The Wabi-Sabi State of Mind
Honoring the Rhythms of Growth and Transformation
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“But when does something's destiny finally come to fruition? Is the plant complete when it flowers? When it goes to seed? When the seeds sprout? When everything turns into compost?”
― Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese design principle rooted in Zen Buddhism and tea ceremony that perfectly reflects the aesthetic of autumn. In wabi-sabi, everything evolves from or devolves into a state of nothingness. The passage of time, birth, growth, decay, and death are key parts of wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi asks us to contemplate our mortality, to mingle nostalgia and comfort knowing all existence shares the same fate. It invites us to be fully present where we are with only what we need.
Wabi-sabi represents the physical forces and deep structures that underlie the everyday world. How clay cracks as it dries, the color and textural metamorphosis of metal as it tarnishes and rusts. The nicks, chips, bruises, scars, and other forms of wear and tear are honored as indelible testaments to histories of use and misuse.
Wabi-sabi reveres the beauty of things that are imperfect, impermanent, well-used, and incomplete. It elevates all things modest and humble. It recognizes the beauty of the unconventional, inconspicuous, and overlooked. It honors the evanescence of life - when the luxuriant tree of summer is now bare branches under a cloudy sky that is wabi-sabi. When all that remains of a splendid mansion is a crumbled foundation overgrown with weeds and moss that is also wabi-sabi.
The wabi-sabi approach to beauty means accepting the natural aging process - wrinkles will come, and spots and stains will appear. What matters is being able to recognize, remember, and find happiness in the moments that have passed. The fulgent blossoms of summer give way to seed, dry leaves, and decay and another cycle begins.
The closest definition we have in English is “rustic”: simple, artless, unsophisticated with surfaces that are rough and irregular (Webster)
A wabi-sabi home is a lived-in space, not a showroom. It contains the stories woven into the fabric of your life and physically manifested in your home. Wabi-sabi is about the threadbare couch, not the plush leather sofa. It’s about the history, contentment, and appreciation for the lives lived inside the home. The small beloved objects and careworn surfaces. All things wabi-sabi feel intimate and are designed for human interaction and comfort.
Wabi-sabi things often appear odd, misshapen, awkward, or ugly. They are made from materials not far removed from their original condition and are rich in raw texture and tactile sensation. They beckon you to get close, touch, and relate. They inspire a reduction of the psychic distance between people and things. Their craftsmanship may be impossible to discern.
Things wabi-sabi are made from materials like raw wood, natural fibers, bamboo and iron that are visibly vulnerable to the effects of weathering and human treatment. They record the movements of the sun, wind, rain, heat, and cold in a language of discoloration, rust, tarnish, stain, warping, shrinking, shriveling, and cracking. They may be on the verge of dematerialization but they still express an undiminished poise and strength of character.
Wabi-sabi things are unstudied and inevitable looking. They do not blare out “I am important” or demand to be the center of attention. They are understated and unassuming, and they easily coexist with the rest of their environment. They do not need documentation or provenance. It is best if their creator appears to be anonymous.
These things are earthy, simple, primitive, unpretentious, and fashioned out of natural materials which are never representative or symbolic. They eschew surface decoration, pattern, geometry, smoothness, and perfection; instead, it's about releasing excess and honoring the essence of what you have.
For the Japanese wabi-sabi is also a worldview, a metaphysical mindset. Simplicity is at its core. Truth arises from the observation of nature. Greatness exists in inconspicuous or overlooked details. Beauty can be coaxed from ugliness. All things are imperfect. All things are incomplete and unfinished.
The word “wabi” means a way of life, a spiritual path, the inward, the subjective, a philosophical construct.
The original meaning of “wabi” referred to the feeling of isolation and loneliness felt by religious hermits living in nature and the paradoxical beauty of imperfection. It suggests a discouraged dispirited, cheerless emotional state. The self-imposed isolation and voluntary poverty of the life of the hermit/ascetic in its more modern form shifted to become the kind of life where appreciation of quotidian minor details became the path to spiritual richness.
“Sabi” refers to material objects, art, and literature, the outward or objective, an aesthetic ideal, and temporal events. Depending on the context, sabi can mean withered, lean, or chilled but more often it refers to the beauty of aging - like the changing hue of wood, the comeliness of rust, the delicate droop and dying of roses in the sun.
