Thursday, May 6, 2010

An Afternoon with Chiura Obata and generations of Amish mystics

Yesterday I ran into an old friend, Chiura Obata—even though I never met him, I feel that I know him through his work—and I stumbled into the works of some extraordinary Amish women and girls who made useful, and astonishing, household goods to keep themselves and their families warm. I am going to try to describe an experience that opened my eyes to the world in a way that I didn’t expect.

In the late afternoon, I headed to free Tuesdays at the De Young in Golden Gate Park. I had just intended to distract myself, to drift around and see what was up that I haven’t seen recently. Sometimes I direct myself around a museum as if I were my own docent, and sometimes, I just stand in awe. Both these persons were present; I hope you can distinguish their voices.

I walked up the wide stairs at the south end of the building and headed straight back towards the fabric gallery where 48 Amish quilts made between 1880 and 1940 were on display. I was curious. Of course I’ve seen the coffee table books that portray these artifacts as folksy Americana, women’s craftwork, unique and colorful.

Attendant 5, Bryce Marden
One look at the real work destroyed my folksy preconceptions forever. Escher’s disoriented perspective where front and back trade places are essential components without caricatured beetles crawling over them. Georgia O’Keefe’s sensuous lines are stitched in patterns across solid blocks of color. Keith Haring’s strictly drawn, geometrically arranged figures lay flat until the lines start to dance. Then the patchwork itself danced. These women understood geometric shapes and what happens as the background changes color decades before Josef Albers began his investigations. Jasper Johns had artistic grandmothers, dozens, maybe hundreds. Bryce Marden’s simple elegant repeated loops create the same visual magic that these women did as they set circles on the rectangular fabrics that protected their sleeping children.

Was it the practice of keeping it simple, or community, or cooperation that laid the foundation for what I saw, or is there a magic elixir in the water in Amish country? These artists, women and girls, were absolute masters of every discipline they used, design, color, geometry, and sewing. I walked around stunned. I lost track of time. These visionaries and mystics took whatever was at hand, used the careful, precise skills handed down to them by their mothers and created masterpieces. I wondered if they saw their work as being astonishing in the way that I saw it. Actually I suspect that they did, but it was also ordinary fare in their communities.

I will not do these artifacts a disservice by pasting up a catalogue of Internet images, no matter how beautiful, precise or detailed. One will have to give a taste. I have shown a "Shadow Pattern" design. When you see them, be in their presence, you can almost feel the hands and eyes and souls of these extraordinary, mostly anonymous artists.

Setting Sun, Sacramento Valley
The fabric gallery and the wall where Chiura Obata’s Lake Basin in the High Sierra hangs are only a few yards apart. I have been a fan of the Issei Japanese American Obata (1885-1975) since I saw his hanging scroll, Setting Sun, Sacramento Valley, during the closing exhibit at the old De Young back in 2000.

How Lake Basin became a koan* that unlocked something inside me may sound disjointed—moving from quilts to a painting on silk—but it didn’t feel that way to me at all. It seemed as natural as stepping into a bath.

[*koan is the Japanese word for a particular type of story telling used by old Chinese and Japanese Zen meditation teachers to help a student unlock and experience some aspect of the Buddha's teaching--and make it their own. Sometimes they contain what might be more appropriately called riddles or puzzles, but these are not just linguistic. There hold much more than what meets the eye.]

I had briefly glanced at Lake Basin before I went into the quilt exhibit. When I finally began my leave taking of the quilts with a promise to visit again before they returned to the care of Faith and Steven Brown, I walked back through the gallery's dark narrow passageway, turned right and stopped in front of Obata’s subtle brushwork. No, the colors and shapes stopped me.

I had just spent perhaps an hour looking at colors and shapes on flat surfaces with no pretense of perspective, yet with incredible depth and dimension. When my eyes took in Obata’s floating blue lake holding up a mountain of ragged black covered with half melted snow, there it was again, the same one-dimensional quality. Lake Basin was born out of an ancient Chinese scroll that spread pieces of craggy cliffs and trees in brushwork up and down the page with trees and scholars sketched in to create an illusion of depth. Actually, when I study old Chinese scrolls, the small miniature roofs seem to act like footnotes—the painter wants to tell you, “See, that one, it’s in the distance.” But Obata didn’t import Buddhist pagodas to the High Sierra. He painted an American landscape as he found it: water, rock and sky, big and bold. But he also painted with great delicacy and restraint. It is almost reverential.

