a whole world of sticky pigments


Several weeks ago, Venerable Hojin, an ordained priest from Zen Mountain Monastery, came down with Ryushin Sensei, the abbot, to lead a workshop on campus. Ryushin Sensei was giving a Dharma talk that evening, but Hojin was facilitating an introductory workshop to spirituality and art.

Ven. Hojin is a painter by training, and she continues to work mostly with paint. She started us out with a color exercise, intended to help us engage color in a more nuanced, and very importantly, attentive way. Working with watercolors on postcard-sized pieces of good paper, we were instructed to chose one color and fill the paper with it. The picture below is a close-up of that workshop’s first exercise.


I hadn’t played with a set of watercolors since I was in elementary school. Lots of the usual demons came out to play along with me: the “I don’t know how to do this” demon, the “Hers is better than mine” demon, the “I don’t want to do this if I don’t make something good” demon. Ah, demons. Always around, wanting attention. I try and think of them as small, hyperactive pets, or ill-behaved but basically decent children.

After the watercolor session, Ven. Hojin led us outside and instructed us to find colors in the environment. She showed a piece she had begun earlier on her way to the campus: splotches of deep maroon and violet occupied a corner of the paper. They were flowers and leaves she’d found on her way, and rubbed into the paper. Away we went, too, in search of color. That workshop opened me up to paint and to color in a radically different way. When I make photographs in color, I don’t consider the color as a quality of an object that I can draw out on its own and work with as a singular subject. I did an entire photo-poetic journal one winter around the theme of red, but red was the theme, not the subject. I was attracted to this practice of color, even though I wasn’t very pleased with my first results. I really enjoyed playing with the watercolors, though, especially with the relatively simply injunction to work with one color at the beginning.

Today, I needed to make some cards to send people. I tried painting a couple but really didn’t like what resulted (“too much thinking,” which turns out to be as much a problem with paints as it is for me when making photographs or writing; more intuition, more attentiveness, less artifice, is not only a very different process but also a very different piece). So I took paper and fingers and eyes out with me today, and found colors. I started with a tulip tree and some dandelions. I added pansies, daffodils, periwinkle, red maple, grass, forsythia, and more whose names I don’t know. The results are as you see here. The first picture is today’s exercises piled one on top of another on the kitchen table; the two photos below are close-ups of two different pieces.


In between making the piece above and the one below, I attended Friday prayers (jummah) with the campus community. In the wake of the tragedy in Boston, I’ve been struggling as I struggled 11 and a half years ago to make sense of things, and to find constructive and healing ways to address my own pain and confusion, as well as reach out to the greater faith community. I asked our Immam if I could attend Friday prayers, and he invited me to come. What happened in Boston—I’ll be honest. I don’t want to go into it. I went to jummah out of sorrow and hope and the belief that by being together and praying together something positive will result. The Muslim Students’ Association coordinator, a young woman, brought an extra scarf for me to cover my head, in a plain beige.

The call to prayer and the chants pierce straight through me, every time. I watched the women pray. The physical postures of prayer, so different in the details and so similar in the general attitude, moved me to reconsider and re-enliven my own physical prayer. It also delights me to no end to look at the various colors and patterns of their headscarves. I live in a largely monochromatic or at least visually restrained religious environment, and it fills me with a child-like pleasure to see the many-colored scarves the women wear, and to both watch them pray, and pray with them. I can’t be anything but a bit of an outsider, but they invited me in, made a space for me. Afterward there was a community lunch, and a small group of us (including the young Jewish classmate who emailed the Students’ Association coordinator, a friend of his, to find me a hijab!) chatted and nibbled. Then I left to go drop off my alumni auditing application for next fall, so that I can officially audit courses.

plant paint 3

All along the street were colors and more colors. A whole world of sticky pigments I’d never explored. What amazes me yet again in looking at the pictures is how textured and layered the pieces can become. In some ways, plants behave like pencils; in other ways, like paint. I mostly played around with “brush” stroke direction and layering colors, and working with my timidity and fear of making something “bad” by making big, bold strokes and creating large patches of color before filling in with other colors. The color of a petal or sepal isn’t always the color you get on the page. A lot of experimentation and discovery happened today, which was exciting. I’m incredibly grateful to Ven. Hojin for introducing me to this; it’s replaced the camera on some outings, asking me to understand the essence of something as not manifest through its form, but through its color. It’s also encouraged me to make journal entries that are color-scapes instead of notations, the various plants used in the making of an exercise serving as the cues for where I went, and what I saw or touched.


5 comments on “a whole world of sticky pigments

  1. Beautiful. I love these swathes of color, and also the story of how the colors came to be on the page. And I love the image of you attending jummah and marveling at the colors of the scarves.

    Sending love.

    • seon joon says:

      *hugs* I may make jummah a regular thing, next year. Being taken out of my familiar context–and the habitual mindset of it–reinvigorates my own practice, as well as strengthening the general faith community’s bonds.

      (And oh, those scarves!)

  2. […] From (thus). […]

  3. Beth says:

    Oh, I just love this post, and the whole idea of making pigments from these natural petals and leaves this way! Your description of attending Muslim prayers resonated with me too, since I used to do that fairly often. I understand and honor your desire to be there in solidarity; for me, it was the Intifada and then 9/11 that drew me toward the Muslim community, where I unexpectedly received rich experiences and friends who changed my life in many positive ways. It takes courage to go out of our comfort areas, especially spiritual ones, but more of us need to — and to write about it.

  4. PearlBLawrence says:

    I remember this day! It was I think only my second Jummah. I loved reading your description of it! Looking forward to catching up soon.

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