My Turn: The beauty of minimalism

  • A minimalist approach to water lilies and reeds. Jean Stimmell

For the Monitor
Published: 2/13/2020 6:45:24 AM

Last summer, fretful about the future as the world cartwheels out of control, I found myself drawn to the simplicity of Japanese ink drawings. I spent quite a bit of time attempting to duplicate that look – to find the essence of an object – by manipulating my photographs of water lilies and reeds.

It was hit or miss but finally one came out that I liked well enough to submit to a juried exhibit where it won an award. With humility, I’m discovering the simplicity I crave, identifying the essence of a subject, is a profound undertaking that goes under the label of “minimalism.”

Minimalism is seen by many today as just the latest fad where people obsess over decluttering their homes, while the rich revel in living in glass houses with virtually no furniture except a high-end stereo and a limited edition Eames lounge chair.

In truth, however, minimalism has a rich artistic and philosophic history that goes way back. I also discovered it’s a reoccurring theme that rises to the surface whenever society is in upheaval.

Yoshida Kenko, a poet in Japan 800 years ago, lived and wrote during such a time of conflict and danger, the result of incessant warfare between various groups outside of the established government, all seeking to extend their control over the country.

Sound familiar?

Kenko’s answer was to become a monk, embracing what Buddhists call impermanence: the idea that life is constant change. He wrote that a person was to be envied who lives in a simple, neat house, “not of the modern, garish kind” because it is “but a temporary abode,” like life itself. He found beauty in a room not overly furnished, “where there is room to move around.”

He wrote that we should pay attention to everyday beauty: “Are we to look at flowers only in full bloom or the moon when it is clear. No, we should concentrate on the austere aesthetic of the here-and-now: There is much to be seen in young boughs about to flower, in gardens strewn with withered blossoms.”

Thoreau, writing in the 19th century, was on the same wavelength, valuing simple living and reveling in what can be observed in the moment. Like Kenko, Thoreau was living through tough times, probably the most traumatic in our country’s history – not only our cataclysmic civil war, but the shredding of local community by rapid industrialization and the advent of the train.

He believed, like Kenko, that it is a mistake to favor the vibrant colors of fall foliage over the simple, stark beauty of winter.

Immersing himself in the here-and-now was an antidote to hard times: “Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”

Based on recent history, we shouldn’t be surprised that minimalism is on the rise again because – and I don’t think anyone will disagree – we are once again living through a period of extreme polarization and cultural disconnect. Under these circumstances, it makes sense to strive for sustainability by shrinking our liabilities and adopting frugal ways.

Rather than looking for the salvation promised us by the capitalistic gods of advertising – only to be slowly crushed under the increasing weight of shoddy and superfluous material goods – wouldn’t it be nice to escape all that and, instead, surround ourselves solely with those few items, in thought and deed, that define the essence of who we are.

In light of the above, why wouldn’t I be drawn to the simplicity and purity of Japanese ink drawings.

And follow Thoreau’s advice about the importance of winter walks: To take that opportunity only winter provides to withdraw inward to sharpen my focus in the present moment – temporarily tuning out the shrill, food-fight fracas consuming society at large.

(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. He blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.)




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