Saturday the Chinese Cultural Association had a calligraphy activity that I decided would be fun to attend. It was fun, but the thing that struck me was the familiar smell of ink that they use to do Chinese calligraphy. This was a smell that I had known very well in the basement of my art teacher during my 4th to 7th grade years. It was the smell of thick dark ink.
I remember my teacher standing by the sink in the mini kitchen. It would always be dark by that sink; he would never turn on the light, but would store all of his inks and various paints in the dark by the sink. I remember him telling me in Chinese that when the ink dried on the heavy clay bowl, all it took was a little bit of water and a bit of blending with an ink tablet to revive the ink.
I remember telling that to my Mother, and hearing her tell me that it finally made sense why her father would be annoyed at her when she would wash the bowl for him. I imagine my Mother, a ten year old girl, tip-toed to a sink washing a bowl of the ink it contained. I see her with careful, deliberate motions rubbing the ink off and letting it flow down the sink. I see her washing in that dutiful, adoring way that my Mother would. My Mother loved my Grandfather, more than I can ever really know. I never knew the man, but I think he really must have been an amazing person to command that kind of love from my Mother. I can't imagine the kind of art he must have created from all the talent that I knew he possessed.
For me this is all a journey back to a skill I forgot. My hand was not steady as it grasped the brush. My hand wasn't shaking; it just did not feel comfortable to hold a brush in my hand, and I was afraid of the page. It was almost ten years since I had last held a brush and even thought about painting again. As I stared down at the yellow practice paper, I remembered how unforgiving the paper was because it would absorb everything so quickly, how unforgiving the ink was because it would shout your mistakes back at you accusingly, and how important it was to get the right strokes the first time because if you didn't the strokes would mock you for trying to do something more than you were capable of. Chinese art is not Western art. There is no going back to fix mistakes.
The crisp crunch of the brushes bristles was familiar as it dipped into the ink. There was no bowl this time, just a paper dixie cup. I stroked the point of the brush carefully on a scrap piece of paper to straighten the end of the brush: it was important to have a sharp point on the brush to create the right strokes while painting.
In ten years the only thing I can still paint is bamboo. I decided to paint the bamboo instead of try to do the calligraphy that everyone else in the room was doing. I started with the straight vertical strokes that ran down the paper. I then had to wash my brush and dry it before dipping it into the ink again to put down the alternating smiles and frowns that joined the vertical segments of the bamboo; these smiles had to be a different shade of black than the bamboo. The rest of the painting followed: branches, then leaves (a different shade of course from the bamboo as well) and finally some grass to make it look like there was some kind of ground where these bamboo grew.
I then wrote my name in Chinese with the brush. It was no expert writing and the script looked like a bad attempt of an unexperienced hand writing complicated Chinese writing. It was there on the page though, my name. Maybe Grandfather watched me as I did all this. I wondered if he would be proud of me, or if he would merely grunt in approval of my art.
Hours later, the journey was complete, and time it seemed came to a concluding point. The painting was on my desk, and I was placing the red stamp of my seal below my name on the painting. I held the stamp on the paper longer than was necessary, perhaps to enjoy the moment. As a child painting in my teacher's basement, I would look at the rapid, fluid strokes he employed, and gape in awe when he would place his seal on the page as the crowning event. When he removed the seal and the red ink of it glimmered from the paper, it signified that it was complete.
I removed the seal from the paper. The red glimmered at me; I had come full circle.