Sumi-e / Ink Painting Books, ii

Motoi Oi, i

Today, I am going to begin a brief series on a rather lovely set of books, published by Motoi Oi (1910-2004) shortly after his arrival in the U.S.  Initially paperback books, self-published and handbound by his wife using traditional Japanese binding, much of his work was consolidated into hardback by the Japan Publication Trading Co. in Tokyo.

The Sumi-e Society of America writes about itself and Mr. Oi:

The Society was created in New York in 1963 by Professor Motoi Oi to foster and encourage an appreciation of East Asian brush painting.  For the initial fifteen years (1963-1978) its annual exhibitions were held in New York City.  Over the years, the Society has grown and there are many chapters in the United States and a sister organization in Canada.When asked why he had started the Sumi-e Society, Mr. Oi answered, in part, “In the East, paintings reflect the great joy of culture.  They are a reflection of an intense personal idiom.  My idea was to provide a means through which the fresh, new spirit of American culture could be viewed in Sumi-e.”

Professor Oi was born in Japan and in 1958 he emigrated to the U.S.A. where he worked as a printmaker, painted, wrote books on Sumi-e painting and taught art at Queens College , New York City and the Brooklyn Institute of Art and Science.

In 1981, Mr. Oi was awarded the 6th class of the Order of the Rising Sun for his work in US-Japan cultural relations.

Oi Sensei

Oi himself writes on the inside cover flap of this book:

What is sumi-e?  Is is so simple an art form that a novice can literally pick up a brush and start painting right away.  Yet, it intrigues even those whoc spend their lifetimes studying it.  In this book, Mr. Oi introduces to the beginners the fundamental techniques of sumi-e and describes its spirit, which plays the most important part, in terms of … Zen Buddhism … a mystic religion of extreme self-discipline and concentration.  The importance of its [sumi’e’s] spirit is, however, too often ignored, and the craze for this art is usually based on a complete misunderstanding, the result being a mere imitation of its superficial features.

Given this, I am not even going to approach the spirit behind Mr. Oi’s books; rather, that is up to the individual artist and reader to explore.  Instead, I think it is interesting to read the book and consider what is said.  For instance, in the above edition, concerning rough sketches, he writes, “in following a rough sketch, painting becomes a matter of technique and hence loses the fresh, spontaneous feeling.  Therefore I do not recommend it.” What does this mean?  To me, it says it is best to look at each subject as something totally new and unexperienced.  It also says to consider the subject in advance – light, dark – and to consider the approach to the painting in terms of brush stroke, ink gradation, how the brush will be loaded.  This, of course, comes through practice of lines, circles, and other techniques, such as illustrated below.

Mastery in any art or craft means mastery of its tools.  Here, ink, brush, paper, water.  It also means mastery of the self, in whatever way it means to you, the painter, the artist, the craftsman.  I rather like these paragraphs from his “Notes on Sumi-e” found at the end of the book:

The ability to think is what produces a good Sumi-e.  A dexterous hand may turn out a mechanically excellent picture but not a true Sumi-e in spirit.

Pick up a Fude with a deep sense of humility.  Free your mind of arrogance and hostility.  You are not out to conquer Sumi-e.  Rather, you want to be one with it.  There should be neither a victory nor a defeat.  Complete union is the ultimate goal.

Sumi-e is a mirror to your mind.  It, however, surpasses mere reflection by rendering an image free of frills and pretense.  Only the bare truth is reproduced on a sheet of paper.

I wonder, myself, just how this might be judged by others.  For me, I know when I have accomplished this, free of the monkey mind; I can look at my painting and know it is well done.  But do others see it?  I think we are all prejudiced by our moods, likes, dislikes, current preferences.  Certainly what appears good today may seem like a horror the next.  As we are not static, perhaps this undulation of appreciation – this seeming fickleness – is actually a very, very good thing.

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