The Romans and the Greeks loved the idea of beauty and perfection while Japan and parts of the East were more smitten with the concepts of impermanence, imperfection, and incompleteness. You’ve seen that perfect statue of David — he’s chiseled, naked, and just a perfect specimen of masculinity and a fixed embodiment of Western mythology. And, maybe you’ve seen the Zen Buddhist circle, the enso circle which is drawn in one stroke and is mostly a broken circle signifying incompleteness and can look a thousand different ways based on the nature of the brush-holder.
The enso circle is a perfect representation of the tenacity of wabi sabi!
Beyond the perfect sculptures of our Roman and Greek past, there lies a field — I’ll meet you there. In that field is wabi sabi, a land of “perfect-imperfectness,” where things fall into place in the process of doing them or they fall into place just by being; allowing the elements of life to shape and mold them. Wabi sabi is the art of living, building, relating, cooking… It is everywhere and constantly unfolding. Students of wabi sabi are taught to look at simple objects and find them interesting, beautiful and even fascinating.
Indeed, that is my experience in Mississippi. Watching barns slowly decompose over time has been a past-time of mine since I was a kid. And, visiting Taylor, MS this past weekend evoked the subtle charm of the wild ways of wabi sabi once again.
Taylor is just outside Oxford, MS where the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) is located in Northern Mississippi. Me-thinks there are about 250 or 300 people that live there. It is best known for a restaurant called Taylor Grocery which serves catfish and other Southern favorites and touts the saying “eat or we both starve.” Now, Taylor is home to a handful of artists and potters and a burgeoning area of gentrification — due to a new development called Plein Air complete with Montessori School for pre-schoolers and all. It’s a bit frightening what you have to pay to get a tin-roof house these days! The romanticizing of the South is full-force at Plein Air and I would imagine that you’d have to pay a pretty penny to sit on your porch to rock.
However, I guess the wabi-sabi of new developments like these came to my consciousness through a conversation with Pat, the mayor’s wife. She said that the developments were going up like wildfire in the early part of 2000, right around the time when Katrina hit New Orleans and other parts of the South. Families dispersed from that area to surrounding states and ended up in places like Oxford and Taylor…bought a home and settled. Pat commented on how much the new families revitalized and diversified the area. There are always multiple angles to any story…and although I can’t stand seeing all the lonely, square brick homes that now dot the landscape around Oxford (and Taylor), I suppose these new developments assisted some families in stabilizing after Katrina.
Let’s get back to town, then… I traveled to Taylor this past Saturday with my friend Amber to see how the town was doing. I used to go to the restaurant in the early 90s while I was in college. I also recalled that a class-mate in one of my photography classes had opened up an art gallery near the time I graduated; I wondered if it was still there.
We rolled into town and there was the restaurant nestled into the small Taylor strip, which is the main and only recognizable part of the formal town.
The wabi-sabi of this place is the endless graffiti. If you look closely at this picture, you’ll see the countless names covering every possible inch of this restaurant. I imagine that the graffiti started to appear at the restaurant some time ago and instead of the owners trying to fight it, they actually allowed it to become part of the character of the place. And in college, this was a real perk for us — we got to write our name and the date and make our small mark on the halls of country catfish fame.
Oh, the plot only gets thicker. Amber and I see signs for Taylor Arts and decide to walk over. We enter and a woman welcomes us, talking really fast (unusual in these parts) and telling us to let her know if we need anything.
Upon closer inspection of this woman, I figure out it is my old photography class-mate. A-ha! The gallery still exists yet it has moved. Her name is Christine Shultz and within 30 minutes we are transported into a gripping conversation about how she wrote a book about love, precipitously fell in love, opened this art gallery, a music/arts/party venue, became a painter, and has been growing her own food. Needless to say, there’s a lot going on.
How, all this came to be…alas, I am sworn to secrecy. So, you’ll have to stay tuned to a well-anticipated article by Christine on her very wabi sabi life story. However, I can share with you a very wabi moment that happened with one of her art pieces. It turns out that she took some pictures of some old barns and the developer messed up her film. Being the wabi sabi sleuth that she is, she turned seeming waste into an amazing dyptich with inspiration drawn from the faded and discolored oddly-developed film (see the golden and yellow hues in the paintings below). The cool thing is that Chris has never taken a painting class and this particular piece was on the cover of a well-known Southern magazine called Southern Living.
The lesson in my conversation with Christine is that art happens in the process of doing something. A well-trained eye can attune itself to ‘what is’ and create something beautiful and meaningful from something that might seem like it has no beauty or meaning. The ability to do this requires patience, curiosity, and what the I Ching and Zen Buddhists call “the beginner’s mind.” This is the way of wabi sabi. And, what a great reminder this adventure has afforded me.
Her husband, Marc Delouch, is also a man of wabi sabit. He creates amazing pieces of art and furniture with re-claimed or reused wood. She says that it goes out the door as fast as he can make the pieces. Here’s a table that he crafted…
There is much to say about the South and the way of the wabi sabi warriors out there (both animate and inanimate). I raise my glass of honey and apple cider vinegar (a new favorite of mine, lately) to all the decaying structures, the weathered faces, the jacket elbow holes, and the worn, dirt paths that snake into the forgotten countryside. I am getting sleepy…so goodnight…this blog is imperfect anyway and definitely impermanent.