Heart of the Artist

Who is an Artist? Who is it that is being an artist?

Is art a self-conscious activity or a spontaneous moment? Is it the thinking, planning mind, which expresses something to others, or is each moment a unique expression of our Self? Divisions are created by the mind. Thinking about doing Art implies that one moment is more important than another, that there is a different moment, which is Art, and that Art is better than Non-Art. With a Zen perspective this is not the case. The mind can confuse us if we self-consciously believe “Now we are doing Art”. But life could be said to be a work of art. Each moment is a unique expression of Higher Self.

From a Zen perspective, the materials of the artist are the myriad things, the sounds, smells, touches of the senses. After a piece has been expressed satisfactorily, it is subject to decay. The actual intention of doing it is immediately dissolving. There is just the doing of it. We work on letting go of attachments of mind, of conditioning, of mere habits, like the importance of what something “should be” as opposed to “what is”. Who says what it should be? Is it just fashion or what other people think?

In Western culture, beauty is seen as the ultimate, the complete, the perfect, something to aspire towards, something to gain, to have. I could add, something to think about, to use your mind. Yet for me the most beautiful Michelangelo is one where the artist has carved away revealing the hidden form within, leaving the rough hewn stone as it is.

Whilst studying traditional Japanese ceramics I came across these three words wabi, sabi, and shibui. As I haven’t yet studied Japanese language I might let the experts translate but the impressions are of noble simplicity, rustic, quiet austere, refined, profound, humble, unpretentious. These are notions pertaining to the heart, to feelings and ungraspable impressions, as opposed to the western mind.

The unpretentious nature of a Raku bowl shows an honesty of form, not trying to hide the materials or how it was made. This I think is wabi – simple, truthful, not artificial. Sabi describes something mellowed by use, not  ostentatious. Shibui has inner implications, like a happy accident or something “made unsuccessfully”. You can’t imitate it if you tried.

In Japan, the learning of any one of the many arts is an almost wordless process. The Master supplies the model, the pupil copies it. This process is repeated again and again, month after month, year after year. For the Japanese learner this constitutes far less a test of patience than it might seem to us. From childhood on, his method of upbringing has prepared him for it. The Master seeks nothing from the pupil, no gift, no genius. He simply trains the pupil fully to master the pure skills of the art in question. Once this mastery is obtained, a day will eventually come when the pupil is able to represent perfectly what there is in his heart, precisely because the problem of formulation, of mere technical realisation, no longer burdens him. Only when the heart has attained maturity does true spontaneity arise. Even art must, like every natural being, grow organically: it can never create by act of will.

What is the mind of the artist – no mind, just do it.Mind hinders the natural growth of art.There is a general expectation that a piece of art is finished if it is the most perfect it could be.

Works of art are more beautiful when they suggest something beyond themselves.
Objects that are “complete” are not so beautiful because they already show all that they are, they have nothing more to suggest, and so are cold and rigid.
Would Venus de Milo be as intriguing if she had arms?

