Sumi ink workshop

Earlier this semester, VCS students had the opportunity to participate in a workshop on the ancient Asian technique of sumi-e ink painting. Held during Tom Huhn’s senior thesis class, the session was taught by Max Gimblett, a New Zealand artist whose paintings, sculptures, and drawings are deeply influenced by a wide range of spiritual disciplines, including Eastern religion, Western esoteric traditions, world mythology, and Jungian psychology. In addition to showing a PowerPoint presentation about his own works from 1940 to the present, Gimblett discussed the role of Zen Buddhism in shaping the aesthetics of traditional ink painting throughout East Asia. The importance of spontaneity and direct expression was a major topic, and Gimblett encouraged students to try different means of working in the moment, without overanalyzing every single brushstroke. The power of this approach to painting is reflected in the serious influence it has had on the studio practice of numerous Western painters, including Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

VCS students Alex Tores (foreground) and Megan Connaughton (background) working with the technique of sumi-e.

During the hands-on part of the workshop, students got to try out some of Gimblett’s suggestions, such as drawing with eyes shut in order to harmonize body and mind and come as close as possible to a state of pure, spontaneous creativity. While working, Gimblett’s training as a practitioner of the Japanese form of Zen known as Rinzai became immediately apparent. At the moment the brush hit the paper, he would give the sudden shout that features prominently in so many tales of famous Rinzai monks, going right back to the exploits of Linji Yixuan (a.k.a. Lin Chi I-Hsuan and Rinzai Gigen, depending on which language and/or transliteration system you’re using), the energetic and sometimes iconoclastic founder of the sect in 7th-century China. (A great place to learn more about Linji and his raucous, untamed teaching style is The Record of Linji, a collection of incidents from his life that was compiled and handed down by his students. The Record has been translated into English several times. You can find a link to a PDF file of an older version here.)

Tom Huhn lifting up a finished painting.

Encouraged by Gimblett to leave behind worries about some external standard of artistic quality, the students had a chance to work as openly and loosely as they wanted, without the restrictions of technique and subject matter that studio assignments sometimes impose. The results included a wide range of ink paintings, including a work of spontaneous calligraphy by instructor and department chair Tom Huhn that was exhibited in the recent Outpost exhibition.

Another finished work, held up by student Katie Armstrong.

For more photos from the sumi workshop, check the Events page, at the tab above or this link.

Visual & Critical Studies