Wabi Sabi  -Living with Less...and enjoying it more

I was first introduced to the concept of Wabi Sabi while taking a course in Eastern Philosophy at art school.  But it would be some time later before I really grasped the "less is more" concept.  I had taken a few days off to go to the cottage.  My partner Arno and I had decided to spend a few hours sketching together and made a game of taking turns choosing the subject matter.  When it was his turn Arno chose a thin, dead, straight looking stick.  My immediate reaction was, "you chose that?  We're surrounded by a plethora of beautiful and luscious, living, breathing nature and you choose a dead stick."  With much resistance and some bits of disgust I took my pen out and started to draw.  "Well, at least it won't take long", I thought.

In the first few minutes all I could see was the outline of the stick, some straight lines with a kind of "hook" or claw at the top.  Slowly I started to see the play of light and shadow.  In fifteen minutes I noticed it was full of tiny marks, indents, and shading.  After a half hour I began to get overwhelmed with the detail, it was as if the stick had become something living, moving, expanding.  It transformed into an intricate object, significant in it's own right.  It struck me that this is what is meant by Wabi Sabi.

Originating in Japan the concept of Wabi Sabi speaks of the art of imperfection or a willingness to accept things as they are.  It is almost the opposite of Western ideals that herald progress and growth as necessary components to daily living.  Wabi Sabi is about process not final product, about decay and aging, not growth.  And it requires that we slow down, take notice of the things that are hidden, the imperfections and the marks of the passing of time.  It takes a bit of courage to face the imperfections.  Especially when you like to control things, like I do.

Sitting down to draw a stick, I learned about meditation.  

So if Wabi Sabi means an acceptance of the process of nature it is with intense fascination that I start to notice small examples of it in my life.  A spider web in the window frame full of dead bugs, an old chair with many paint chips, a old newspaper yellowed at the corners.  Many of these things one might have been dismissed as ugly, used up, without value.  It occurred to me that Wabi Sabi speaks of the absence of life and it's many cycles,  impermanence.  The beauty of this concept is that understanding that we are in a constant state of change and "incompleteness" gives us a new found pleasure in the simple things in life.  It is the root of gratitude, valuing what we have.

I started to look at ways of applying Wabi Sabi to daily life.  First to the smaller things, displaying "artifacts" from nature, bird's nests, rusty license plates, old bits of driftwood, these things decorate my home and reminded me of process.  Over time the thought of needing to acquire new items became less of a draw.  Instead of buying a set of new dishes, I salvaged some old ones from the cottage.  The paint on them was worn and spoke of years of use, they had a history and a story.  Instead of purchasing a new dining room set, I salvaged some pieces of wood that were taken out of an old church, these became a table top.  The chairs were found discarded in various places, all are different just like the people who sit in them.  Tuning into the concept of Wabi Sabi allowed me to separate needs from wants, but not only that, I really started to be grateful for things with a story.  My house grew into a strange sort of "museum of the discarded."  I started to notice what I needed in the world to live.  The list was very short.  

I read somewhere once that when you get the need to go shopping for new stuff, sometimes what  you really need is to just clean your house.  I think this is because the acts of cleaning and maintaining are ways of caring and putting energy into your surroundings.  When you really 'care' for something you start to value it more.  There is nothing wrong with buying new things, sometimes it can be a soulful  and joyous experience.  But when we start to look at what we really need to function on a daily basis as opposed to what the TV says we want, the answers are quite simple.  

Recommended reading:

Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers
-Leonard Koren

Keri Smith is a free-lance illustrator and native of Toronto.  A graduate of  O.C.A. she has a wide following of clients in North America and Japan.  She currently resides in a “magic” cottage in Flesherton, painting, illustrating, creating, writing, and living out loud.  Her first children's books, entitled Story in a Box have just been published by Chronicle Books.