Wednesday, March 04, 2009


As part of a retreat for artists a couple of weekends ago, I led a session on Japanese brush calligraphy. We started by drawing enso, and moved to calligraphy, writing and painting/drawing within the circle. I emphasized mind-body coordination, letting the brush move from a centered and calm place. We experienced the physical sensation, taught in the four basic principles of Ki Aikido, of keeping your mind in your hara, or one-point, the body's physical center of gravity. Most people live in their heads, not their bodies. Returning to one-point, again and again, is a practice of centering in the body that leads to mind-body unity. We also practiced doing enso with our non-dominant hands (the hand you don't usually write or draw with), and several artists were surprised at the bold forms that resulted. I brought several Japanese calligraphy brushes, and sumi-e ink. At times the silence in the room was profound; at other times, there was laughter and thoughtful speech. I encouraged everyone to keep a few of their best drawings, and release the rest back to formlessness by burning them in the fireplace; some made the process of burning the chaff into a centering ritual, others made it into a silly ritual involving folded paper airplanes.

Enso are related to haiga, the combination of brush painting with haiku. Enso can be the open circle of emptiness in which the self flows in and out while remaining centered; they can be mandala, the circle cosmograms that appear in many spiritual traditions; they can be the starting point of a drawing. Enso can be just themselves, or be accompanied by inscriptions or poems, or be the seed of a drawing or painting.

When I start a session of drawing or writing with the brush, I almost always start out with a few enso. It is a centering practice, that brings one into the present moment. A perfect circle results on the paper only when the spirit is centered, focused, calm. Drawing enso can itself be a meditation or contemplative exercise. Traditionally, the Zen artist might meditate in silence for a long time before the brush and paper; then the drawing or calligraphy is executed quickly, spontaneously, as though it were inevitable and had drawn itself. When I draw with the brush, I often start with an enso, which then becomes part of painting, such as the moon over pine trees on a mountain ridge. My journal is full of enso; even a practice piece can develop, spontaneously, into a meditation. Several enso on a page become the ripples formed by raindrops on a pond.

The circular form of the enso is usually left open; the last flick of the brush as it lifts off the page leaves a trail into nothingness. (Actually, there are nuances in the Zen artistic tradition about enso, including some debate about the symbolism of leaving the circle open or closed.) When I leave the enso open, which I usually do, I am reminded of the story once told in class by my Ki AIkido sensei, Jonathon Ely. When you walk into the ocean, you can put your hands together and say that every part of the ocean inside the circle of your arms is your ocean, your part of the ocean; but the water inside the circle of your arms still flows in and out into the greater ocean; it is not actually divided or separated, but still is part of the oneness of the vast waters. Leaving the enso is like leaving room for the spirit to flow in and out of the circle of emptiness: leaving room for it to breathe. Breath and emptiness are essential ingredients for meditation, contemplation, and the creation of vision, including visionary art.

One of my own drawings that I kept rather than burning, made with a large brush heavily saturated with ink.

Another enso that became a haiga, a drawing with a haiku as part of it. The best part of this drawing, I felt, because it was the most spontaneous, was the lines that lifted off the edge like snow or mist.

My favorite thought-combined-with-image of this session. The entire weekend was about the soul and self in our art; the light, the shadow, the entire process. It was about fearlessness, and about going into the depths. But even inside the innermost center of the inner self, the circle remains open, to let the breath of spirit move in and out.

My best attempt at drawing with my non-dominant hand. I made this enso with my left hand, then drew the words with my right hand to mark the moment. (I should mention that I'm actually ambidextrous in most things. I tend to draw and write with my right hand, but I can do many other tasks fairly equally with either hand.)

My best enso of the day. It's almost perfectly circular. Drawn with a large brush half-filled with ink, rather than saturated. I note especially the tail simultaneously seems to close the circle while also lifting off into nothingness. The circle is both closed and open, just as the ocean is both inside and outside the circle of my arms.

painting by Dick Levon, used with permission

Artist Dick Levon made this mandala image after we did a session of yoga followed by shamanic journeying. After the journey, everyone wrote, or painted a mandala, or otherwise recorded their impressions, images, and experiences of the journey, and of the day. Dick used everything we had explored with our enso drawing session, and added to it, with calligraphed text and color, to make this beautiful painting.

I encourage artists who draw or paint to try this technique. One can learn a great deal about oneself from making enso. I encourage artists who work with brushes to draw a few enso at the start of their work sessions: to loosen up, to measure their own internal weather, to get centered and relaxed. It gets you out of your head, and into your body, which is always a good place to work from.

Labels: , , , ,


Blogger nona orbach said...

i came across your blog, you will see why here:

4:12 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi. Those are interesting images. Thanks for sharing them.

Sometimes I sit down and just do enso for awhile with the brush and paper. It can be incredibly meditative, as many know.

6:27 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home