In February, Jenny and I spent ten days on Maui soaking in the sun, adventuring and focusing on our relationship. I brought Makota Fujimura’s new book Art + Faith, A Theology of Making, to read. I was surprised, and impressed, with how much punch it had. It challenged and broadened my thinking not only about art and faith but also life. I hope to do a book review soon and will share more then. One concept Fujimura introduced gave a new appreciation for my Dad’s art, aesthetic and, indeed, his whole way of life: the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.
Wabi-sabi, Fujimura says, “sees beauty as rooted in what is passing, and even in what is broken.” Japanese poets and artists “speak of enduring beauty that flows out of the groaning of the old.” (p. 103). He writes:
“In wabi-sabi aesthetic…a well-worn, beloved wallet would be valued. Well-loved objects can be intrinsic to our everyday lives and connected intimately to who we are and what we value, as they are part of our daily routine. Thus, in this aesthetic, something that is worn, and lovingly used, is more valuable than something that is new…Wabi is defined as ‘poverty,’ and sabi, ‘rust.’ These implicit values in Japanese aesthetics run so deep in the Japanese psyche that many Japanese would have a hard time articulating them, or evening defining them in the way that I am doing here. But this sentiment will appear when Japanese poetry or even pop music speaks of a rusted bridge…Mono no aware is a Japanese phrase used to describe the ‘pathos of things’ wearing away. A well-used wallet speaks of the soul of the wallet’s owner in ways that a new wallet cannot. Seeing a worn-out wallet as beautiful requires a deeper appreciation of the pathos of, or compassion, toward human touch. So even a wallet is not just a wallet but carries with it the owner’s habits and even loves; if an object is well-loved, the object begins to carry the owner’s identity, and, it might be said, the object becomes part of that person” (p. 103-104).
What does the concept of wabi-sabi have to do with my dad?
Previously, I understand dad as a sentimentalist who, at best, had connections to stuff that made it hard for him to let it go, and, at worst, kept old “junk” around that I would have tossed years before. The concept of wabi-sabi helped me see this in a different light, beyond functionality to an aesthetic. Clearly, Dad values old stuff, all manner of stuff, and sees a purpose them; that’s functionality. But wabi-sabi helped me contemplate why. It’s not just functionality; Dad sees beauty in the old, rusted and worn out things he keeps. It is his aesthetic. Dad’s love for the old reminds me of friends in Indianapolis who loved the old too: old buildings, old houses, old furniture, old machines, old cars, old tools, old newspapers and… the list goes on. I had grown to appreciate how they loved the history, how they guarded the old and repurposing of the old and enjoyed the beauty of the old. Now I saw Dad’s love for the old and worn and raggedy as a serious aesthetic, as wabi-sabi.
Let’s look at a few of the paintings from Dad’s #81 art show to see how wabi-sabi expresses itself in the well-loved old, used, rusted objects that he paints.
This painting above is titled “Frederickson’s Dory.” I used it in an Ad for the show because my brother Jed liked the colors, and so did I. This is a relatively new painting (Dad got serious about acrylics in the last six months) of an old dory that sat at our home for years, slowly falling to pieces. The story behind it is that Mr. Frederickson (I have no idea who he is, but apparently a friend or neighbor or colleague from years ago) gave dad this old dory for a painting prop. Dad says, “It eventually rotted away and was burned up,” which is proof that Dad doesn’t keep old stuff forever. As a boy I do remember that slow process of the boats aging. I had no idea that Dad was using it as a painting prop. He must have taken a picture of it and tucked it away and kept it through the decades until he used it for this painting in 2021. This old dory is similar to a painting that Dad did in the 1970s. I don’t have a precise date. It is a painting of a pile of his dad’s old stuff that Grandpa was storing underneath a pine tree to keep it dry. The painting below is titled “Dad’s row boat.” In Dad’s description of his watercolor painting of his dad’s collection of stuff, including a wooden, green rowboat, Dad writes, “I wish I had Dad’s wooden row boat, but it’s gone, only memories remain.”
One of the great gifts of a painting is that it collects and even celebrates old memories. The boats make me think of fishing. When I was a kid, I spent many mornings salmon fishing with Dad. We don’t go out fishing anymore because we don’t have a boat (that works) or a reliable truck. But we do have memories, rich memories of those sacred times we spent together on the water amidst the glories of creation, the smell and taste of salt, the cry of the sea gulls, the dance of color on the waters. Dad’s two exquisite paintings of salmon fishing plugs capture and evoke those ancient memories of fishing with Dad. They also make me think of my friend Kipp, an artist in Indianapolis, who is a master of assemblages, taking old stuff and curating it in wooden boxes and other displays that also, like Dad’s art, evoke memories and awaken longings. The fishing days may be over, but the memories will never be forgotten.
