A Necessary Expression
By John Warden - This article was first published in the Summer 2018, Vol. XI, Issue II of Island Arts Magazine.
With a curving sweep of shoreline, rolling surf, mist boiling up out of the trees and clouds hanging low over the Strait of Juan de Fuca, there can be a lot of movement out at Jordan River. For island artist, Emily Carr, movement was an important part of the aesthetics of her art:
Movement is the essence of being. If there is no movement in a painting, then it’s just dead paint.
From a nature photography perspective, we can optimize the flow of wind and water in our compositions to reveal movement and we can punctuate that movement by incorporating elements of visual rhythm - repeating lines, shapes and patterns.
My photograph from Lochside Waterfront Park looking out towards the Sidney Spit serves as an example. Repeating horizontal lines and bands of colour in cascading tints and tones give the waves a soothing tempo. There is a calm cadence to the movement here and a colour flow that allows our eyes to journey across the waves towards the Spit. A line of light creates a smooth transition encouraging us to ponder and wander along the edge, searching for the mysteriously missing Mount Baker. There’s no hurry. Our rhythmic metronome has been set for an even pace and we walk this rainbow bridge of light in both directions for as long as the moment allows.
An even pacing, though, is just one type of visual rhythm. Flowing rhythm is what we sense when we see curving, undulating lines and a progressive rhythm is achieved when the repeating elements, like clouds, transform in size, shape or pattern. All of these different types of visual rhythm can be easily observed in nature and their inclusion in a composition begins to give it a voice.
Carr however was looking for more than just simple rhythms. She wanted her compositions to “sway, vibrate and rock”. She was looking for “a singing movement”, not merely, of an individual leaf or a single tree, but of the whole forest, with “everything moving together, relative movement, sympathetic movement, connected movement, flowing, liquid, universal movement”.
Rhythm, as an aesthetic element in art, crosses countries and cultures. In British Columbia, Emily Carr interpreted rhythm as universal movement. In Japanese aesthetics, it’s called Ki-in, the rhythmic energy of nature and life. And south of us, down in Texas, the hermit monk Marie Theresa Coombs describes the spiritual rhythm of Ki-in as, “vibrating and pulsating” (Coombs, 2003).
My photograph from Chesterman Beach, near Tofino, begins to pull some of these ideas together in a single composition. Repeating rivulet patterns in the sand, connect with Carr’s expression of universal movement while in the sky, soft clouds swirl, dancing to a silent rhythmic beat. Together, both elements speak to me in a visual orchestration of the rhythmic energy of life in nature.
I turn, for the last word on aesthetic rhythm, to the poet Thomas Merton. A student of Buddhism and Zen, Merton tells us that: “life’s rhythm, develops in silence, comes to the surface in moments of necessary expression and then returns to deeper silence”. And in that sentence, Merton has captured the very essence of the artistic journey.
Carr, E. (1966). Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr. Toronto / Vancouver: Clarke, Irwin & Company Ltd.
Coombs, M. T. (2003). Mystery Hidden Yet Revealed: A Study of the Interrelationship of Transcendence, Self-actualization and Creative Expression, with Reference to the Lives and the Works of Thomas Merton and Georgia O'Keeffe. Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Davey, H. (2012). The Japanese Way of the Artist. Stonebridge Press.
Merton, T. (2002). No Man is an Island. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.