Saturday, March 03, 2007

Calligraphic Haiga

A haiga is a form related to haiku. Traditionally, this was artwork coupled with a haiku or waka done in brush calligraphy: the poem and image being complimentary, and making up a combined artwork: an illuminated or illustrated poem. In more modern times, there has been a modernization of the form that couples English-language haiku with photography.

Every so often, I feel the urge to pick up one of my brush calligraphy pens and spontanesouly write short poems, maybe or maybe not haiku, with drawings, illuminations, and illustrations. For example:

I acknowledge an influence here, as well, from Paul Reps, whose picture-poems, which I first encountered in his book Zen Telegrams, are spontaneous expressions of the Zen spirit. Reps, who was one of the first influential students of Zen from the West, and was also a translator and commentator (for example, the famous Zen teaching pictures, the Ten Oxherding Pictures), tossed off a large number of his picture-poems, which were often later collected into small books of rare beauty and startlingly clear expressiveness, even as his topic was often the removal of the self from the picture. I first encountered Reps' work in my teens, in the early 1970s, and I do think they contributed towards me eventually doing these brush pieces.

This practice of calligraphic haiga is a recent one, for me, faciliated by my use of imported japanese brush-pens, and a renewed interest in calligraphy in general. Western-style lettering calligraphy is an artform I practiced some time ago, but as it feeds into that aspect of my personality that leads to perfectionism, it got to be too dangerous to pursue. As a recovering perfectionist, I do my best not to awaken that particular obsessive tendency, if at all possible. Haiga are looser, and in the Reps manner, more spontaneous, than Western-style calligraphy, and delightfully easy to get into. As for Japanese sumi-e style painting and calligraphy, much of the preparation is spent in meditative practice: the ritual laying out of implements, which helps focus and calm the mind, and prepare one for the directed action of spontaneous artmaking-with-attention.

Everything one does, no matter what, is an artistic practice, as long as one is paying close, focused attention, and doing it with conscious intention. Everything is a meditation. Everything is a creative practice. I do my best to get into this mindset as continuously as I can during the day, and I make a special point of doing it while cooking a meal. In other words, Paying Attention turns anything and everything into a contemplative artistic creative process. That includes driving the car, eating, walking, traditional artistic practices such as painting, taking photographs and music; it also includes mowing the lawn, raking leaves, and making love.

So, I approach brush calligraphy painting from that same mindset.

Making these haiga pieces this way is something I have evolved towards, over several years. I have been inspired in part by other poets I have encountered recently who have put forth haiga, mostly with photos. Although I've been doing these brush paintings again for the past year, after not doing them for a very long time, I don't think I would have begun doing them again but for those encounters with other haiga, for which I remain grateful.

The other reason I started doing these brush calligraphy pieces again was because i found the right brush-pens again, after not having any for several years. More on that below.

I originally did Japanese-style brush calligraphy when studying Ki Aikido, an advanced Japanese martial art, starting in 1988 or so. We would every so often spend entire practice sessions doing calligraphy, or various forms of breathing meditation; next session, when we went back to practicing the actual martial arts, we all had improved.

(Ki Aikido is an art that intentionally and consciously teaches mind-body coordination, and uses several teaching means to develop it. Actually, every martial art teaches mind-body unity, but most of them achieve that after maybe a million practice punches or kicks or whatever; in other words, they teach it indirectly, and never talk about it. Ki Aikido starts teaching it openly, in the very first session of every beginner's class.)

I had already been a trained calligrapher and music copyist in the Western manner: italic scripts, fine pens, texts copied out as illuminated manuscripts, etc. Taking up the brush was not a big step, for me, but a natural progression. I was a journeyman music copyist in music school, and after; I copied orchestral parts for several new orchestral pieces, and at least one off-Broadway musical. Back in the days before music softwares like Finale and Sibelius, all orchestral parts were hand-copied. I studied with a master copyist while still a composition student, and got quite good at it; one or two pages of my own musical scores have even been framed as fine art. (Which is silly but true.)