All around, no flowers bloom
Nor maple leaves glare,
A solitary fisherman’s hut alone
On the twilight shore
Of this Autumn eve
- Fujiwara no Teika
Wabi-sabi is not about having the latest thing or following trends. It asks you to exercise the restraint of simplicity without crossing over into ostentatious austerity or minimalism. How do you attain simplicity without inviting boredom? How can you keep things clean and unencumbered yet emotionally warm? Wabi-sabi is never cold or impersonal.
Wabi-sabi is the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get from the freedom from things. It's about knowing what to let go of and when to let things be. It invites us to appreciate the cosmic order, slow down, be patient, and look closely. It asks us to pare down to only the necessary without losing the poetic. To be unencumbered and to tread lightly on the planet.
It is often easier to speak of wabi-sabi in contrast to what it is not.
Asymmetry, not conformity or evenness
Humble and modest, not arrogant, conceited or proud
Earthy, imperfect, and variegated, not seamless, polished, and smooth.
Growth, not stagnation
Natural decay, not synthetic or preserved
Slow, not fast
Abstemtious, not gluttonous
Unhampered by materials, not materialistic
Dignified, not indecorous
Minimal, not ostentatious
Withered, not fresh
Fluid, not rigid
Unfinished, not complete
Small moments, not grand events
Appreciation of wabi-sabi is best attained in small doses. In a poverty of distractions, the spiritual richness of the unappreciated is more profound. When you get rid of all that is unnecessary the effect of each carefully loved object becomes more potent. The closer things get to nonexistence the more exquisite and evocative they become.
Beauty in wabi-sabi is a dynamic event that occurs between you and the observed. Beauty is an altered state of consciousness and a moment of poetry and grace that spontaneously occurs given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. An object obtains the state of Wabi-sabi only for the moment it is appreciated as such.
Wabi-sabi is often practiced in the worlds of architecture, interior design, and tea ceremony.
Is there a way to incorporate the aesthetics of wabi-sabi into painting? What elements might we use? What questions should we ask?
Most things wabi-sabi have a vague, blurry, or attenuated quality. Once substantial materiality becomes spongelike. Once bright saturated colors fade into muddy earth tones or the smoky hues of dawn or dusk. There is an almost infinite spectrum of grays to dabble in. Wabi-sabi is muted, understated, sophisticated yet modest. It hints at a deeper complexity within. It relates to natural processes and the journey you are on. Wabi-sabi lends itself to abstraction with just a suggestion of realism below a textural, layered surface.
Some of the words you might consider as jump-off points for your painting could be:
Simple, minimalistic, natural, textured, abstract, representational, identifiable surface characteristics, natural processes, irregular shapes, intimate setting, unpretentious, earthy, murky, unfinished, incomplete, variegated, fluid, faded, emergent, ephemeral
The most frequent metaphor for wabi-sabi is the cherry blossom. Every spring cherry trees bloom for about a week at most. A sudden rain or wind can cause the delicate pale pink flowers to fall away at any moment. During this brief window of opportunity, large and small groups of people spread blankets and mats under cherry trees throughout Japan. Instantaneously a place and an event are created where the poignant ephemerality of the blossoms are honored with melancholy and joy.
Andrew Wyeth and his son, Jamie are masters at evoking the melancholy of wabi-sabi. Notice the textural quality of their work and how they use bare trees and withered branches to convey the bittersweet passage of time. These paintings retain the characteristics of paint while inviting studied contemplation of the deeper meaning of the complex marks and subject matter.
Autumn is a perfect time for you and me to contemplate the cycles of nature and its relationship to our own mortality. Where do we fit in the cycles of the year and our lives? How can we embrace the mindset of wabi-sabi in a way that enriches the quality of our happiness and our understanding of the world around us? What can we simplify and release? What poetry should we hold onto? How can we honor the marks we have made on our homes, our bodies, and our art? Can we use the aesthetics of wabi-sabi to bring in more contentment, mindfulness, and gratitude?
I hope I have given you some food for thought and a new appreciation of an ancient artistic concept. If you are interested in embracing the beauty of change, and acceptance of transience and imperfection, I would like to offer my mentorship, guidance, and advice. I am happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you.
I welcome the opportunity for conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and commissions.
With Light and Delight