In a book on Ikebana I read, “symmetry is too static, like a law that has been forced upon nature.
Form that has no boundaries excites the eye to explore. The incomplete asks to be completed. All things that appear incomplete and unfinished
symbolise life’s dynamics. Nothing is definite, everything is in a state of flux.”
“Just as a potter forms the spinning clay on the wheel, so we configure our personality
from the spinning clay of existence – The pot does not spin of its own right: it emerges from the
interactions of the potter, the wheel, the clay, its shape…” Initially the potter makes friends with
the clay by handling it in a gently rocking motion, kneading the particles into conformity suitable
to spin on the wheel. The spiral confronts the potter constantly and centering is a necessity. Each
step in the process of making a bowl is done with an in-breath, gentle but firm pressure, and
release. A dialogue results, not a conquest, between heart, hand and clay. The resultant bowl can
be seen as two cupped hands, cupped in a universal caring gesture, holding and giving expression.
Integrity of materials
What can be the materials of the Artist? The one who is doing confronts a blank
piece of paper, or a lump of clay. The artist here is poised, hovering on the cusp between
nothing and something – formlessness and form, inactivity and activity. Waiting for
something to emerge – the next breath, a unique moment that will never happen the same
again. There is a need to share with others our experience. A piece of art, or an
expression in whatever media, does not arrive fully formed any more that a daffodil
arrives fully formed from a sprouting bulb. Many influences, each different and
unrepeatable, form that moment which is expressed.
Yet technique and media can block the path of expression. I refer here to works
trying hard to use one material in order to imitate another. A painting so realistic it looks
likes a photo, or a work in clay that looks like metal etc.
Is there integrity in a line seen in the middle of the road? Or does it change if you
know it has been made by a person? Is that line meant to affect you? If it is not art, it can
still be considered aesthetic. But art is done by someone wishing to express something, to
share an experience, which may help perhaps to save all beings. A beautiful rock in the
bush evokes something different to a thumb impression in an ancient shard of pottery.
Someone actually made it. There is a human connection, literally hand to hand.
Here is a passage from Daniel Rhodes:
The shaping hands of an individual potter are so much a part of the ceramic
tradition that we instinctively respond by wanting to take a bowl in our own hands, to
turn it around in the light, to explore the surface with our fingers. An awareness of forms
and textures has always been a part of the potter’s experience. Elements of nature – earth,
fire and water interact. Bodily names refer to pots – the belly, the foot, the neck. He
quotes Lao Tsu who wrote the Tao Te Ching, a famous Chinese classic in Taoism –
Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub. It is the centre hole that makes it useful: – shape the
clay into a vessel and it is the space within that makes it useful. Doors and windows too.
Their usefulness comes from what is not there.
Our concern as potters then is to attune ourselves to the space enclosed by the
form, as well as the form and its surface.
In order to find the heart of the artist, we need a shift in conventional notion of
there being a different kind of person who is an artist, and one who is a non-artist. We are
naturally drawn to certain media or activities. Planting a tree in a garden in a pleasurable
activity that expresses to the world the belief that trees are important in that garden. This
is an enjoyment of natural art, each moment is not artificial although the term “art” is
derived from that word. This moment is not contrived and made with the creative human
hand.
Whatever form or technique you are drawn towards to naturally express yourself
are the materials of the artist. These affinities don’t come from the mind, but an inner
drawing from the heart.
Art is fundamentally communication. If you create a beautiful garden, and you
invite friends for a cup of tea, this action communicates your expression of the
importance of the beauty of the bush. This is the exhibition. It is about peace, nature,
society, space. This is a work of art. It is something that is inwardly valued, not from a
contrived idea.
Art ultimately can’t be planned. You can’t plan your next moment. You can’t
experience your next moment, no one ever has. There is only the present moment. The
moment the dog barks, the moment the wind moves the chimes, the moment the cloth is
felt.
“Fruit falls from a tree naturally when ripe. After due time in spiritual life, the
heart, like fruit, begins to mature and sweeten. Our practice shifts from the green hard
growth of seeking, developing, and improving ourselves to a resting in mystery. It shifts
from a reliance on form to a resting in the heart.”
If I draw a tree, I explore the eye-hand co-ordinations; I search the light and shade
for line, rhythm and texture. But its depth comes in its meaning beyond the design
elements. I draw a tree, its sweeping branches, dark and mysterious. The base, their
beginning shrouded, unknown. Where have they come from? Where have we come from,
and where are we going? This subtle meaning speaks not from our mind but our deep
consciousness, a place of no words and of no form. A place from our deepest heart – vast
emptiness charged within.
Janet Selby
Previously published in Mind Moon Circle, Journal of the Sydney Zen Centre, Winter 2002

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Exhibitions

Annual Bonsai Club Show

Illawarra Bonsai Society Exhibition May 6-7, 2017 I am proud to be selling my pots at this wonderful show in...
Read More »

Chance to Purchase new pots 3rd March

Be the first to beat the mad rush for new unique bonsai pots. My latest designs always go quickly. However,...
Read More »

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Port Hacking Potters National Competition 2016 Whistling Powerful Owl, sold

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Good to see my pots in use. These trees are not my plants:- my pots are being utilised in various...
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Artistic Excellence Award 2016

Just before Christmas I was generously awarded the Noel Summerill Perpetual Trophy for Artistic Excellence 2016 by Illawarra Bonsai Society. So...
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Works range from my HSC year 1977. I have been making things in clay since before that time. It will...
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Garden Show to May 1st

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