I sat down on the bench that was right there, waiting for the moment. My eyes moved across the surfaces. The lake floated in blue lapis lazuli pigment, completely still except where the tracings of bristle allowed me look down to the lake’s bottom. The sides of its bowl were decorated with green and yellow, new growth. On top, neither behind nor in front, the patched snow softened the dark granite’s sharp edges. The snow seemed to wrap under the mountain's weight and hold it in space; the stylized vertical marks could just as easily have been on the blanket wrapped under a child, stitched in by an Amish craftswoman teaching her daughter to sew.

I sat until the guards began to warn that they would soon close the doors. As I got up I realized that I had been sitting with a visual koan. I say koan because the play of lines and color across the silk revealed that winter holds spring, not in a temporal or sequential way, but as a mother holds her child. I was overwhelmed by the tenderness of Nature. The feeling startled me. It was sudden.

At times in the past, I have held snow on the granite peaks as inhospitable, as terrifying as the tales of Donner Pass, but now another deep understanding was also there, the High Sierra was the Source of the clear bright water that crashes over rocks in Spring making its way towards the Bay. Both points of view are equally true; one does not negate the other. But once I was able to creep inside Obata’s vertical and horizontal lines, his blues and blacks, whites and greens, I found a way to enter the wildness of nature as a friend, with no fear. I don’t know if this understanding will last, but I do know that it was not present before yesterday just as the museum was closing.

The one harsh line I could not cross on Lake Basin is where the mountain touches the sky. I am here on the earth. Both koans and paintings are the works of men, not gods. Words and colors, brushes and pencils, silk and pigments, thoughts and meditation, discourse and dreaming, these are all around us. They are both tools and the stuff we work with.

I am going to conclude with thoughts about humans crafting koans out of their experience, dreams, insight, study and the patient work of meditation. As you scroll down, you will see some of the images that I studied on the Internet. Obata was a professional artist. He painted so he could feed and clothe his wife and children. He did several versions of Lake Basin the High Sierra, a sketch, smaller paintings and wood block prints. I can’t determine the time line for certain. Art curators date the wood blocks and paintings sometime around 1930. The colored pencil sketch is clearly dated 1930. But when I examined the images of each of the works that were available, I am sure that he started the large painting that I'd sat in front of—it is nearly 6' high and 10' feet across—only after he himself had explored the shapes, colors and lines and allowed them to find their own way onto the silk. Perhaps he had a similar friendship with the wild, and felt that same tenderness I experienced Tuesday. I wondered if he kept coming back to his images in the same way that a koan grabs my mind and imagination, becoming more essential with each pass. Perhaps he and his pigment and mineral, brushes and silk shared their experience with me. No, certainly, they did.

Print, Quilt Sale, unknown
Attendant 5, Bryce Marden
Amish Shadow Quilt, Alternate pattern name: Shadows. Maker unknown. Date Unknown. 67" x 63." Nebraska State Historical Society
Setting Sun: Sacramento Valley, CA. 1925. Hanging scroll: mineral pigments (distemper) and gold on silk, 107 1/2 x 69 in.
Lake Basin in the High Sierra, Chiura Obata, cc 1930, painting on silk (69 ½ x 102 ½ inches), made with ink and a brilliant blue lapis lazuli pigment. De Young Museum, San Francisco
Chiura Obata, photograph, UC Berkeley

Here are some images of the various renditions presented without further comment.

Lake Basin in the High Sierra, sketch, 1930,

Lake Basin in the High Sierra, watercolor

Lake Basin in the High Sierra , Tadeo Takamizawa (Printer) color woodcut on paper image: 11 3/8 x 15 5/8 in. (28.9 x 39.7 cm) Smithsonian American Art Museum