowers in dry grass”
by Ellen Key

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.         [fbcomments url=””]   Featured Workshop: Scott Burdick
071310_robert-genn Workshops with Scott Burdick   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Far Out

watercolour painting by Terry Greenhough, BC, Canada

  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.”    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Retsu Wabi-Sabi

From: Faith — Jul 08, 2010

As I was reading the above letter, it occurred to me that we might be being treated to a well-judged dose of codology. Codology is a science in itself. Not everyone is an accomplished codologist, though most of us have a bash now and again. You can experience the expert codologist in every walk of life. Codologists can be found anywhere on the planet. You may be one yourself. I certainly am, and that is an assersion rather than a confession. Have a nice day.

From: Wendie Thompson — Jul 09, 2010

Oh, there is a fabulous Milwaukee based artist manes Roy Staab who takes full advantage of this in his work. His complaint, if I understand it right, is that we in Milwaukee don’t “get it”. He travels the world to do his art. It is beautiful. Here are some examples:

From: Thierry Talon — Jul 09, 2010

“As everyone knows, I’m interested in systems that might refresh and reboot creativity.” I can see why, Robert. The more I see of your work, the more it seems formulaic. It sells well though.

From: Ester Roi — Jul 09, 2010

I have an easy, home-made way to let myself “float”. If you are interested, you can check this entry on my blog:

From: Lawrence Bickstein — Jul 09, 2010

While I consider your newsletters to be generally excellent, and I regularly recommend them to others, I would like to offer a little constructive criticism. With all due respect, the next time you feel you want to start a sentence with “I’m laptopping you from …” please consider that many of us a) would prefer that you stick to topics regarding the creative process, b) would appreciate being spared reminders that we have neither the time nor money to indulge in exotic jaunts around the world, and c) are not particularly interested in your personal lifestyle (sorry, but it’s true!)

From: robin — Jul 09, 2010

I find that note taking or computer use only serves as a disconnect from the experience. The experience does not need documentation or linguistic interpretation. It just is.

From: Hanna S. — Jul 09, 2010

No Lawrence, that’s not true – you should speak for yourself. I read letters by Mr. Genn, sent from a server paid by Mr. Genn and published on a web site paid by Mr. Genn on topics that Mr. Genn likes to write about, the way Mr. Genn likes to write…got the message??? There is endless amount of stuff on internet and thousands of newsletters available for grumpy jealous people to choose from. It should be easy for you to find what you like – unless what you like it to offend people who make their resources available to others.

From: Kathryn F. McDonald — Jul 09, 2010

When reading your post from Japan on Retsu Wabi-Sabi and it brought to mind the Tibetan practice of Miksang. Miksang means “Good eye” and in this case Good means that our mind is uncluttered by preoccupation, relaxed and open. There is a practice which applies Miksang to photography and despite the clutter in my mind this floated up and I thought this would be a good reference for all to explore.

From: Dorenda — Jul 09, 2010

I think Leonardo Da Vinci said it best…”As a day well spent makes sleep seem pleasant, so a life well employed makes death pleasant. A life well spent is long.” So Robert, you just keep on traveling and keep us posted on your long life well spent. :) Love it!

From: Helen Williams — Jul 09, 2010

Your interpretation of the words wabisabi is quite different from the meaning that I learned when I lived in Japan for 10 years. I learned that it is a type of minimalism in decoration or even dress. It excludes anything that is plastic, gaudy, shiny or brightly colored. If you are staying at a ryokan, then the bamboo mats, the beige walls, the wood, the simplicity of decoration would be considered wabisabi. I find your interpretation quite imaginative, but quite confusing as well.

From: Patsy, Antrim — Jul 10, 2010

Wendie, had a look at Roy Staab’s art – love it. We lived for a while in south-west England, not too far from Stonehenge. I became fascinated by flint, and wonder why more is not made of it as an art material – maybe because it’s so hard? For a long time, whenever we went for a walk, I would carry home at least one stone I liked, and beside our front door I built “Flinthenge”. In the shape of a question mark, because who really knows what the henges were? I sometimes wonder if it’s still there, or if the new tenants got rid of that odd pile of stones… Lawrence, Robert has the inspiration and good will, and makes the effort, to write these inspiring letters with such reliable regularity. He doesn’t have to do it, and is not going to be around forever – treasure them while you can. They are the breath of artistic life to me, for reasons I won’t go into as I wouldn’t want to bore anyone. So he is able to visit these wonderful places and shares his experiences with us – that offends you? Good heavens. He uses laptop as a verb, but would I scold him? I wouldn’t dream of it. ;-)))

From: Fred Followill — Jul 10, 2010

A triad of aesthetic principles “sabi”, “shibui”, and “wabi” from Japan suggest a quality found in the old, faded, aged, restrained, understated elegance, unobtrusive sophistication, harmonious, rare beauty, that causes us to celebrate the fragility of all nature. Violent tranquility? You used “retsu”, I did not understand your intent nor use (wikipedia suggests that “retsu” means “violent”) in contrast to tranquil beauty and nostalgia.

