I recently sold a painting – Harvested Rice Field in Snow – and have been thinking about where this
painting came from.
It’s not something I’d ever thought through. It’s only now that I realise that it took three years for this painting – these marks – to evolve.
Between February 2020 and the end of 2022, the experience of walking past harvested rice fields in winter in Northern Japan sunk into me, sunk below a conscious remembering.
Let me explain what I mean.
In February 2020, my husband, Toshi, and I visited Akita prefecture in North Western Japan, the home of the famous Akita dog.
One day we walked through a snow-covered landscape of harvested rice fields and took some photos. I’ve always loved the aesthetics of a harvested field. A harvested field is a scratchy mark on a flat surface.
I’m not interested in representing the lines in the field with two-point perspective – like a fence or train tracks or telegraph poles receding into the distance to a single point. I don’t even notice perspective in this way. To my eye (and mind), a field is flat. It is, actually, a big, flat square. The lines are parallel. That is what I know. That is what I feel. That is what I draw. A canvas is flat too. Let’s not pretend that it isn’t. To be honest, for me, perspective is a lie.
And the marks? For some reason, I love scratchy marks. There’s something satisfying about applying a sharp implement to a hard surface – the feel of it, the sound of it, the experience of it – scritch, scratch.
So almost two years after I saw these fields, at the end of 2021, I did some drawings. The first was quite photographic. It wasn’t satisfying, so I did another. It was better, but somehow it wasn’t right, but I was stuck, so I abandoned the idea. I forgot about it.
In the second half of this year – 2022 – I started making a work on canvas, where I scratched regular marks into thick, white, oil paint with an etching tool I’ve had since my first year at art school in 1981. It’s a familiar friend. I completed the painting in one hit – in one breath – while the paint was still all of the same sticky consistency. I was happy at the end. It just seemed right. Where did it come from? What was it about? I didn’t know. It felt whole, complete and alive. That was enough.
When I decided to display the finished work a few weeks ago, it needed a title. It was only then that I realised what I’d made – a harvested rice field in a snowy landscape. The idea I’d forgotten a year before, perhaps because I had ‘forgotten’ it, had emerged as something new and complete.
Not a pale, representational reflection of something else in the world, but something original; and also something that contains all the ideas about painting, abstraction, and the gesture, that I have talked about here and in my previous post.
As such, Harvested Rice Field in Snow is both a distillation and a single, complete, original thing.
It is art.
Thank you for reading.
We’ve all heard the clichés - “That’s not art.” “My pre-schooler could do that.” A visitor to one of my exhibitions once said to me – “Why can’t you paint something I can understand?” I suspect that this person was referring to an image-based visual language. Our world, our culture, is flooded with image-based art. We all understand these images. We can ‘read’ this ‘language.’
Perhaps you sometimes feel confused when you see non-representational artwork, just like my outspoken gallery visitor. Perhaps you wonder if it may be a case of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’. Or perhaps you can appreciate the colours and patterns, but wonder if it’s just that – beautiful marks, colours and patterns but rather superficial. Does the work have any other meaning? Where do marks come from? Are they saying something? Or nothing? Are they just a doodle or a scribble – meaningless and somewhat childish?
I can’t speak for all abstract art, but in this post, I’d like to explain why my way of working has become an exploration of mark making in an abstract and semi-abstract gestural style.
“Any mind worth calling a mind must have needs beyond the existing categories of language.”
Ezra Pound 1885-1972
We know that a single verbal language cannot express all meanings. There are words in foreign languages that express ideas not expressible in our native language. In the same way, abstract art ‘articulates’ in a visual way, ideas, memories, thoughts and emotions that representational art cannot. Artists create new ‘languages’ when existing languages become inadequate.
This is where originality comes from. Artists don’t create something new for the sake of it. They do it because the tools they are given are not commensurate with their experience. They must create something new in order to explore and understand themselves and share their humanity with others.
The language I often use, of the abstract, gestural mark, is not a representational, image-based language. It is a language of the heart and of the sub-conscious. A language of emotion and unarticulated memory. Perhaps it is prescient too, revealing something about the world that is not yet obvious – that is still only a vibration.