When I was a young man, I used to think that I couldn't draw and I couldn't paint. I believed I had no skill at it. It was all cartoony and horrible, and I was very judgmental of my own work. I couldn't draw realistically to save my life; I still can't, really, at least not up to those photorealistic art-school standards most people think of as "realistic drawing." I've never been through art school "drawing boot camp," and I don't care to. (I went through music theory/history boot camp, and that was enough of that.) You know how it can be in families, when siblings are assigned roles to play by the group, usually quite unconsciously: my sister was the designated visual artist, and I was the designated musician. In fact, we're both capable of both, and both good at several creative media. But that was one reason I focused on photography and music for so many years, among the other arts I practice.

In the past few years, I finally got over all that, and after several years away from calligraphy and drawing, I have taken them up again. Everything I learned in the intervening years is obviously present now, and I notice that I have much greater mastery of the brush than I ever did before. (Just as in Aikido, indirect practice still improved our ability to do the techniques more effectively.) Using the left hand as well as the right hand has been part of this, too.

I spend probably half my day on indirect practice; for example, whenever I'm driving, I practice what I learned in Aikido about mind-body unity, and feeling the car's movements as in my own body; for another example, whenever I am tapping on a table-top, I am practicing musical skills with mind-body unity. This mindset has come to permeate everything I do. I am a person of just ordinary strengths; but I have been trained to use my strengths to their most efficient peak, using mind-body coordination. It comes in pretty handy at times.

One key element to every brush session that comes from the formal methods of Japanese caaligraphy is to treat every action as a meditation: begin by sitting quietly and calmly, and become still: yes, this is a meditative practice. I sometimes sit quietly for a full two or three minutes, eyes closed about halfway, or with soft focus, not looking at anything really, before I ever pick up the brush. I learned to do this it this way because I studied it in the Japanese manner. In Japanese calligraphy, one first becomes centered and grounded, and only then picks up the brush or pen. Next, it is traditional to practice doing a few enso, which are circles made in one stroke:

Traditionally, the circle is left open, rather than closed, to let the spirit breathe in and out. If one is truly calm, centered, and grounded, it is possible to brush an almost-perfect circle. (Conventional wisdom says that it is impossible for a human to draw a perfect circle. This is disproven by generations of Japanese calligraphers. There are plenty of sumi-e paintings that quietly, with no fanfare, prove otherwise.) Traditionally, the enso stroke is begun in the lower left, and circles clockwise to completion; I often begin in the upper left quadrant, though.

The tools one needs are simple, and nowadays readily easy to acquire: good paper, ink, and a sumi-e style brush. The basic materials can be be found at almost every college art-department supply store.

For these pieces, I used various-size brush pens, which are fine nylon-bristle brushes fed by ink cartridges, like a good cartrige pen you might find at Colorado Pens (which I dare not enter, lest I be overcome by one of my few addictions in life: pen lust!). These Japanese brush-pens, by the way, I have only ever found at Japanese stationery stores in cities large enough to have a good enough population to warrant them; and one or two extremely complete artist's supply stores. I look for them in every art store I go into, and while most good art supply stores will have basic sumi-e supplies, they typically have traditional brushes and inks, rather than the brush-pens I like.

I prefer these brush-pens currently for one very simple reason: spontaneity. In traditional calligraphy, and sumi-e painting, there is set-up time involved. What I typically do lately is always have a brush-pen and a journal-book in my backpack, on hand. I have several artists' sketchbooks lying around, of varying sizes. Any time, anywhere, whenever I am so moved, I can pull out one of these pens and notebooks, and make a piece. My artist sister also makes hand-made blank books using excellent paper; I often keep one of these books to hand.

The occasions in which one is called to take up the brush are various and numerous: After walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, one warm winter afternoon, I sat on the bench by the labyrinth and filled several pages of one of my sister's handmade blank books. (Obviously, walking meditation also gets one calm and centered.) I was at a weekend retreat for men artists in the woods north of Chicago last fall, and while everyone else was doing a guided writing practice, I felt moved to take up my brush-pen and the haiga I presented here were some of the result: combined words and images. I later showed them to the rest of the group, and received a lot of encouragement to continue this as an artform for myself. I have been at the Pacific Ocean shore, in both Oregon and California, and after clambering around the cliffs and beaches, hunting dreamstones and making site-specific landscape-art sculptures, I've taken up the pen and done on-site brush haiku with pictures.

So, this is an artistic medium, a meditation practice, a contemplative method of observing the world, and much more—all at once.

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