The Way Of The Artist – Lessons From Gardening And Thoughts About Perfection
I see perfection in other people, but rarely in myself.
I see perfection in the work of other artists, but rarely in my own.
I see all the details of what I missed when we renovated our houses and all the things that I still need to fix or clean or correct.
I have been blessed, or cursed, with an eye for details, that sees dust where others see cleanliness, that sees room for improvement where others are content.
I am probably the only person in the world who brings with her a scuff-mark eraser and other cleaning gadgets when staying at an Airbnb apartment, and I leave the apartment cleaner than when I came into it.
It is my cross to bear….
I am learning to live with myself, with my own perception and my limiting ideas every single day.
My aim is to let go of everything that stands in my way to pure happiness.
Everything that is blocking my vision, I am willing to let it all go.
I hold onto nothing, and I face each day with empty hands, willing to receive the lessons that the new day has in store for me.
I find that I gain tremendous wisdom when I quietly listen in a state of working meditation, either when painting or while gardening.
When gardening, I set no rigid goals for the day.
I do not try to finish a project, nor to make it look perfect; I simply show up to work in a set of old clothes that I do not mind ruining, and I keep working until it is time to brew Matcha (frothy green tea powder tea from Japan), or until I run out of steam.
I do have a strategy, a plan and I do keep a goal in mind, but I do not insist on trying to finish it all in one day.
There is always tomorrow, and while the rest of the world seems to be running on overdrive, tomorrow I will head into my garden shed, collect my tools and spend yet another day in Paradise, doing nothing significant, yet learning copious amounts of fragments of the truth.
Most of the time, I work in my garden pulling out stubborn weeds.
At times, when the weeds are persistent and the sun is too strong, I feel a pang of helplessness and frustration pass through me.
What’s the use of all these days of hard work, when soon we will leave and all the weeds will grow back again….
A sane voice inside of me, reminds me that gardening has its own set of benefits that have nothing to do with the end result of a neat and tidy garden.
When gardening, you work outdoors with the bounty of nature all around you….You listen to the hidden wisdom of the wind as it passes through the bamboo grove…. You listen to the song of the birds, see the pheasants, make agreements with the ants to stay clear of my house and I allow the flowers to tell you wise and beautiful things about your own nature, that are not written in any books nor spoken about by any masters….
Furthermore, the physical hardship of gardening on the very hilly slopes makes your body strong and agile.
I follow the flight of a butterfly, and my mind takes its own flight into the past.
I recall how once, many years ago when we lived in Miami, we flew to Malaysia where we visited a stunning butterfly garden.
I was overcome with the beauty of the butterflies, and beside integrating them into many of the paintings I did back then, I had the idea that I wanted to create a butterfly garden, too.
I visited the local nursery and bought many plants that attract butterflies.
Within a few months, I realized that a “butterfly garden” does not fit well with my perfection seeking personality.
The sobering truth is that butterflies live only a few days as beautiful butterflies; they spend most of their lives as worm looking caterpillars, who eat everything in the garden and produce copious amounts of shit.
My tropical garden in Miami looked like a diseased battlefield with almost no leaves and no flowers on any of the plants.
Most everything I had planted was eaten by thousands of hungry, ever growing and somewhat menacing looking caterpillars.
To top this off, they were crawling toward our neat swimming pool that we had meticulously finished with limestone, water spewing dragons and Roman urns with flowers.
Like thirsty pilgrims looking for a life giving source of water, they made their way to our swimming pool and ended up drowning.
I had to fish out dead caterpillars every time I wanted to go for a swim.
In time, I declared that experiment a loss, and replanted the garden with tropical plants, date palms and coconut trees centered around a new theme of patterns, shapes and intoxicating fragrances that blew into the house and my studio with every gust of wind.
That new garden theme turned out to be a great success.
But here in fertile NZ, I always feel that I am behind in the upkeep of the garden.
Trees that I had just trimmed are so overgrown by now, and little trees that had reseeded themselves with the help of the birds are almost adult size by the time we come back to NZ.
The vines overgrow the plants that we have planted and after months of growth, they are like heavy thick ropes that are hard to remove.
The weeds have deep roots and I have to take a sharp knife to pry them out of the ground.
Sometime when we visit a nursery in NZ, I cannot believe the prices that they charge for some of the plants that I work so hard to remove, cut back or control in my own garden.