My gestural style is also grounded in the idea of recording my presence in the moment – in the moment of creation. I’m fascinated by the process of how my hand, via my eye, breath, the pulsing of my heart – this physical body – connects to something often semi-conscious – to create marks on a surface. Like a seismograph recording how the world registers upon me. The hand, the eye, the heart, the mind, now, in this moment, registering presence.
In isolation, this doesn’t always reveal meaning, or tell a story, just as a single letter or word is not a language. But over time, and as a part of a larger body of work, all these paintings and drawings are telling the visual story of my life, at an almost cellular level perhaps, within the world in which we all live now.
I hope this goes some way to explaining why I work the way I work. I hope it helps you to become more curious, not only about my work, but about art in general and about abstract art in particular.
And if you’d like to read a story about where some of my marks come from, read on to my next post – The Evolution of a Mark.
Thank you for reading.
Have you ever noticed an embossed symbol at the bottom of an artist’s print?
Maybe you’ve seen little red stamps on old Chinese or Japanese artwork?
These are called chops in English. The word comes from the Hindi word chaap, meaning stamp, imprint, seal or brand, or instrument for stamping. It entered English via India in the early 19th century, referring to a trademark.
Stamps and seals have been used for millennia as a mark of authenticity. In Japan today, these signature stamps, called Hanko, are more important than a personal signature, and are used for banking, signing contracts and official documents, and even receiving parcels.
Chops, which can be made from clay, wood, rubber, or linoleum, are usually relief printing blocks, pressed into ink and stamped onto the surface of the paper. Traditionally, they use indelible red ink, and on art works the mark frequently forms part of the design, as well as being a signature.
It is a tradition in Western printmaking for blind embossed stamps, also called chop marks, to be used as a sign of authenticity and quality. Blind stamping means embossing paper, without ink, using a unique stamp with a special press. It is very difficult to forge a blind stamp, as it becomes an integral part of the paper and the art work and cannot be removed.
The fine art print trade is obviously very concerned to ensure authenticity, and many print studios have their own unique blind stamp to emboss their prints and give them provenance. Also, if the artist hasn’t signed the print, the stamp proves that it is genuine.
These stamps can also be added to original prints by the artist, or by a collector. Galleries who manage an artist’s estate have chops made for that artist to authenticate the prints of their work.
So what has this to do with me? Well, I have started having fine art prints made of my work by Printroom Editions, a highly professional and experienced studio specialising in the printing of original art work. On their recommendation, I have had my own chop made. As well as signing and numbering my prints, I am also having them blind embossed, with my own ‘signature’ chop.
It looks beautiful when it is embossed onto the print. The white-on-white mark sits quietly in the bottom left-hand corner of the heavy printing paper. I love running my fingers over it. Embossing is really more of a tactile experience than a visual one, don’t you think?
The design of my stamp is inspired by the Japanese enso.
Also known as the Zen circle or infinity circle, it is one of the richest symbols of Zen Buddhism and one of the most common subjects of Japanese calligraphy.
Using a bamboo brush and ink, it is traditionally drawn using only one, swift, continuous brushstroke as a meditative practice for letting go of the mind and allowing the body to create. It is a manifestation of the artist, and their context, at the moment of creation – breath, hand, body, and mind – in the world, in that moment.
In Zen philosophy, it is the revelation of a world of the spirit without beginning or end, reflecting the transforming experience of enlightenment - perfectly empty yet completely full.
An enso may be open or closed. The closed circle can, among many things, mean the totality of the experience of life, and the cycle of birth and death that continues endlessly. The incomplete circle allows for movement and development, as well as representing an acceptance of the imperfection of all things.
I have chosen an incomplete enso for my chop, to express the sense of my creative life as something that is always becoming through an exploration of the beauty and wonder of imperfection within each moment.
Thank you for reading.
then art may appear
rain settles in
over the city
a mind for poetry
poetry will arise –
take a breath
a soft, grey day
a quieter world
a day for poetry
Scattered throughout Uneven Verse are poems about the conditions that I need for writing poetry. It’s something that I’m curious about. Why is it sometimes possible to write and sometimes simply impossible? It’s not about being easy or difficult. I either can or I can’t, and why is that?
Poem #24 suggests that idleness, solitude and silence are prerequisites, but this is not the whole story. I don’t always need to be alone and quiet. I can write on a crowded bus with noise everywhere.
