The Vassar-Warner home in Poughkeepsie, NY was the setting two weeks ago for a workshop devoted to sumi-e brush painting. It was led by Jennifer Axinn-Weiss, a Mill Street Loft teaching artist and expressive arts therapist, who was filling in for MSL’s Artistic Director for Outreach Programs, Joan Henry.

Sumi-e was first developed in China almost 1500 years ago. Jennifer thought that its focus on the natural world, and interest in capturing the essence of a subject with spontaneity and as few strokes as possible, would be a good follow-up to our previous spring sessions. As an added bonus, sumi-e painting has a calming, peaceful energy associated with eastern meditative traditions.

If ever there was a need for such energy, it manifested before class even started. Residents drifted in while we were still setting up, and Rose, the 97 year-old woman who announced last week she would stand on her head to celebrate her 100th birthday, started having an anxiety attack. She couldn’t hear what was being said around the table and thought she was missing important instructions. Speaking directly to her in a loud voice from a close distance didn’t help either, so I communicated with her through writing and suggested she just be patient until class began and everything would become clear. That, together with a hand on her shoulder and the presence of TK, our teenage assistant, beside her, brought comfort. From then on, she took to sumi-e like an old pro and produced one drawing after another — even adding color and sparkles as the morning progressed.

(Click on images to enlarge.)

Rose's Flowers

 Rose’s flowers.

While most of the students picked subjects from the natural world, Mike chose to make an abstract pattern that reminded Jennifer and me of third-world textile design. His precise, meticulous approach was on full display throughout the session. In an earlier conversation, he mentioned that his career was in quality assurance. Judging by the careful way he works in class, I don’t doubt that he was excellent at his job.




Mike’s sumi-e abstraction.

Perhaps no one was more successful than Elaine in channeling the sumi-e masters. The first photo below shows practice strokes, the second, a drawing that began as a snake (top half) and turned into a bird when she flipped the original shape vertically to create a heart. The notebooks she brings to the program reveal a gifted artist with no formal training who never indulged her talent.

Elaine's First Strokes_109

Elaine's Bird Drawing_113

Elaine’s sumi-e paintings.

Mary had a mind of her own when it came to sumi-e: the “imperfect” lines and shading variations produced by the brushwork seemed “unfinished” to her so she dutifully made all outlines a smooth, solid black. She had a particular fondness for bowl-like “V” shapes and hemispheres. At one point, I tried encouraging her to loosen up a little by drawing the brush across the page with her eyes closed. She couldn’t do it at first but finally surrendered and ended up with a line that Jennifer and I waxed ecstatic about. No sooner had we held it up for everyone else to see and admire than Mary filled it in with her solid black line. She and I joked about what a difficult student she must have been in school and why I might have to give her an F in sumi-e painting. Later I had some regrets about saying that, but she understood it as a form of kidding that came from a loving place and wasn’t offended.

Mary's Flower_124

Sumi-e as practiced by Mar-y

While everyone was engrossed in their painting, Jennifer happened to mention she had just heard an interview on NPR on the history of swearing. It reminded me of a wonderful Yiddish insult I came across the day before that I thought the group would enjoy: “May onions grow in your navel.” The residents wanted to hear more Yiddish expressions and that opened the door to memorable phrases and sayings from other cultures. Elaine shared a childhood lesson her Czech father taught her: to say “good” whenever anyone asked how she was. When she wondered why, he explained that no one really cares how you are. It was advice that she’s never forgotten.

Eventually, the group conversation returned to a topic more closely related to sumi-e, Zen and the meditative practice called koan study. As an example, I mentioned the stereotypical koan from popular culture: What is the sound of one hand clapping? Much to my surprise, Elaine immediately chimed in with an answer that sounded so enigmatic at first it could only reflect deep understanding: “No sound but good on a hot day.” When everyone responded with a silent “Huh?”, she explained that while a moving hand is silent, in the heat it can become a useful fan by waving it from side to side before one’s face.

It was only natural that our multi-cultural morning ended with a large group mural made from the paper protecting our worktables. Each of us took a section and made a new sumi-e drawing. Unfortunately, by sitting on opposite sides of the elongated table, we ensured that half the drawings would be upside down no matter which way the mural was held  :)

 Elaine Painting Tree_143

Elaine painting a tree for the mural.


Group with Mural_154

The artists display their collective work.

** With apologies to Frank Loesser.