January 5, 2009

Well into One Hundred

The number one hundred in any kind of undertaking or grouping of accomplishments is a significant number. The number appears in idiomatic expressions such as "I must have told you a hundred times," In a less negative sense and especially in the orient, we see the number one hundred to used to imply a great many things that one should take notice of, like Hiroshige’s One Hundred Views of Edo. In a recent card from one of my brothers, the front depicted a small wren-like bird resting on a snow-covered twig. The attribution on the back of the card read "From the book One Hundred Birds and Flowers in Japan." While studying art in China, I was always amazed at the frequency of the number one hundred in Chinese painting - a hundred horses, a hundred Lohans, etc.
My own book project this past year was the completion of one hundred poems for one hundred paintings, the number perhaps emblazoned on my consciousness by so many years spent in China.
This is my hundredth blog. In keeping with the idea that this should be a significant milestone, it is a good time to take stock of what it was all about and where it is going. What comes to mind first is a lesson that I had years ago from one of my Chinese masters at the Beijing Central Art Academy. Chinese lessons in the arts, in their traditional educational system, were often delivered in rhyme and parable. The lesson I am haunted by the most for fear of not being able to live up to its exhortations, was the parable of the wells. The lesson came from Master Jin, an enormous mountain of a man who specialized in a tiny detailed form of silk painting called gong bi. Master Jin noticed that it was my tendency to explore several avenues of learning at once. Although this is not that untypical of an American multi-tasker, it caused Chinese Masters some consternation. So Master Jin explained the story of the wells to me in order to underscore the folly of multiple superficial pursuits.
Master Jin, speaking in a soft lilting Mandarin began his story:
"There once was a man who started to dig a well in search of water. He dug and dug but never reached water. Exhausted and frustrated, he abandoned this project and proceeded to dig in another location. His hopes there were soon dashed as his second attempt in this new location also yielded nothing. So the man sunk another well in a third location which unfortunately also came up dry. Over the years he continued to dig wells further and further afield but always with the same empty results. Finally, when he was almost ready to give up his pursuit, he returned to the very first well he had begun years earlier. He lowered himself down into the long vertical tunnel and dug again at the base of the well, deep within the earth. He dug and he dug through the layers of clay, rock, soil and sand until, miraculously, water began to trickle in. It was a minuscule amount at first, but soon the earthly flood gates opened and a water-giving well was made."
Master Jin admonished me to remember this story whenever I found myself distracted by the tedium and frustrations of preliminary failures and given to the allure of searching for answers in novel surface pursuits and geographic solutions. It is always a challenge to stay on task and complete what I start - especially when it becomes difficult and I lose faith that my efforts will yield results. I also think of this story in the context of living in a society that virtually encourages fruitless, superficial expenditures of time and energy. We, Americans, are a people of distractions, and labor under the illusion that busy means progress.
Despite my forays into politics and criticism (politicians just made it too easy to resist) the undercurrent(pun intended) of the blog is about a slow return to original sources of artistic inspiration, abandoning what does not yield substance, and completing that which does.
The book of poetry that is in the final stages of completion was the book that I should have written eight years ago. The instruction book in Chinese art and the China memoirs which are only in the initial stages of writing, are the books that should have been written fifteen years ago. Admittedly, making a living and tending to house and home take much time away from creative pursuits - but every day that magical portion of time devoted to passion brings me closer to the wellspring of what is honest and true.
The charcoal drawing featured in this blog is called "The Dutch Woman" It is an aged and completed version of an incomplete line drawing of her younger self that I had started in Holland two decades ago!

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