“Where to next?” That one question is always staring you in the face as an artist or writer. The minute you set down your brush after writing your signature on a painting – in this case “After the Rain in Suzu”. When you hit send on that email with the final “good for print” on a book. Well, maybe not exactly that minute. First, there is the sense of elation and accomplishment that comes with completing a project. Achieving a certain goal. But pretty soon after that, though, it kicks in. The disquieting feeling of the unknown route ahead for your ship. Whether it will be a smooth sailing or a stormy sea. There are always storms, to be sure, though many – most really – are of the teacup sort. Especially right now, when it feels so very privileged to be creating from a peaceful corner of the world.
At this moment this ship is sailing between harbours. I have finished another painting in “The bookbinder’s world” series and am eagerly searching for the next subject. A certain restlessness has set in. It feels like the right moment to attempt to examine the “How”.
“How do I know when a destination, a subject, feels right ?”
I didn’t know it then, but it has always been staring me right in the face. Or to be more precise, echoing from the rib cage.
It happens most frequently when I come across a particular place, or a specific scene. There is a sense of urgency, of an internal need to sit down and let the atmosphere of a particular place or performance seep through you and find its way to your fingertips. Sometimes, though, the clock is ushering you on and the place becomes dormant. Perhaps forever. But often such places have a way of finding their way back to you. Demanding your attention with the same sense of urgency you thought had been lost. This was the case with the coastline near Suzu, in Ishikawa prefecture.
In the early summer, when traveling around the Noto Peninsula, I made a brief stop at the beach overlooking Mitsukejima. There were a number of rainy days on this trip, and this was no exception. By the time I arrived at the beach, the day was wearing on and the rain stopped for a while with some clearings opening up in the cloudy sky.
From the minute I stepped foot in the stiff, still-soaked grey sand lined with trailing beach morning glories, looking out to the small island covered in black pine trees I experienced the same tell-tale feeling. A sense of calm, of a moment and place longing to be recorded. This particular place in Suzu is very popular though, and between the variable weather, the late hour and the people threading the sand for a photo of the island, it wasn’t the right moment to give in to the urge of painting.
Later in the summer, back in Zurich and looking down at the two narrow strips of cardboard waiting to be painted on my desk, I was considering exploring another corner of the Old Botanical Garden to follow on from “The spring fifer”. That’s when the urge to look back on my summer pictures kicked in. And as I scrolled up and down, repeatedly, I always came to stop in this particular photo.
The beach overlooking Mitsukejima.
I found myself wanting to sit down on that beach, breathe in the air from the Sea of Japan and feel the tepid humidity of that late afternoon once more. The heartbeat slowly rising, a certain thumping sound echoing through the ribcage at the thought. A little fear that I can’t make the scene work on such a narrow format. A slightly louder thumping. Mixed in with a mild sense of confusion. Why should I feel like this about this place that’s so far away in so many distinct, “staring you right in the face” ways. About the places that often want to scream solitude and silence at you from the top of their rock-solid, nature-carpeted lungs?
It is in this mix of irresistible urge and fear-conquering mood that I place the first element on the board, the rocky island crowned by pine trees. In the days that follow, I add the large morning glories in full color in the foreground. And then I want to place our small “bookbinder” character sitting on that beach.
I need to find a pose and attitude that matches the serenity I am looking for. I scroll once more through the photo archive. The tea ceremony in Kanazawa. It was a moment when similar expressions happened to be captured on camera. I could work with that. The same small wave of excitement and fear rolling in again.
It takes a while until I get the right pose, the right scale, the right facial expression. The face is only as big as the tip of my thumb, so only a very few super fine black ink strokes can make or break the mood. No margin for additions. In the meantime I spent a few weeks working on the “Autumn in Japan” exhibition piece “Seven Autumn Grasses with Dewdrops” before returning to my beach scene.
After a few shading details on the island and the pastel accents it is nearly done. In the early morning, with good natural light coming through the window again, I blend in or lift a few white highlights before signing the painting.
“After the Rain in Suzu”, mixed media on cardboard, 30 by 7.5 cm is done.
A Zurich garden? A bird scene, like “The Treecreeper“? I’ve been roaming this limbo for a few days. I stare out the window and the yellow filigree maple leaves lay flat-splattered, sticking to a concrete floor still glossed over with rain. The rain that keeps falling for hours on end. I sprained my left leftie artist wrist and can not even hold the camera for a day out in that rain.
You know where this is going by now, do you? You know more than I did then.
I am holding a cup of hot green tea and thinking of the empty cardboard place next to “The Spring Fifer” and “After the Rain in Suzu”. Thinking of Ishikawa once more. An early summer scene would bring the season of fresh green leaves to a close. Thinking of the next painting of the “Eight Views of Kanazawa” series that is also underway. Procrastination or inspiration? Maybe both. Who knows? Overthinking is a default setting on this operating system I keep working hard to overwrite.
I relive my journey onwards from Mitsukejima, once more through the glass of a smartphone screen. The stop on the side of road between Anamizu and Nanao. An island-like cluster of trees hiding a shrine. Reflected in the perfect stillness of a noon-sun shining over a flooded rice field. Kashima Shrine [鹿島神社], or Deer Island Shrine in the early summer. I saw Little egrets often in the rice fields of Noto, but no deer. Not in that heatstroke-inducing midday sun, for sure. It’s a horizontal shot and a rice field is a mostly horizontal plane. It might not work well on a vertical format.
The rib cage expands and contracts. A little louder each time. The blood pumping harder through the blood vessels. I’ve been looking for it all this time with my brainpower, but it’s the actual noise rising inside my ears and echoing through my head I should be listening to all along. The mix of infatuation and fear in a rising heartbeat of whatever is taking place subconsciously. That’s when you know and I know.
I’m about to set sail for my next harbour. I will only know how it looks exactly when I get there, a vague guiding compass from a starting image and memory. May the rain abate and the winds become smooth and steady for us all.