In 2000, on the day my son started work, I felt that I had paid my dues to society, and I quit my full-time job. I continued, free-lance, as editorial director of Bell Tower, the spiritual imprint I had founded in 1989, and began to explore other things life had to offer. Until that moment, work had consumed me, and I wanted to discover how to play, something that had eluded me for far too long. At sixty-one, it was a little late to begin playing, but I thought it worth a try. I also wanted to see if I could get the right side of my brain to work. I knew that unless I was willing to make a major shift, I would just keep putting one foot in front of the other, working harder and harder, until my life was over.
After I edited a best-selling translation of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching in the early 70s, friends began to give me not only rice paper, brushes, ink stones, and sticks of red and black ink, but also books on Chinese art. I never asked for any of this, but many people seemed convinced that I would enjoy brush painting. All these things remained on my shelf until about six months after I had abandoned the daily corporate grind. Then one day, I happened to pass a small storefront on Houston Street (in Manhattan) that bore a sign reading “Koho School of Sumi-e,” I picked up a brochure from the rack outside, and a week later began my apprenticeship.
I had no art training and learning the time-honored craft of East Asian brush painting has been a long and thorny road. It took me six years to see that the greatest obstacle I faced was that I had spent my life trying to control the outcome of everything I did. But art is uncontrollable. The muse is not on call. Each day it is necessary for me to be here, brush in hand, in case this is the day she decides to visit. I realized that I had made a mistake in wanting to discover “if I could get the right side of my brain to work.” I should have been exploring whether it knew how to play, not how to work.
The spontaneous style of East Asian brush painting seeks to express the essence of something with a few swift and sure strokes. Ancient Chinese masters described it as allowing “the brush to dance and the ink to sing” and contemporary Sumi-e artist Motoi Oi says: “The aim is not the reproduction of the subject matter but the elimination of the inessential” or, to put it another way, the painter seeks to distill nature rather than record it. My hope is that the image will be intense and potent, that it will leap off the paper and into the viewer’s heart. The painting comes alive in proportion to how present I am and how lightly I hold the brush. As Kaz Tanahashi taught me, two principles must be kept in mind: “Undivided attention equals unswerving strokes” and “Do not hold a brush unless you are smiling.”
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