Updated: Nov 23, 2019
This year I've been thinking a lot about vulnerability. I've also been thinking a lot about trees. Trees and vulnerability. Vulnerability and trees. Perhaps I should explain. It's been a big year for many reasons. On a personal note, I opened this site which, to be honest, feels like one of those dreams where you walk out on stage only to discover you're missing your trousers. A little exposed? You got that right. So what do I do when I feel the most vulnerable? I paint. And the one thing I keep coming back to in terms of inspiration is trees. Let me take you on a journey.
It's the late nineties. I'm in the middle of a large, unfamiliar city, and I am lost. The town is Gwangju, South Korea. I have been here for a month, and despite loving my new environment and having established a small but tight circle of friends, I still feel alone. Like many of us, when I think this way, I gravitate towards the familiar. And for me, familiarity is art. Gwangju is not a terrible city to be in if you are a lover of the arts. It is the home of Asia's oldest biennale of contemporary art. It is also the home of a small but quirky street, the name of which translates into something like "Art Street". I wander down this little street, in and out of art shops. I am intrigued by the beautifully crafted dragons that weave themselves around cast-iron ink pots and am in awe at all the brightly coloured ink palettes within them — so many colours of ink I had never even imagined. I stop in one last shop. It is a tiny shop littered with books, paints, and ink pots over every imaginable surface. Such disarray only made me love it more. A single lantern gave the tiny room a cinnamon glow. If I were to paint the shop on that night, it would be a rich raw sienna, tinged with cadmium orange hues, encased within a deep cobalt blue night sky, aquamarine accents throughout.
It was on this night that I met the art teacher I describe in my "About Me" page. It shames me that I cannot remember his name, but I do remember his generosity and quirky smile. I also remember the rather alarming guttural sound that came from the back of his throat every time my ink lines became a little too thick and unwieldy. Neither of us spoke each other's language, but we spoke "art", and that was what mattered. From that night forward, Wednesday evenings were art evenings. Each lesson would begin with the ceremonial sharing of banana-flavoured milk. After our drinks, we would paint. My art teacher would carefully monitor my hand and arm movements. At times, he would gently slap my arm reminding me to keep it level and controlled, a marked contrast to my experience at an art school in Canada where I was told to "let loose and let go". Each Wednesday, we would focus on a specific aspect of a tree, each class, the trunk, the leaf, the branch. There was no moving forward until I had mastered each one.
One evening, I was feeling particularly vulnerable. I missed home and was not as attentive as usual. My art teacher must have sensed something was wrong because when a customer came in, he asked the customer to translate, something he rarely did. While I cannot remember the precise translation, I remember that my art teacher wanted to express the importance of the strokes used to illustrate the cherry tree. My strokes were too bold, he said. It was alright for them to be soft. It was the fragility of the branch that helped keep them flexible. If they were too strong, they would break in a storm. He patted my arm and smiled. I finally understood what he was trying to tell me, in that particular moment, so alone and so far away from home. Fragility does not equate weakness. One can exist like the cherry tree and be vulnerability and strength embodied.
Keep on shining,