While I waited for my tea to steep, a tiny, curated shelf of books for sale caught my eye. I found a book titled Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. I purchased it immediately, and changing my plans, sat down with my incredibly delicate green tea and devoured the book.
I do some of my best thinking while sipping a hot beverage, and on this day, in this pocket-sized café, a wild river of inspiration flowed through me.
The author, Leonard Koren, explains that wabi-sabi embraces three core, universal beliefs—the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete; the beauty of things modest and humble; and the beauty of things unconventional.
Upon returning home, I walked around in my yard and gardens with fresh eyes. On this cool September day, with October just a day or two away, I took time to take a closer look at the back-lit leaves slowly letting go of their greenness, the rhubarb all gone to seed and the last of the rugosa roses with their delicate single petals with bushy black stamen centers.
In art school, still life was at the core of education. My drawing, painting and photography classes all used still life to teach important lessons of composition, technique and discipline.
It took only a short walk from my classrooms at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to stand in front of a masterwork that was based on a still life at the adjoining museum. Starting with the Flemish paintings of luxurious tabletop spreads of food, wine and elaborate flower arrangements, to the impressionists’ more modest bowls of fruit to Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of exotic pairing of feathers and bones—still life is a time-honored tradition.
For photographers, the “still life” style also serves us technically. We can control the light, get out of the wind and cold, simplify the setting and work at our leisure once we’ve successfully set-up the scene.
In a “eureka moment,” it came clear that still life pairs beautifully with the simplicity of the wabi-sabi concept.
I rummaged around in my barns to gather up some of my favorite found natural objects I had stashed away, and I brought in some choice cuttings from the garden.
This is something anyone can do.
To get started, begin with a big sheet of ordinary Kraft paper taped to the wall close to a natural light source—a north-facing window is ideal for its indirect bluish light. The rustic brown paper will suffice as a backdrop, perfectly in line with the wabi-sabi aesthetic of seeking beauty in things modest and humble.
The garden and yard are great sources of imperfection and the incomplete, especially in fall. Dried, bug eaten and windblown flowers and foliage have a strong sense of wabi-sabi.
In Wisconsin, autumn is strongly associated with the harvest, shorter days, cooler temperatures, the turn of leaf color and hunting season—all symbols in wabi-sabi as evidence of impermanence.
On the periphery of our property, in ditches along the road, in the outlying woods and on the beach, the evidence of ephemerality of life can be regularly found. Antlers (also known as sheds), skulls, bones and the like, all have been found on walks with the dog. Our Jack Russell’s keen sense of smell rarely fails to bring to my attention a natural treasure of this kind.
Once you have gathered fodder for your still life, set up a display in a mindful manner, to celebrate the beauty within the items at hand.
In setting up a small studio-like space in your own home or even hotel room, unconventional beauty can be easily discovered in the tradition of wabi-sabi celebrated through photography.
Confucius once said, “Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.”
Sublimely, go into autumn with fresh eyes and bring the outside in to focus your attention on the exquisite beauty that is wabi-sabi.
We invite you to send your wabi-sabi photograph examples to our Door County Magazine Facebook page!
Visit www.suzannerose.com for a one-day workshop this fall, The Wabi-Sabi Eye, using the technique of traditional still life and processed with Nik Collection software. Leave with a luxury photograph of your own making printed on matte paper and a copy of the Leonard Koren’s book.