It was a rocky weekend - at first. I was stuck on how the past can seem so distant, disconnected, and was thus weighed down. As I tried to sing along to tunes from where I grew up, I could not because my language skills have dwindled through disuse. One of the videos I perused began with the chimes of a clock at a ferry pier, where a near-by building housed a public library branch. I could tell you many things about that library and its books, but what I want to talk about today were the other floors in that building. One was a gallery of calligraphy and 国画, often referred to as Chinese watercolor or scroll painting. The latter uses the same techniques as the former: there is a 'right way' to paint, and much copying is done before one can paint one's own vision.
Most of the 国画 I saw as a small child was antique - so despite having friends who learned these techniques, I could only understand the painting as very drab, seeing as I was thinking of those darkened scrolls dating back so many dynasties ago.
Only later did I come to understand how dynamic the compositions are. When they depict plants, each leaf seems to represent a jagged or graceful emotion; usually, too, there is an intriguing detail, like a little worm, a butterfly, or even the plant being reflected in a mirror. When they are of landscapes, one can observe the panorama, and then observe minute details of the landscape - like the mossy rocks, or intermissions of tiny staircases along mammoth mountains.
But to my mind, a key feature of these paintings are the rocks (take a look, and see how many rocks are on this page). I also associate rocks with the ideal that nature is the master artist; that man, no matter how intelligent, can but humbly imitate it.
I think we all carry rocks in life. I literally brought some sea rocks back from Greece last year, now displayed in a ceramic dish on my desk, where I joyful rearrange them sometimes. Some of the rocks that we carry threaten to weigh us down. I think it is a matter of grace and honour to learn how to deal with them.
Sometimes we can lose a precious stone, like losing a language, yet the space of the language remains - and this can become a heavy rock of pain, unless one learns to paint this rock on the landscape of one's soul. This morning I was reading about Indian diplomats who write poetry in order to fill an emotional part of their life, not related to their profession. The more we open up our lives to a breadth of experience, in different countries or through a wide variety of friends, the more pain there is. Nobody tells you that as they say "it's so wonderful you've lived in so many countries". Nobody warns you that the more you get to know intimately, the more you will have to say goodbye. The more your heart will be in one place, but feel the violin twangs of calling out to visit a place from before.
So words, word pictures, pictures, music - art, can fill this void, can be the rub-off transfer for the rock that would otherwise ail. I do not think that we are to unload ourselves in art, as if it were simply therapy. Rather, like the Japanese stone garden or Chinese scholars' rocks (供石) I think we are to sort through our memories and stones, and create the idyllic landscape: a "best of".
There is a reason why there is a 'right way' to paint calligraphy. Order, mindfulness, and discipline are beautiful. Even the best of the "folk" artists express their own methodicalness. These days, I am dreaming of what my own idyllic landscape would be. We speak so much of what the "literature of the immigrant" or "exile" is - but what of the person who grows up in different lands, and misses them all? It is not an imagined landscape, yet it is not one that exists anywhere except in the heart and soul. I wonder how to paint it in the 'right way', in a way that is not just private.