Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern. – Alfred North Whitehead
Two mighty sentinel walnut trees guard the front yard of my childhood home. One tree is straight as a telephone pole. The other tree’s trunk bends about ten feet off the ground. One day my father pointed to the “crooked” tree and said, “You know why that useless damn tree bends? Your grandfather came over the day I was planting those trees. He took out his pocket knife and cut into the top of one sapling. I told him to stop. He said the tree was strong and would be fine. He ruined that tree. It’s been worthless ever since.
I instantly revered the tree with its wondrous imperfection extending towards the heavens like the joint of a graceful finger. In my mind, the tree grew backwards through time to the point where my beloved grandfather altered its form. In that moment long passed, I fell in love with the marvelous imperfection connected to my departed grandfather – Buddy. The seed of my personal aesthetic was planted that golden day when I, an adolescent boy – my form altered by rampant hormones and misunderstood emotions – first embraced imperfection.
I am the fourth of five children – the ring finger, more or less, of the group – and the forgotten one. As such, I was often left to my own devices to self-create a world around me. A metaphysical creative force followed me throughout my day then and now. Fantasy and reality blend together in a magical realism inner narrative. In school, I would finish class assignments before the rest of the class and spent the idle time drawing in my notebook. Wandering down neighborhood alleys after school, I’d find odd bits of scrap, old magazines, and other imperfect castoffs. Richly unique blemishes and defects overflowed with the promises of treasure.
It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. – Henry David Thoreau
In high school, I began to experiment with watercolor painting. Unlike acrylics or oils, which can be painted over, watercolor painting is a grand and glorious encounter with one’s own artistic flaws. Colors blend and fuse in infinite variation while dancing atop the flowing water. Brushstrokes merely suggest a direction across the dampening paper. The chromatic flood spontaneously overruns skillfully sketched borders in an ecstatic improvised tango with the artist. Art lies in the chaotic interplay between intent and result.
Artists must work with the imperfections of their medium, especially sculptors. After moving near the ocean, I have been attracted to the flotsam and jetsam that washes up on the beach, especially driftwood. The photos in this article are of a piece of driftwood. When I picked it up, the asymmetrical wood grain and corroded nails caught my eye. The splendid coloration from the rusty nails exuded a strange energy. I was certain wonderful art waited within its imperfections. To create this piece, I hand sanded and bleached it in several steps. Each step revealed a more beautiful surface. I feel the finished piece radiates with what the Romans called a “genius loci” – protective spirit of a place. The unique patterns of its imperfections charge my desk with its creative energy like a spirit-lantern.
For decades, I have delved into so-called Eastern thought. This is, more or less, a catchall phrase for non-Western concepts. Included are the magnificent spiritual beliefs and artistry of India, China, and across Asia. I discovered one concept in particular directly relates to appreciating “imperfections” – the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi. Byunderstanding the concepts of wabi sabi, a person learns to appreciate the impermanence and transience of existence. Once aware, it becomes apparent that true beauty is revealed in blemishes, scratches, tarnish, patina, wrinkles and an overall rustic simplicity. We all can embrace this affection for the inevitable impermanence of our own being. For, in a way, we are a work of art – the aesthetic expression of what is appealing with more than ordinary significance.
I smile when my wife mentions finding another gray hair. I remind her how 99.999% of her hairs are still the same lustrous black as when we first met. I told her how happy I am when I glance in the mirror and see so much as a shade or shadow of my mostly grayish hairs’ former color. “Be thankful you still have such thick beautiful hair.” We laugh and turn back to our work. As George Bernard Shaw said, “You don’t stop laughing when you grow old, you grow old when you stop laughing.” The difference in our ages matters less and less as our life together ripens into a reassuring maturity. Accepting our imperfections and flaws endure us each to the other. We all need to accept ourselves as we are, warts and all. Embrace imperfection and celebrate our beautifully imperfect world.