Chinese girls chattering
Flame Trees on the bus driver’s radio
And by the same token, if my mind is busy, even when I’m alone and quiet, poetry can’t arise. If I’m tired, stressed, preoccupied with to-do lists, poetry doesn’t appear. It’s not actually about it being quiet outside, but about being quiet inside.
the rain sounds like a train
watching at open doors and windows
lights on in the daytime
steady rain falling –
thoughtful, no thoughts
I’ve always wondered why I’m so prolific when I’m in Japan. There may be a couple of reasons. I don’t read or speak Japanese, so my mind isn’t cluttered with extraneous language through overhearing what others are saying, or through reading environmental text. I’m free to just look, watch and experience the world. I’m on holidays. I have no responsibilities. I don’t need to do anything, and most of the time I can’t do anything. I’m quite useless. This poem is from my first book, Ash.
the deaf, mute guest
sits alone writing
while others work
In contrast, when I'm at home, I have many duties and roles to play. I am not just some-one, I am many-ones. I am a wife, parent, grandparent, adult child of an elderly parent, sibling, colleague, friend, citizen. Even being a consumer requires a certain persona.
There’s nothing wrong with this. All these selves are parts of my identity, reflecting and (usually) satisfying all the parts of who I am. But when I am able to write poetry, all these selves have dissolved and I am left, not to be myself, that’s not it, but to be no one - to play no role, to wear no hat, to not be useful to anyone. To be quite useless. To be empty the way a guitar is empty. When I’m empty in this way, poetry may appear.
This self without identity comes and goes in my day – when I’m standing at the kitchen sink, hanging out the washing, sitting on the bus, lying in bed before I get up in the morning, walking the dog. My mind floats and then fixes on something – a small detail of what I see, what I’m doing, or a thought that arises – and it forms, in my empty mind, into a poem.
If my poetry is anything, if my art is anything, it is an affirmation of life. Ironically, it is when I take my self out of my life, that I can be alive to the life I am living; alive to the moment, alive to the sensations of being alive, alive to the joy of having a body, awake.
walk through your days
step by step
try not to escape
silent rain, silent river
poetry mind returns
from where you are
is poetry’s beginning
with time to drift
poetry may come
The Haiku Form
You may know me as a painter, but I also write poetry. On the 14th of July 2022, I will be launching Uneven Verse, my second book of haiku-inspired poetry at Avid Reader Bookshop in West End, Brisbane. Books will be available for sale through Avid and through my website. There are links in my website’s Poetry section for direct sales.
I plan for this blog to provide a forum for me to share my thoughts about my work, both poetry and painting, to update you on events, and for you to ask questions and request subjects you would like to know more about through the 'comments' option at the end of the blog.
As I will be launching Uneven Verse next week, I’m going to use this first blog to talk about the haiku form, why it inspires me, how my poetry conforms to the form and how it doesn’t. I hope this will give you a richer reading experience and lead you towards reading haiku from other writers.
What the haiku is not
1. There are no titles in a haiku poem. I sometimes use them, but as far as I’m aware, they never appear in Japanese haiku.
2. Haiku doesn’t rhyme. Occasionally, a poem of mine will emerge with a rhyme, and I may choose to leave it, but it’s untypical. For example, this poem from Uneven Verse.
I go to bed
with cake and tea
3. Haiku doesn’t use simile or metaphor. What is, is. There is no ‘like this or like that.’
Five elements that define the form
A. The 5-7-5 syllable rule
If you know anything about haiku, you probably know this rule. It means that the poem consists of 17 syllables broken into 3 lines with a 5/7/5 syllable pattern. This is a lovely rule. It’s a discipline. It’s a challenge to say what you want to say as briefly as possible and to find a freedom within the structure, but there are some problems with this formula, particularly when it is transferred into English.
Firstly, to equate Japanese ‘syllables’ or ‘on’ with English ones doesn’t quite fit. One doesn’t equate exactly to the other. As an example, ‘on’ is considered 2 syllables in Japanese, but only one syllable in English.
Also, some translators believe that 12 syllables in English approximates to the duration of 17 Japanese ‘on’, and that 4 lines is a more appropriate match when translating a Japanese poem into English.
