Thursday, 30 July 2015

Drawing and mindfulness: beauty in the ordinary.

Since I was about 16, I have enjoyed sitting in the landscape to draw.

To begin with, however,  I would spend more time searching for the most picturesque view that I actually spent more time searching than drawing. I was so keen to Produce a picture to please my audience (such as it was). What I dind't understand, at that young age, was that a beautiful drawing  does not come from the objects but it comes from heart and mind  of the artist.

It is probable that anyone can draw an apple. It is possible that some can draw it perfectly in the style of a botanical drawing. But for that drawing of an apple to engage you, to fire your imagination, it takes total emersion and complete surrender on the part of the artist. Only then with that image of the apple evokes thoughts of the summers of childhood, the warmth of harvesting in an orchard heavy with the heady scent of ripening fruit.  Russet and gold, plucked with a remaining stalk and a clinging leaf, falling into a generous basket brimming with sweet goodness. The painting of an apple sitting on a napkin casting a long shadow from the late afternoon sun might even make your mouth water.

This level of concentration can come when the artist is able to look at the apple as if he has never seen one before; to take in every tone, every curve, shadow and highlight and describe it using pencil, pastel, paint or collage. The artist must suspend all previous understanding about the colour, texture and shape of apples and simply draw what is seen. 

While drawing, the artist may experience thoughts about the apple. He may wonder where it grew, what kind of landscape the tree stood in, what kind of person harvested it and how it arrived at the place where it now sits. If he picked the apple himself, he will experience the emotions and memories that the activity involved; emotions that do not evolve into words, emotions that can only be expressed by the movement of his hand and the manipulation of the materials. 

The result may be a work of art that we can call beautiful and it will be a beauty that each one of us experiences within;  a beauty that doesn't need words for expression.

A lifetime of drawing has revealed to me that it is similar to meditation. When I read about the practice of 'Mindfulness', I feel as if I am reading about the practice of drawing.  Many of my students agree that they experience many of the same benefits through drawing as they do through meditation. To draw well the artist has to be completely 'in the moment', to exclude all thought of the past and the future, to only be concerned with 'the now'. 

I always found meditation to be very difficult. The act of concentrating on my breathing, or staring at a single point in an attempt to count to ten to the exclusion of all other thoughts was more than I could manage. I was a failure!  But these days,  I find it easy to slip into a state of sub-consciousness to quieten my mind. This is a technique I have learned through drawing rather than attending meditation classes.  Apart from the obvious benefits to my mental health, I have  also become more relaxed about my drawing practice and realised that it is better to bring out the beauty in ordinary things than it is to seek out beauty for its own sake. Ommmmm!

Friday, 17 July 2015

Taking it slow in Saigon

There is a famous temple in Cho Lon that I have visited more times than I can count. It's the one the oldest and most visited in that district.  The Thien Hau pagoda is an evocative place that is worth lingering in for an hour or so and, on a hot day in district 5, it provides a cooling retreat from that bustling community of traders and dealers.

To get a good view of this 18th century pagoda you need to stand across the street. From there you can see all the details on the roof which features gorgeously glazed, ceramic dioramas of feasts, battles, traders,  demons, dignitaries, actors and merchants from other continents all set against creatively modelled Chinese houses, palaces and shops. It is incredible that these old ceramics have survived the ravages of weather and time to look as beautiful as the day they were created.  

From this side of the street you see this magical old temple through a moving wall of roaring traffic, with street cafes to right and left. Bird sellers with chirruping caged sparrows are completely inaudible above the din of motorbikes and taxis that trundle by, kicking up the dust and spewing diesel fumes.

Pick up a cold drink, and when the lights stop the traffic, you can slip across the road and into the forecourt of Thien Hau Pagoda. Now, the scale of this precious building becomes apparent and with two more steps you walk through a solid granite doorway into another world. A hush descends and you are in a place where everything is sacred, where civic pride and community endeavour meet  the gods and ancestors, where all the richness of the lives of the residents of Cho Lon can be seen.

On the walls of the first, inner courtyard there are some unusual  friezes, possibly from the 1970s depicting modern buildings, factories, a school, the interior of an elegant house. Maybe built by local philanthropists and entrepreneurs, these places must be very important  to the community here.  I can't image such urbane images being installed in a religious building in Europe.  How different Westerners are from Asians in this regard.
The central , covered yard of the pagoda is hung with incense coils sending prayers and wishes out to deities and forebears, the spirals of smoke captured in vertical rays of sunlight that penetrate the gaps between roofs.  

The colourful ceramic frieze continues around the rim of each courtyard; the stories are from history and Chinese mythology create an imaginary world where fact and fiction co-exist. If  you take a seat and linger in this cool space for  20 minutes, you will also see the two aspects of  contemporary Cho Lon; the locals quietly carrying on with their religious rituals and the foreign visitors gawping at the overwhelming visual feast as they snap photos and wonder at the richness that surrounds them.

If you step in to an ante-room to the right there is yet another delight that has little to do with religion or ancestors but adds to the eclectic mix of incense coils, bronze-faced deities, relief friezes of factories, a 19th century fire-fighting device and dioramas of ancient fables. On the walls are large watercolour paintings of the twelve animals of the zodiac; each one a masterpiece. 

The animal of the year, the goat at the moment, is topped with a red garland and rosette. There are rows of elegant Chinoiserie chairs so you can take a seat to appreciate this unique gallery and decide which is your favourite. 

One thing is for sure; this pagoda is not for rushing. 

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Oh to be in England in the summer time

This summer, for the first time in nearly 3 years, I returned to England to visit friends and family and do all those chores you have to do when you have been absent without leave!   When I went away on September 5th 2012, I reckoned I would be back for a visit after 6 months but I would give Vietnam one year to give it a fair trial!!!   Ha ha ha!  Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha!
Well, I think everyne knows I have had an amazing time and have achieved more than I could have dreamed of and all because:-
1. Vietnam is currently a land of opportunity that welcomes anyone who help it to flourish
2. My wonderful friends back home have been filling in for me, covering up for me, fixing things, storing things, researching stuff, giving advice, communicating with me, watching me, keeping me on track, encouraging me and making it all worth while. I am so blessed. Thank you all.

This summer, in England, I have seen Leeds streets bathed in sunshine, the Northumberland  fields warmed by the evening sun, The Northumberland coast sparkling in the afternoon and the midnight skies, at Holy Island, still light on Midsummer's Day.

Donkeys on the Mablethorpe beach
I have seen Scarborough showing off in the sunshine, its beach covered with day trippers come to see the air show above the bay on Armed Forces Day. In Lincolnshire I walked the dunes and marshes and watched as a baby seal flopped to the surf for its first swim, nearly exhausted by its endeavour in the July sunshine. 

In West Yorkshire we basked in the glorious lunchtime sun  as we watched a silver band parade through an old mill village and on through the hills followed by mums and children from local schools. 

And, whenever possible I have collected the meadow flowers along the way. The collection on the right is from the beautiful Lancashire hills by Blacko.

The colourful blooms on the right are from the meadows behind the dunes on the Lincolnshire coast

I cannot remember a June and July like this for years. It has been almost continuous sunshine with only a few short showers and the occasional thunder storm. That is remarkable!  Even the Wimbledon tennis is benefitting form the settled weather.
So, I m sorry I stayed away so long and I am sorry I haven't been able to see absolutely everyone on this visit. Four weeks has flown by and it has been completely marvellous!!!!   I will be back next summer and it won't be so hectic next time. I am already looking forward to it!  Ha ha!!