The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live. – Auguste Rodin
One weekend when I was in high school, my family visited Chicago’s magnificent Art Institute. The Institute’s collection is superb. I saw so many masters for the first time. But out of all the art I saw in that Beaux-Arts style sanctuary one painting still stands out in my mind over forty years later. It was an ancient Chinese painting. This was my first encounter with the profound power of Asian art. A magical mountain floated atop curving empty space. At first glance, the blank spaces made the painting look strange and unfinished. But upon closer inspection it seemed the emptiness contained a hidden presence. A lone gnarled tree, clinging to the sheer soaring cliffs, reached into the blankness. A single narrow path was barely visible along the precipitous cliff-face. A lone scholar figure, dwarfed by the mountain, stood at the edge of the abyss. His robes billowed slightly, and his long hair flowed down his back. The scholar starred into the void just below the soaring mountain. Perhaps he scanned the skies for signs of an absent love or a path forward. Mentally stepping into the magnificent landscape blazed a path into my mind. I was entranced by the astonishing vertical perspective and bewildering depths of the artistic minds that created such marvelous works.
My family wandered off. A profound calm surrounded me. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as if a slight breeze flowed from the painting. My scalp tingled from the vibrations of metaphysical illumination. The mystifying characters and wondrous red seals cascading down the scene expressed meaning beyond my comprehension. Every element in the painting appeared to be under transformation – man, poem, mountain, wind, the Void… Swaying gently before the altar of art I began a metamorphosis which would take years to comprehend. Small wings began to beat within my soul. Just as it seemed I would take flight; my mom’s gentle touch interrupted my reverie. After the epiphanous moment subsided I began my own journey towards transformation.
In those pre-Internet days, I began looking as best as I could for imagery and articles about Asian culture in general and China specifically. Luckily while browsing a university bookstore I found a well-illustrated book which generally laid out the styles, methods and aesthetics of Chinese painting. Chinese landscape painting is called Shan-Shui-Hua mountain-water-painting. A work of Chinese art has multiple vanishing points to illustrate distances– high, deep, level. The goal of the painting is not to realistically portray a scene. A landscape depicts the spirit of nature while evoking a feeling which is sometimes expressed in poetry.
This artistic introduction led me to geniuses like the poet/artist Su Shi (pronounced Sue Sure). Several times when I was reading about Su Shi I came across the word polymath. A polymath is a person who has great knowledge about several fields. Su Shi was one of the finest examples of a Chinese scholar or literati. He was one of the first Chinese literati began to add elegant poetry to the blank spaces in paintings over a thousand years ago in order to heighten the impact of their creations. A few years ago, my talented Chinese artist friend explained a little about the use of Chinese poetry in art. She said when a viewer reads a powerful Chinese poem the nature of the characters and the skill of the calligraphy summons the vivid imagery of the scene into the mind of the reader. The scenes depicted come to life in a visual display of artistic alchemy in the mind of the viewer.
As a student of Asian art, I would draw or paint the Chinese characters on some of my Asian influenced watercolors. I have studied: Asian arts; eastern civilizations in college; and the intricacies of Taoist thought for over four decades. Along the way there were hints from the Universe that the answers to my deepest questions would lie in the journey ahead. We travel through life along numerous paths tracing and retracing countless tracks in the dust of time. And so it is difficult to identify exactly where one path ends and another begins. But part of the life-path I walk now began the day I first experienced such artistic dynamism.
Many years later, when I was living in China, I was discussing Chinese art with Flora one of my best students. She had studied calligraphy and painting for many years. In one of her lessons her painting teacher said the ultimate goal of the artist is to create a dynamic xiao yuzhou – “small universe” – within their work. When viewed correctly this small universe explodes into the mind of the observer thus altering the individual forever. In this way, my moment of earlier metamorphosis had injected me with an aesthetic lodestone that altered my spirit-compass forever.