While my parents were living in Bombay, they acquired an ornate wood carving of the elephant-headed god Ganesha and displayed him in our apartment, more as a decorative object than as a religious icon. They were extremely fond of this sculpture (my father still treasures him to this day) and called him by his other popular name, Ganapati, or, affectionately, Gumpy, for short. As a baby, I must have seen this figure hundreds of times and developed some sort of attachment to him, perhaps because of his plump, childlike form dancing a comical version of the mystical Dance of Creation and Destruction that his father, Shiva, performs. When it came time for me, at around my first birthday to utter my first word, it was not “Mama” or “Papa.” It was “Gump.” Not surprisingly, Ganesha has been a special figure in my life, and since material possessions can often turn into obstacles, I chose to give away a Ganesha today.
When I’m scrolling through Facebook, among the photos that make me smile the most are those of my friend Dave and his adorable son George cheering on their favorite rugby teams, frolicking in exotic places like Italy and New Zealand, or just gobbling down ice cream together on a rare warm day in London. Dave is such a great dad, and I know it hasn’t been easy for him.
I met Anne about 15 years ago when I was working at Pacific Asia Museum and she was working at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens researching their William Morris Collection. She had recently returned to California from England, where she had studied English literature at Oxford and British art at the Courtauld Institute in London. For me, California was exotic, but for Anne, who had grown up here, England was far more captivating, so she wasn’t too thrilled to be back here.
Despite wanting to shed many of my material possessions over the course of this year, I did urge my husband David to buy a large garden shed that we can convert into a little room in the back garden. In my mind, the room will be a little “mummy retreat” or a “room of her own” where I can go in the evenings to escape the sounds of the tv and play gentle music and read a book when I need some time and peace for myself. But, it can also be a playroom for our son Theo and his friends if they want to be alone or need to play quietly while I do my work in the house. Perhaps if we get it insulated properly it can be a guest room where my brother Alan can stay on a future visit. At any rate, it’s a shed with a lot of potential and I am excited to transform it into a special space. I wasn’t up to the task of painting the chipboard walls inside, so we asked a friend Chris who has helped us out with various projects in our back yard over the years. He happened to be free this weekend so agreed to come and paint the shed today, despite the unbelievably humid weather the tropical storm brought to LA today.
Linda’s hands understand me. They sense my pain and my tension, and though they are petite they are powerful, able to apply many pounds of pressure to knots between muscles that need to be pressed and rubbed and melted away. They are also kind and caring, resting for patient, thoughtful seconds on my shoulders, my neck, my back to reassure me that she is still there and still working on me. She’s just letting the muscles have a moment to realize they don’t have to tense up anymore – they can let go. All is well now.
Today, I met my friend Ted for lunch. Ted is an artist whose work ranges from whimsical pictures of cats to semi-abstracted paintings of human figures in great pain or pleasure to his powerful Scarred for Life series. For this series, Ted takes mono-prints directly off the skin of models scarred by spinal surgery, mastectomies, bullet wounds or amputations. The models choose their own colors and Ted then adds details with gouache and color pencil, creating delicate abstract compositions in which the incision mark becomes a bold stroke emanating richly colored energy. Next, he photographs the models with the same paint color on their scars and includes their own story of the scar and its affect on their lives. The combination of print, photograph and words are powerful visual documents of human healing and resilience, depictions of brave personal victories, from the graceful dancer who continues to dance from her wheelchair to the devoted mother who survives a mastectomy to raise her twin sons. In 2013, I wrote about his work for KCET Artbound and his work moved so many people that the story was made into a video that was included on one of their tv episodes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bixGXFVCow).
Ted understands about pain and healing. He was born with Gaucher’s disease, a rare genetic disorder that causes pain and deterioration of the joints and organs, and he spent much of his childhood in hospital. Art helped him cope with his condition. After studying design at college, he began painting works that reflected his constant battles with his body, his pain and the sense of being trapped inside a damaged shell. Years later, thanks to successful hip replacements and improvements in medical treatments, Ted is healthy and is a busy artist, creating art, working as a designer, traveling the country giving talks about his work and signing his hilarious cat books series (http://www.tedmeyer.com). I wanted to give him something artistic that both reflects his quirky, playful side but also relates to his work on the Scarred for Life series that I admire so much. What I chose was a round little African gourd that has a spiraling pattern carved into it – kind of like a scar, I thought. I knew it was a bit of an odd gift, but I knew that someone as unique and creative as Ted just might appreciate it.
And he did!
Some of the most lively and fascinating examples of Japanese paintings are the illustrated hand scrolls that became popular about 1,000 years ago. The most lavish examples illustrate the lives of the nobility, like the Tale of Genji scrolls, which depict the romantic exploits of Japan’s most amorous Imperial courtier, Prince Genji. Others illustrate the bloody, destructive battles that elevated the samurai to power for many centuries to come. Most intriguing to me are those which illustrate Buddhist teachings and tales, including the gruesome Hell Scrolls, that graphically detail the horrors of rebirth in Hell in order to convert more people to Buddhism, and the Scrolls of the Frolicking Birds and Animals, in which comical creatures parody and satirize human behavior. Since my first trips to Japan, I have put together a small collection of replicas of these scrolls, and have occasionally unrolled them when teaching about Japanese painting. Mostly they sit in my chest of Japanese art treasures. Today I decided to give one to my good friend and colleague, Hollis, who is a curator of Japanese art at the Los Angeles County Museum. We met shortly after I moved out here, and when I didn’t really know any other Asian art historians. Since then, she has been a supportive colleague and a kind friend, giving me valuable professional advice, inviting me to my first ever Thanksgiving dinner at her home and modeling to me how to be an excellent curator. Her hard work, deep knowledge and desire to educate and excite visitors to the hundreds of exhibitions she has curated at LACMA has been an inspiration, and I can only hope she has enjoyed my exhibitions half as much as I always enjoy hers.
Today, I drove over to LACMA to see Hollis and together we walked through the museum’s current exhibition of exquisite Japanese raku tea bowls on loan from the Raku Museum in Kyoto – some of Japan’s most important art treasures and a treat for lovers of Japanese ceramics like Hollis and myself. Over lunch, I gave her the scroll, one that she had said she would like – the The Legend of Mount Shigi scroll, which details miracles attributed to the monk Myoren who lived on Mount Shigi near Nara. He had a magic golden begging bowl, and used it to teach a lesson to a greedy farmer who wouldn’t share his bounty with the monks of the temple. The bowl lifted up the farmer’s grain-filled granary and carried it through the sky to the monks. It’s a great story of the power of faith and of karma, or actions leading to consequences. We have had many conversations over the years about both the ups and downs of our work in Japanese art. Though we may not have our own gold bowls, like Myoren, with which we can perform magical deeds, we should remind ourselves often that we have put in many years of good karma, and that counts for a lot.