In my garden, everything grows, including the weeds.
Sometimes Jules comes to me and says that he inadvertently cut something that we had planted.
He looks sad and says that he is unsure if it will grow again.
I have to reassure hm that it will take much more than breaking a plant to kill it.
Even if you were to remove it from its roots, it will still probably grow again from some remnants of roots that remain in the ground.
Who was it who said that “A weed is a plant in your garden that is unloved by you.”
I have to remind myself that weeds are just plants that are unloved by me…. They simply do what the graceful and life-loving force of nature has designed them to do… They grow!
If you cut them, they will grow again.
If you try to remove them by pulling them, some weeds will give out their bodies and leaves easily, so their roots will remain planted.
They are survivors… They were designed to survive.
Very similar to we human beings.
We might become sick when we do not remember our true divine nature, but the healing plan that is deeply ingrained within us, starts the minute we fall ill.
A cut on your hand starts to heal the second it occurs.
Certain blood cells (called platelets) spring into action.
Platelets stick together like glue at the cut, forming a clot.
This clot is like a protective bandage over your cut that keeps more blood and other fluids from flowing out.
Instantly blood vessels that had been severed, close themselves up.
Your immune system immediately kicks into gear, to ward off any outside bacteria that might have made its way into your blood stream.
White blood cells, the kind that fight infection to keep you from getting sick, go to work by attacking any germs that may have gotten into the cut.
White blood cells also get rid of any dead blood and skin cells that may still be hanging around the cut.
The body starts producing a new dermis and by the time it’s all done, a new layer of skin will have been made.
Yes…. A cut starts to heal the very second it occurs…. We were designed this way… We have the inner knowledge of how to heal built into our systems, into our bodies.
We are perfect, just as we are, we simply have different ideas of what ‘Perfect’ might look like.
What does a ‘perfect’ body look like?
By the supreme intelligence that governs it, your body IS PERFECT JUST AS YOU ARE!
What does a ‘perfect’ tree look like?
Does it have one tall trunk and a canopy of branches that resemble a mushroom?
Or can a tree have many trunks growing from the ground and still be perfect?
Take for example a young apple tree that has broken branches because a heavy opossum has climbed on it to eat its flowers.
The opossum has also eaten most of the young leaves.
Is this young Apple tree no longer perfect, because of this?
It is very likely that the tree will grow stronger next year, and will survive.
In a few years, it will be very prolific with many apples, and some will reseed themselves as they roll down the slopes and rot on the fertile soil.
This young Apple tree is living its life perfectly.
I stopped weeding and straightened my back, took a deep breath and looked at the harbor and reflected further on my ideas of perfection, and how my limited understanding of the concept has brought me much sadness and inner turmoil over the years.
The desire for perfection can be a strong motivating force or a source of much inner pain and aggravation.
On one hand, we want to do our very best, as close to perfect as we can get, but on the other hand, we feel disheartened when what we bring forth looks to be much less than perfect.
When creating art, the desire for perfection can either motivate one to constantly try to do better, or paralyze an artist who wants to create something “perfect” but sees that the end result does not look as perfect as the ideas she conceived in her mind.
Here on earth, everything seem to be less than perfect.
It takes a lifetime to come to the realization that the physical world is a denser and less perfect outer manifestation of the pure causal dimension of ideas, that is its essence.
Countless times I have tried to do something perfectly, only to look at it months later and see that I had missed something so obvious or done it in such an amateurish way.
It happens in everything that I do, not just in painting but in house renovations and much more.
When we studied Japanese in Japan, my mind would often follow the teacher with absolute clarity, good memory and understanding, but when it came time to speak the sentences out loud, my mouth seemed unable to form the grammar in the perfect way that I thought of it inside.
The desire for perfection is the attempt to bring into the manifested world the perfection of the soul.
The soul yearns for the perfect world that is its true essence, the world of brilliant and pure ideas.
But what does “perfect” looks like?
Does a blemish make a flower less perfect?
Do freckles make a face less adorable?
Is a perfect skin one with no lines and no pigmentation?
Does a perfect cup have to be round? Can’t it be squashed and unevenly formed like the best and most cherished Raku cups?
Does a perfect house have to have symmetric lines and walls? Can’t a perfect house be round? Or organically shaped with curves designed to follow the landscape?
Can perfection be defined as a a plan well done?
As a perfect execution of your original intentions?