From: Helen Williams — Jul 10, 2010

Also, as far as I know, “ma” is not a suffix or a prefix in the Japanese language. However in “Watashi wa” the ‘wa’ sets off the topic of the sentence. The particle “ga” usually indicates the subject of a sentence, but that depends on its position. It has other applications depending on where it appears. For instance, at the end of an refusal, you might see gozaimasu ‘ga’, in which case it serves to soften it. I apologize for the grammar ‘lesson’, but still, your interpretations are far more entertaining than the reality. ;-))

From: Helen Williams — Jul 10, 2010

Oops! I just asked my Japanese friend…The word ‘ma’ is the space between things. For instance, grout is the space between tiles. Or, if the timing is good you might say “ma ji ie des” (the timing is good). So in the art world, it may refer to the spacing between the main elements in a painting. I’ve been out of Japan for more than 5 years now, so my Japanese is getting rusty. If you’ve attended a Japanese tea ceremony, the dress, the manners and the decor are usually referred to as wabisabi. “Retsu” has four different meanings depending on the Kanji used. It can mean a line-up, inferior, a crack or tear, or violent or aggressive, such as in a violent storm.

From: Chris Everest — Jul 12, 2010

Perhaps a couple of the criticisms levelled in these replies at Robert and his art, and his methods of transmitting his writing to the world should be considered unfair. It is so rare in these letters to find such a response. Suffice it to say Robert you may laptop us from anywhere and your painting is not formulaic. That I suspect is the majority view. Such criticisms seem so much harsher within this community. This is usually the most supportive and rewarding collective of skill and knowledge anywhere. Perhaps the critics might like to simply not bother reading the letters.

From: Thierry — Jul 12, 2010

Chris, you are a kind man, but you have never even sold one painting. Selling 250 per year makes it impossible not to be ‘formulaic’. And remember, at one point it was the majoriy view that the earth was flat. I enjoy most of what Robert writes, and I admire his unflagging discipline in doing so twice a week. The majority would be incapable of such an effort.

From: Lynda Lehmann — Jul 12, 2010

I’m of the school of thought that if you have nothing positive to say, don’t say it at all. People usually accuse the “other” of actions or traits they dislike in themselves. And that’s that. Those letters of Robert’s that I have read, have been a source of enrichment in my life. Whether his approach and mine differ, or how much we sell, or to what degree any of us are “formulaic”, are not that important. The point is that he invests a lot of time in exploring and sharing ideas with this community. And for that, we all need to thank him. Each of us finds our own accommodation, and in my mind, there’s simply no point in “labeling” people, their work, or their motivations.

From: Bill Reeves — Jul 13, 2010

I appreciate your insights Mr. Genn, as well as your courage to allow others to comment on your thoughts.

From: Debi Bradford — Jul 13, 2010

Often, one of of Mr. Genn’s missives grabs me by the shoulders and gives me a good shaking. Whether coming from his laptop in Japan or his rolling studio perched on the side of a mountain or tapped from his living room makes no difference, as the insights shared are always of value on some level of need. Currently, my work is schlumping, creatively speaking. That’s okay as I think creative slumps are part of the process, but I digress. I adored Robert’s missive on Retsu Wabi-Sabi and offer this as my take on the process. Morning walks and what one sees and one’s take on it. This is a bit of Retsu Wabi-Sabi as I now think of it from my blog, gosh, a couple years ago. How fun that I can now put a name to what I naturally do! One more thing learned. Thanks, Mr. Genn.

From: Deb Sims — Jul 13, 2010

Digital Wabi Sabi! I love it! And Jessica Wesolek teaches an on line course in it — but she calls it Guerilla Photography. The concept is is keep your iphone or point and shoot camera with you at all times and capture those fleeting moments that catch your eye — I think this must be Ma! Another example of how the same creative spirit flows through different cultures and is expressed in a myriad of ways by each artist. I also like the idea of less is more and not over working a piece — now if I can just find that sweet spot and know when to stop!

From: Lawrence Bickstein — Jul 13, 2010

It’s hard for any of us to accurately reflect tone with written words. I posted what I felt was some respectful feedback, prefaced by stating that I felt these newsletters were not only excellent but worthy of recommendation. Many of you concluded that I was offended in some way, and took my post as a pissy negative attack. Come on people! Read the whole post before you launch into your counter attack! Same thing for Thierry. He doesn’t have the right to call Genn’s work formulaic? You can agree or disagree with his conclusion, but Genn is almost baiting us by stating that he uses systems as part of the creative process. I would be surprised if someone of Genn’s intelligence wasn’t at least a little disappointed that more of you didn’t challenge him. The honest exchange of ideas is the whole point in having people leave comments. Both Thierry and I left respectful, intelligent comments and were attacked for doing so. Yet we are both members of this community, and we value it. Any community should have the means to accommodate different views.

From: Rene — Jul 13, 2010

Retsu Wabi-Sabi – I recall seeing architect students at the university I attended doing the same thing as part of a design assignment 50 years ago. They had to take a series of photos, very close up, of everyday objects and arrangements looking for the inherent ‘design’ in them. It brought home the idea of looking closely at nature, to look at things differently from their ‘normal’ state. And, this was before digital photos were even a thought in some inventor’s brain.


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