A few years ago Dad was on his way to paint plein air with my brother Jed. As he pulled down the driveway he spotted this blue wheelbarrow, jammed on his breaks and parked his car. He pulled out all his plein air painting gear and set up right then and there and painting the old “iconic” blue wheelbarrow. Iconic was Dad’s word. He attaches “iconic” value to this old, tried and true wheelbarrow that has hauled wagon from the woodshed up to the house. And he certainly saw something, because the watercolor is fresh and lit with sunshine against the simple and dark woods in the background. The wheelbarrow sits under one of the apple trees behind our house. It has more than just functionality to him; it has beauty. It is an old friend, and his painting catches his care.
When you start to pay attention to what Dad paints you realize how much of it is wabi-sabi; it is old, valued, treasures; old buildings that are falling apart; old stuff that many of us would throw out, or at least not treasure. In the gallery below there is the painting “Forgotten Swing.” Dad describes it in this way: “Going east from the roundabout at Conway, there was once an old, leaning, two story house now gone due to a fire. What remains is a long forgotten swing.” Now, most of us would not have noticed that swing, let alone valued it. But Dad did. He valued the swing, and the story behind it, the old, leaning, long-ago-burnt-down-house.
The painting of the delapidated shed along the water is titled “transformation.” Dad chose to title this falling-apart building on Samish Island “Transformation” because it was on that island in 1987 that I experienced a spiritual awakening. For all of us, there are special places in our life, thin places where we met with God, romantic places where we fell in love, sad places where our heart ached, yearning places that awake longings and desires deep within us.
The Old Growth stump pictured below was painted from a photograph dad took years ago when picking wild blackberries. Typically, one does not think of a stump as picturesque. But through the eyes of one who sees with wabi-sabi, yes, a stump too, and the blackberries at its bottom, and the pie cooling on the cookie sheet conjure up longings and have a kind of beauty too, worthy of the work of an artist.
Dad titled the old school house below “No More Recess.” He was part of a collective of artists who painted the Palouse region of Washington state. This is an old school house Dad came across and then painted. It’s the “and then painted” that I’m trying to explore. Why an old schoolhouse lonely amidst the sagebrush with windows broken over time? Dad says, “When I visited this old school house, it caused me to think of the early pioneers.” While my mind thinks of the future, Dad’s mind wanders in the past: he ruminates and reflects and remembers past events. Sometimes this backward looking keeps him from action in the present, or even paralyzed. But it is his aesthetic. The past is where his mind goes.
I quite like the old decoy with daisies. Dad bought a few wooden decoys “to use as props.” But I think more than props it was because “they have a story to tell” because they are “old decoys,” with emphasis on the word old. To Dad, “old” is a word like good or beautiful or treasure.
The same could be said of the watercolor “Hames Hanging.” Dad says that after the ranch was sold he kept certain items as painting props. But I think he kept them because he cared.
“Potlatch” was painted as part of the “Artists of the Palouse” group. “We were to paint scenes typical of the Palouse.” You could make the case that golden acres of wheat fields is more typical of the Palouse. But Dad chose an old store by an old railroad track.
Speaking of old railroad tracks, Dad painted “Old Spur Line” from a photograph he had taken on their way to meet up with the family in Yellowstone. The tracks end or are covered in Virginia City, and dad felt an ache and saw a beauty that only one with wabi-sabi would feel and see.
The puff of snow on an old milk can, aptly titled “Snow Puff” makes my heart happy with its fresh watercolor style. Dad’s fresh watercolors are still my favorites. Again this is one of Dad’s “art props” but to me its just one of the rusty old milk cans that have been sitting around our place for decades. But one day the snow fell and it was perfect and it was painted. Wabi-sabi.
These old rusted vehicles are also examples of Dad’s wabi-sabi aesthetic. The old truck with the sun shining on the rusted green paint is one of my favorite paintings in this show. I love the contrast with the dark tree in the background. Dad admires its “American Ingenuity” (title). He writes, “The old Dodge Brothers truck was once a Dodge Brothers car. Someone cut it in half to make it a flatbed.” It sits rusting and well appreciated on their property near Leavenworth. The red truck Dad has painted at least three times. “It has been sitting in a field off Pioneer Highway for years and belongs to Bruce Aalmo.”
I’ll stop there. All but a few paintings in this show exhibit Dad’s wabi-sabi vantage point. The aesthetic of wabi-sabi that Fujimura introduced me to gave me a whole new understanding of dad’s keeping of and painting old stuff, well worn, rusted, and falling-apart-stuff. It’s beauty evokes love and longing in his heart.
If you’d like to view the show in its entirety you can do so here: