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Early on in my art education, a professor told me a parable I have never forgotten.

Long ago, an emperor in China loved ducks. Inordinately. His passion was so overwhelming that he called forth the greatest artist and calligrapher in his kingdom and made his request: I want you to create the ultimate image of a duck for me.

The artist accepted his request and then left the court. Every day the emperor waited for his painting to arrive. Months passed, but still no word. After six months and a loss of patience, the emperor sent for the artist.

“I’ve been waiting for you for six months, and still you have sent me nothing!”

Without a moment’s hesitation, the artist pulled out a large blank sheet of rice paper and a sumi brush loaded with ink. With just a few graceful, simple strokes, he produced the most exquisite and elemental image of a duck.

The emperor was dumbfounded. The beauty of the piece was stunning, but he was still irritated.

“I have been waiting for six long months. Now you come to me and produce this beautiful painting effortlessly, right in front of me. Why did you wait so long?”

The artist answered, “It took me six months to be able to capture the essence with so few strokes. What looks effortless to you is the result of dedicated labor.”

It’s a simple story, yes. But as a young artist I knew it had some particular permutations of meaning in my own life. Coming from a culture whose landscaped backdrop was the parched soil of the Great Basin desert, my DNA was preloaded with attitudes about the righteousness of hard work. Mormonism has a proclivity towards being a “doaholic” culture, a quality which is captured brilliantly in an essay by Hugh Nibley called “Zeal without Knowledge.” My favorite line from Nibley’s piece captures the essence of the problem: “Mormons think it more commendable to get up at 5AM to write a bad book than to get up at nine o’clock to write a good one.”

The “hard work above all” value set probably parallels other family system “ubertangles” like alcoholism, sexual abuse and criminal mindsets. It’s hard to even place those terms in the same sentence given the righteousness with which hard work was embraced in my family. My mother was raised on a farm and often talked about hoeing the beets as a child. Everybody worked HARD. Being lazy was just not an option. But being “lazy” in my culture of origin was not just sloth—it also included things like sitting quietly and doing nothing (also known as meditation) and enjoying nature without raking the leaves at the same time.

As an artist who spends so much time in the studio alone, I have had a lot of time to dismantle much of that thinking. Dismantle does not mean dispel or destroy. It means you have a better idea of just how deep the stain has permeated your psyche. (Stain sounds so harsh, my mother would say. Perhaps we could go with “tinting”?) So while my discipline and focused hard work are held by many as a virtue—and I am not devaluing the importance of those qualities in the creative professions—I am also learning how to be at ease with the full arc of the process. Ease sounds too much like easy, and easy and effortless are not values where I come from.

This last spring was a period of so much grief and loss in my life that my ability to paint came to a standstill. For weeks I would go in to my studio and just sit, doing nothing. I thought that if I just showed up, the ice would melt and I would be ready when it did.

But this was being iced out at a level unlike any other I have known, and it did not melt as I had hoped. After several weeks of that brave vigil, I got the insight that I should stop forcing something that wasn’t remotely ready to budge.

Just a few weeks ago the nudge came to start showing up again. Not the long days of work that I was used to, but short visits, as if courting young love. Then one day new work burst out of me. It wasn’t planned or even premeditated, but was the most authentic gesture I could make from the most wounded place in me.

The work that resulted was very different from previous paintings. For over a week I had the complete series on my studio floor, not sure where it was going or what it meant. It wasn’t until my husband and two friends came to the studio and responded so powerfully to those pieces that I allowed myself to legitimize them.

Two of those images were used on the show card I sent out for my upcoming exhibition in Provincetown (details are available at Slow Painters). What has surprised me most has been how many people responded to the new work. I received more emails and phone calls about these pieces than any before.

My friend Riki, a brilliant artist and writer, wrote these words to me:

I came across this amazing image on your card. Can you talk about it? Is this a new series of work? Am I looking down on an interior space deep in the human heart disappearing at the upper left in a pure white light?

Is this about your mother?

Rap me on the knuckles if I’m trespassing but really, I’m stunned. Star struck. This feels very different.

Kathryn, my partner in the death and burial of our dear friend Morris, wrote:

Maybe what you’ve recorded there seems a record of my long siege of grief as well as yours. Why have we almost lost the Greek understanding of art as catharsis?

And Andrew, shaman in training, wrote this:

Captures for me a state of organization or un-organization in keeping with my pre-occupation with the ayahuasca experience. I can’t tell if this is of a mind dying or of a mind being born. Can’t tell if it is vision into the past or vision into the future. Can’t tell if it is a cave wall or the inside surface of a mind. As such distinctions may be arbitrary anyway, the art offers me wide-ranging freedom to think in all these directions at once and without boundaries. It seems like a node or switchbox but linked to what and channeling what I can’t tell.

