Angela Chang sits at a table and demonstrates Hsieh-i, a style of Chinese painting with a name that translates to "right intention." This style uses color, a full palette that one doesn't always associate with Asian painting, but forgoes the careful ink outlines that sometimes limn the forms in more detailed styles. The artist has to decide on the color and the shape of each stroke before she executes it, so intention becomes critical.
I came to MiamIntelligence, a facility on US1 at the edge of Coconut Grove that does more than nearly anyone in town to raise the cultural level down here, to take classes from Sifu Chang. I have a longtime interest in Asian art, and later this year, will become an artist in residence at a studio facility in Taichung, Taiwan, for four weeks. In the meantime I would like to improve my Chinese writing skills from ham-fisted to merely rudimentary.
But I had another reason for coming to her class: I had stopped making art. In February I fell in love with a girl. I still have an attempt to render her presence using Chinese brushes, ink, and watercolors on a full sheet of watercolor paper. I made her look like Lucy from the Peanuts cartoon and gave up on it pretty soon after starting, but the memory of her sitting for me stays with me as a happy event. She wanted to be my muse, and she sat in the chair in my studio, wearing a bright red blouse and an ultramarine blue skirt, looking at me with an expression full of love. At the beginning of March, a friend of hers from her home in Central Florida called to tell me that she killed herself. (Twelve weeks later, the lab report about her blood came in: over-the-counter antihistamines, sleeping pills, and cocaine.) Production in the studio ceased; a weight settled on my chest and stayed there.
You learn to paint in the Chinese manner by rote imitation. I have a master's degree in painting and ten years' of experience handling liquid media since then, and I figured wrongly that I could get up to an acceptable novice level fairly briskly. I entered the advanced class - I should have hit the one for beginners, but I had a time conflict - and proceeded to lay out my materials like the Korean student next to me who clearly had been at it for a while. Sifu Chang came over, turned my inkstone around the right way, rubbed the ink stick into the water to get a decent black color going instead of the pond water I had prepared, and demonstrated how to paint bamboo leaves. One begins one's training with the so-called Four Gentlemen, bamboo, orchid, plum, and mum, starting with bamboo. Bamboo leaves require a straight, confident stroke that starts round, fills, empties, and ends in a sharp point. Executing it correctly proved surprisingly difficult.
At one point, Sifu Chang looked over at my hand with a frown. "Correct his grip," she said to the Korean student. I had been holding the brush like a pen, or more specifically, like I had been holding watercolor brushes since I had first learned to use them in art school. The Chinese way is to point the brush downward while the thumb, holding it against the index and middle fingers, points upward. I filled a page of newsprint with bamboo leaves.
Later, I loaded a brush with ink and heard a gasp from the other side of the table. Sifu was looking at my hand with a horrified face. She explained, smiling sincerely, but in a tone of voice that made me think I might have been slapping a baby, that you when you load the brush you pull it through the ink gently, in the direction of the handle and away from the point. I had been using a motion more like that of swirling a mop in a bucket of fouled water. Actually, you have to do this in Western painting to some extent; tube colors come in a pasty consistency and you must rub a bit to get them to dissolve. It wears the brush out, but in our tradition we simply wear our brushes out and replace them when they've lost their spring. I pondered all of my previous experience. We think our knowledge helps us, but sometimes, it just gets in the way of new knowledge.
I filled several pages of newsprint with bamboo leaves. Then I tried stalks. This proved even more challenging. You load the brush with clear water, wipe off the excess against the side of the container, load it with medium-gray ink about two-thirds of the way up the brush, load the tip with solid black, and then execute a series of strokes to render the bamboo in segments. Because you have different densities of ink on the brush, they blend seamlessly as you paint. Gravity and water's innate surface tension do most of the work for you. If you set it up right. Of course, you can't just slap the brush down on the paper - you have to keep it straight up while the bristles bend sideways, so the ink-saturated tip lies to one side of the belly of the brush. Six classes later, if my stalks came out passably, I felt that luck had as much to do with it as anything else.
I filled many pages with bamboo, and the weight began to lift.
I suppose that art provides a therapeutic experience for people who do it for fun, but if you do it professionally, it usually has the opposite effect. It doesn't out-and-out make you crazy - I don't think - but despite the fact that life and limb don't depend on its successful execution as they do in the surgeon's craft, artists work as if it did. Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird wrote about the time that she was going to solve some particular writing problem or go drink gin out of the cat bowl, and I knew exactly what she was talking about, even though I don't drink. Monet slashed canvases, including the late ones that might have ended up in the Orlangerie if he hadn't killed them. The London Times recently noted Lucian Freud's tendency to put his foot through his paintings as often as not. Art requires that you care. Caring requires that you put your life into your work. Putting your life into your work makes artistic failures feel catastrophic.
But painting bamboo obliged me to get a feel for the general nature of bamboo's existence - bamboo-ness. The leaves stack up in a certain way, the joints in the bamboo have to distribute in pleasing manner, the stems must honor gravity. I do a lot of drawing from life, and I had already experienced something similar - you have to understand bodies in general to understand what any particular body is doing in front of you. You have to see details, yes, but also principles, or the details arrange themselves willy-nilly with no artistic effect. Those principles put you in touch with the culture of life. Individual stalks of bamboo die, but bamboo continues its existence endlessly. We paint that endless existence.
I had begun making art again. By the final class I had produced nothing worth saving, which didn't surprise me in the least - people work at this for ten years just to become competent. Mastery requires more. As Sifu Chang demonstrated Hsieh-i, I saw her brush dance as she loaded it with varying viscosities of multiple colors, zipping efficiently from dish to dish to get the paint into the bristles in the right place and in the right amount. Then she would lay down a stroke, decisive and crafted, executed in the time it takes to exhale naturally. A peony - not just a peony, but an understanding about the perennial beauty of peonies - began to form on the paper.