Or do you need to step aside and allow the process or the materials to lead you and to show you what it is that wants to be born?
Many sculptors speak about how they saw the subject in the material, already completely formed, and how all that they needed to do was to remove the stuff around it.
At the edge of our garden, we have a small concrete water tank that was used to water the garden when our garden was a productive nursery.
Standing broken and without a top, this tank looked like an eyesore.
We have tried to demolish it, but it is built of cast concrete reinforced with iron, and so it is very hard to break.
We started dumping garden clippings into it, and converted it into a compost pile.
With the passing years, flowers started growing at the center of it.
We did not plant them, they may have grown from cuttings and clippings that we dropped there.
We honored the process and stopped dumping branches and clippings into it.
Now, it looks like a planter with year-round flowers flowing from it in great abundance.
We did not plan to make it a flower planter, we simply followed the process of what was happening and allowed it to be.
So….does a “perfect garden,” a garden with no unwanted weeds, symbolize the victory of the gardener over her plants?
Does a perfect garden have neat rows of flowering plants that all bow in unison as the wind passes through them?
Surely the definition of perfection is much bigger than that!
There are Zen gardens that are perfect.
They have no weeds and display perfectly manicured trees whose dead leaves are plucked the minute they turn dry.
Some have rock patterns instead of grass.
They do not look austere but very harmonious.
There are perfect gardens that have well trimmed hedges and roses growing in round garden beds.
There are perfect gardens where the fruit trees are abundant and wild flowers grow beneath the apple trees.
And….There is perfection in a Wabi Sabi garden, like my own…
Embracing the aesthetic ideas of Wabi Sabi has released something in me that seemed to have been tied up in a knot for many years.
Wabi Sabi revolves around an idea that in the physical, relative world:
Nothing is perfect,
Nothing is permanent,
And nothing is finished.
Many artists have said it before, but it takes awhile to truly understand it… A painting is never finished, you simply stop at a certain point in time and space, and decide that it is done for now, instead of working and overworking it to death.
Nothing is finished.
There will always be dirty dishes to wash again tomorrow, the weeds in the garden will grow again, the car you have just washed will collect dust or bird shit tomorrow.
There will always be something you missed in the painting… A corner, a detail that you somehow overlooked…
There is beauty in the process…. in taking great care in arranging and then un-arranging.
Nothing is finished and each arrangement holds different angles of beauty.
While the rational mind loves symmetry and finds peace in straight lines, there is mystery and beauty in asymmetry.
A Raku fired tea cup with asymmetric lines offers an opportunity to delight in the sparkle of blue that is showing between the black glaze.
The uneven edge of the bowl is reminiscent of the waves of the ocean, the curves of mountains, and as you raise the bowl to your lips and sip the Matcha, you can feel gratitude towards the gumboot clad farmers, who planted and harvested the tea leaves for your enjoyment.
Asperity, or the roughness and irregularity of things, lets your materials tell their own story.
Some mud makes smooth clay, while some makes clay that is earthy, granular and rough.
A painting done on rice paper can be more delicate than a flower.
The materials you use have strength and a personal story to tell, and as an artist you are here to bring it forth.
Simplicity is the art of describing less.
Let people awaken to their own inner wisdoms.
Let your work be an inspiration from which others take whatever it is they are ready to embrace.
Economy is the art of describing or telling your story with less.
Austerity is the art of letting the light shine through, without glitz or glamor.
It is about being bold with space, yet not needing an audience.
It is about being courageous without stopping to look to see if the world is applauding you.
Modesty is tied into the last concept.
It is about realizing that it is not YOUR truth, but that the truth speaks through you.
It is about speaking in a whisper…. Knowing that each one of us has his or her own inner wisdom….
Being modest is about realizing your true worth and not needing the world to approve of you.
Intimacy is about opening yourself to the world.
About being intimate with the work you are making.
It is about becoming naked in your work and standing tall and vulnerable.
It is about telling the world the truth, and nothing but the truth.
This is the ultimate way of the Artist- be bold, let your material tell the story, practice economy, modesty, austerity, simplicity, expansiveness, be intimate with the work and the world and everyone in it, allow for imperfections, asymmetry, and asperity, and remember that nothing is ever finished….
Warm blessings to you all from the lofty hills of the Hokianga, NZ, where the Tasman Sea empties itself and fills the harbor with great wisdom every single day anew…