However these images came into being, I’m not sure. But I’m also not asking. I do know it wasn’t from righteously sweating in the beet field but more akin to the Chinese duck—the preparation at some earlier time allowed the gesture now.

Ticelle 1, 18 x 18″ mixed media on wood panel
Ticelle 3, 18 x 18″ mixed media on wood panel
Ticelle 5, 18 x 18″ mixed media on wood panel

The work of Hiroshi Sugimoto cannot be comprehended without having been experienced in the flesh. Every artist believes this about their work, but in some circumstances it goes beyond optimal and moves into the imperative. So it is with Sugimoto’s photographs. (I have included this reproduction as an indicator but not the thing itself.)

The first time I saw one of Sugimoto’s photographs, I couldn’t move. I just stood there in front of that large scale seascape and basked. After 30 minutes of Sugimoto, there was nothing else in the museum that could penetrate my perceptions. He had filled up every receptive cell in my body with that one image, so I just had to sit down and be with a presence that was quiet and yet very powerful.

As described by David Ian Miller:

Sugimoto works on vast projects, each concerned with photographing the essence of time. He coined the phrase “Time Exposed” to describe his work. In his most famous project he photographs film theatres over the course of a movie, the screens turn brilliant white and illuminate the theatre. With his Seascape series he photographs the eternal sea, each frame bisected by the horizon. Sugimoto works on vast projects, each concerned with photographing the essence of time. He coined the phrase “Time Exposed” to describe his work. In his most famous project he photographs film theatres over the course of a movie, the screens turn brilliant white and illuminate the theatre. With his Seascape series he photographs the eternal sea, each frame bisected by the horizon.

His technique is also worthy of consideration, given the powerful results he is able to create:

These pictures have been taken with a technical view camera that shoots huge 8-by-10-inch negatives. It’s the kind of camera that consists of a long bellows, with a tea-saucer lens attached at one end and a ground-glass viewing screen at the other — in use, it looks like an accordion perched on a tripod — and that asks the photographer to stoop under a black cloth to look through it. It produces an ultra-precise, highly resolved image of whatever has been set before the lens, as though the photographer’s dedication to truth-telling won’t tolerate the missing of a single hair or speck of lint. It’s the kind of camera that produces a stunning “reality effect” — an overwhelming sense, even in black and white, that the world must be just the way the picture makes it look. Blake Gopnik

The spiritual dimension to his work is elemental to its presence. In an interview with Miller, Sugimoto had a few modest comments:

Miller: You wrote that artistic endeavors are “mere approximations, efforts to render visible unseen realms.” What did you mean by that?

Sugimoto:Well, this is one of the purposes of art itself. Science tries to understand nature in a logical sense, but there are many, many natural phenomena that cannot be explained by logic and science.

Historically, religion served this purpose. But now, we are getting into the 21st century and the power of religion is fading. People still need another way to understand the world besides logic — and we’re turning to art and spirituality to help us understand our environment and the world.

M: Is there a spiritual dimension to your photography?

S: If so, it is whatever the viewer feels looking at my work. I’m not purposely trying to make it spiritually strong. I’m just practicing my art. If people see it as a spiritual, I’m glad to accept it. But I’m not particularly promoting a spirituality of any kind.

Spirituality is a particular characteristic of the human being that no other animals have. I’m just trying to investigate where this comes from. In that process I sometimes stir up ancient memories and spirits, and maybe people who see my art respond to that.

Yesterday I received an email from a new poet friend, Martin Dickinson. He has written a remarkable ekphrasic poem, “Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Sea of Japan,” which was published in California Quarterly in 2007. He sent it with me along with some insightful words about Sugimoto’s work. I share both with you here.

I find it so amazing that he takes these time lapse photos of films–and all that we see is an incredible burst of white light coming at us. It looks unreal—but of course, on another level that IS reality, we just don’t usually look that way or see that way. Similarly with Sugimoto’s ocean series: superficially every single one of those photos is the same—shot at the same exact angle to the surface of the water and same exact distance above the surface. We see no earth at all, but just the surface of the water. As you look more deeply into these photos you begin to see remarkable and engrossing detail. Every single photo is unique and very unusual.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Sea of Japan

Hiroshi, wave after wave after wave
of endless blue, or rather, endless
black—or is it endless gray?

This is your language.
Dusty parts of the planet are worthless
except as places to plant your tripod—
pedestal for the all-seeing eye,
vantage toward this world
that pulses like a beating heart,
image of the thing becoming the thing,
then ebbing back to its image again,
heard like the slap of water against a pier,
tongued like the taste of salt,
felt like a slosh in the gut.

This instant that’s entered your lens,
ray relating from your retina to mine,
our thoughts electrons, chemicals really.
Is all the world ocean
or silver dots on gelatin, or both?

Truth is beams of light,
and you’ve seen it, alright.
Everything that is is motionless
everything that is is flow
wave after wave after wave, Hiroshi.

–Martin Dickinson