Two things have occupied my imagination in the years since I retired from full time teaching. One is a process: art. I’ve been dong a lot of painting and drawing and faffing about with color, line and image. I’ve taken classes in botanical art, drawing, watercolor, abstract art, Zentangle, bookmaking and plein aire painting. I’m a little embarrassed at the volume of artwork that I have churned out. Recently I’ve been teaching myself Etegami, a Japanese art form, with the help of some online friends, mainly women in Japan. Etegami is to art as haiku is to poetry. It’s small, uses few materials and has a purpose greater than itself: to communicate something to a friend.
The second preoccupation is a perspective: a way of coding reality that varies from the conventional view. This way of seeing and valuing life comes from another Japanese practice known as Naikan. Naikan can be considered a form of meditation or a psychological framework for examining relationships. It declines from a rigorous and austere Buddhist practice called mishirabe. A Japanese businessman named Yoshimoto Isshin who was living until the late 1980’s in Japan designed the form. His purpose was to give the ordinary person a rubric for seeing reality.
I spent a week practicing intensive Naikan in the summer of 1989. That experience changed my worldview in a fundamental way. The insights gained from Naikan practice (asking and answering three questions about my own life . . . what have I received, what have I given and what trouble and bother have I caused?) led me to the inescapable conclusion that I have been receiving far more than I have been giving. I discovered this not in some abstract way, but rather through a systematic accounting of benefits received and those given back. I made a list. After doing an intensive Naikan practice it is not easy to return to a view of myself as a “self-made” person.
This “truth” about how it is for me, (and for everyone if we start to look at things more realistically) is a game changer. The fact of this provides a moral framework. On a practical level it makes me want to do something every day to thank those who support my life and who give to me in what seems a continuous stream. It’s a challenge to keep up with the thank you notes. And this is where Etegami enters.
First, let me borrow a definition written by Debbie Davidson, an American women who was born and raised in Japan and who has been teaching this art form to the world through Etegami blog by Debbie Davidson and through a Facebook page called the Etegami Fun Club. I quote from her blog:
WHAT IS ETEGAMI?
Etegami (e= "picture"; tegami= "letter/message") are simple drawings accompanied by a few apt words. They are usually done on postcards so that they can be easily mailed off to one's friends. Though etegami has few hard-and-fast rules, traditional tools and materials include writing brushes, sumi ink, blocks of water-soluble, mineral-based pigments called gansai, and washi postcards that have varying degrees of "bleed." They often depict some ordinary item from everyday life, especially items that bring a particular season to mind.
It is small work, always using a postcard sized paper. Usually it begins with a simple drawing of just about anything, (a vegetable, flower or shoe) coupled with some words (a tiny poem or quote), then usually colored with paint and sporting a red Japanese seal (hanko). I've been doing these for years and just discovered that it is a whole art form in Japan! People send these cards to one another. The deal is that if you receive a card you need to create one and send it to back. “Be clumsy,” is the first rule of Etegami.
The reason I think Etegami is special is that the point of doing one and sending it is to notice the contributions of a friend. The focus shifts from “me as an artist” to “you as a person to be thanked/encouraged/inspired.” The best Etegami are tailored to express a sentiment that the person receiving it might need to hear. It’s all about the receiver . . . and not the sender. The cards on this page are samples of etegami. The Mt. Fuji card was created by Debbie Davidson. The rest are mine.