The final point to make about the 5/7/5 rule is that even the most famous haiku poets didn’t always follow it, and modern Japanese haiku are increasingly unlikely to conform to this rule.
For me, it’s something to keep in mind, but I’m not going to contort an otherwise natural string of words just to fit into this pattern. However, I do do a lot of syllable-counting as I write. I find it a useful disciple if a poem is getting too wordy, and I often return to it in the editing phase.
I also like the three-line structure. It feels elegant to me. I often ask myself – How many words do I really need? Can I say the same thing with less? Is the poem better with fewer words?
So, for me, this three-line, 17 syllable structure is more a suggestion than a rule.
B. The natural world and the seasons
The seasons are an idea that I’ve used to structure both my books and nature is a thread that runs throughout the poems. However, along with the 5/7/5 rule, modern Japanese haiku do not always take nature as a subject and I don’t restrict myself either. The natural world is central, but it’s not the only subject I write about.
C. The concept of ‘kiru’ or a cut between two parts in the poem
In traditional haiku, the first part of the poem presents the condition or situation, and the second part is a sudden perception – an awareness of something revealed by the initial observation, that may take the form of a comment. This juxtaposition is seen as the essence of the form and it is a tradition that continues to be honoured in modern haiku.
Japanese haiku use a kireji (or cutting word) to signal the shift from one section to the other. This is usually rendered in English either by a punctuation mark, such as a dash, or some kind of implied break or shift that is intended to prompt the reader to reflect on the relationship between the two parts.
This ‘sudden perception’ doesn’t have to be a sharp contrast. It can be very subtle. Sometimes I use it, but not always. Here are two poems by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), considered the master of the haiku, followed by two poems from my first book, Ash.
on a dead limb
squats a crow –
early autumn –
rice field, ocean,
a late storm, cold rain
blows across the city night –
cold rain is strange
the fan turns slowly
the night silent and still –
it is what is not
D. The simplicity of language
This is a vital element of traditional haiku that is essential to my poetry. Here is a comment from Lucien Stryk (1924-2013), the American poet and translator of Buddhist literature.
"The poet presents an observation of a natural, often commonplace event, in plainest diction, without verbal trickery. The effect is one of sparseness, yet the reader is aware of a microcosm related to transcendent unity. A moment, crystallised, distilled, snatched from time’s flow, and that is enough."
Here is a poem of mine from Uneven Verse, written after I held my grandson for the first time when he was 4 days old. It has a title.
Haiku for Ari
the light of a round moon
falls on a distant sea
new to the world
Imagine sitting with a tiny, newborn baby in your arms, looking out over the mountains towards the sea in the distance, where a silvery moon reflects on the water. The moon is round and smooth, the baby’s head is round and smooth. The baby and the moon, the new and the ancient, the mortal and the eternal, the beauty and wonder of both. The baby sleeps and dreams, at peace in the universe, just as the moon is also at peace; and I am looking down on the baby just as the moon is looking down on us all. It is, as Stryk says, “a microcosm related to transcendent unity. A moment crystallised, distilled, snatched from time’s flow…”
E. Suggestibility and the reader’s role
Haiku demands the reader’s participation. To come alive fully, it needs the reader to contribute. Perhaps because haiku is so brief, it does not explain everything, or give you all the answers or meanings. It is up to you, the sensitive reader, to bring yourself to the reading. Stryk says, “…without a sensitive audience it would appear unimpressive.”
This brings to my mind a quote from the Russian/American painter, Mark Rothko, talking about painting. “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. “
One dimension of ‘suggestibility’ is poets referring to other poets. Haiku poets traditionally make reference to each other. Haiku is not my tradition and so I haven’t internalised much Japanese haiku, but I have internalised a lot of writers in English and this sometimes comes through naturally in the poetry. So if you think you hear an echo of something in my poetry, then go with it, you’re probably right.
These echoes, to other poets, to your own memories and feelings and experiences, are what reading haiku is all about. It’s not a passive experience. It’s not just about being told things, or trying to work out what the poet is trying to say. It’s about what it says to you. It’s about bringing yourself to the poetry. Only in this way does the poetry come alive – alive within you.
Thank you for reading.