Cup in sunlight

March 28, 2013

Lian's place series- Cup in sunlight

Lian’s place series- Cup in sunlight    oils on canvas board

This is fairly large format. The aim was to not correct too much, to keep the painting fresh, and to not be rigidly tied to depicting reality.

Every week I go to a Tai Chi lesson in the attic studio of our Tai Chi teacher Lian Ong.  Often, while performing the slow, hypnotic movements of the form, my eye strays to the little lounge where sunlight streams in and lights up the yellow and orange soft furniture.  I’ve started bringing my camera because of the visual richness in this little space- there is a small wooden glass-fronted cupboard with a hodge-podge of beautiful little ceramic cups, for one. I placed one of them on the floor for this picture.

This tranquil space has found its way into several works of mine already, and there will be more to come.

Here is the original photo.



The longer I do Tai Chi the more I value it.  I love that you can keep going deeper and deeper, forever discovering new things.

In the beginning, 15 years ago,  the focus was on externals, mastering the basic  movements in the form (I do Yang form)  and being concerned about how good they looked-  how good I looked doing them!

But eventually you get over that and Tai Chi becomes your discipline, something private and priceless, and it is down to you and your practice and no one else, except maybe your teacher.

The 15 minutes a day I devote to my practice are precious because they focus me on essential things that tend to get lost in the everyday rush. Maybe I’m impatient before I start because I want to get going with my lists, plans, tasks.  But just the act of stopping, consecrating the space and time needed to go through the slow, meditative movements already calms me down.

I become aware of my breathing, my body, my feet standing on the ground. I move the energy down to my legs and feet and breathe deeper down in my belly. I come into my body and get out of my head. I am aware of how I am standing, how my weight is distributed, I feel the soles of my feet on this holy earth, anchored here, receiving. And I feel my upper body opening to energies coming from the sun and other cosmic forces.

As I start on the familiar, graceful sequence of movements, I feel whether my body is in balance or not, I sense my connection to the space and place around me, I feel my joints, I feel tension flow away as I take steps and move my arms in slow circular arc and dips.  I feel this moment of being in a body, in life, on earth  under the sky and concentrate on how the weight shifts, how a single movement can be a strain or effortless depending on your awareness. How some movements torque my body into uncomfortable poses, and how the next move releases the twist in a powerful but controlled counter movement.

Gathering energy, releasing it, dancing and fighting in slow motion. Tai Chi has its basis in martial arts. So while it looks like a gentle prayer in motion, engaging with a well executed movement could throw an opponent across the room.

I emerge from the continuous undulating rhythm of movements, come to rest and breathe.

I am in a completely new ‘place’ physically and mentally, ready to start the day rooted in the things that count. Hoping to bring that quietness and powerful intention of internals into the external world of things and doing.

Giving up the struggle

August 5, 2011

Last month I participated in a Tai Chi workshop given by Rob and Erich Völke with the focus on relaxation.

One of the exercises required me to stand across from another person with my hands on their chest. The goal was to slowly push them off balance without taking a step or exerting any force. The only way this worked was to relax deeper and deeper vertically while still maintaining a strong upright posture and structure (ie, the bones and muscles were working but not tensed), and slowly moving forward from your centre.

My partners tended to be large, muscled men!  I couldn’t budge any of them.
The first time I got it, though, when the guy keeled over, I thought he was putting me on.  Yet, I had also felt the shift in myself. It was a state of total trust and letting go without the least bit of forcing. It was gentle, and it overcame the full resistance of a man tens of kilos heavier than I.

Interesting I didn’t make the link with other parts of my life until recently when I tried the ‘You can try (or give up) anything for 3o days’ challenge. Read the rest of this entry »


Magda, a Tai Chi friend and I were sitting outside in the late spring sun at a wonderful sheltered café yesterday after class.  We were talking about the discipline of learning Tai Chi.

I keep seeing parallels between tai chi and calligraphy. But I get stuck on the fact that Tai chi demands a traditional repetition of form, as does calligraphy, but with calligraphy I find this restrictive and with Tai Chi it is not.  I guess I feel that the goal of learning calligraphy is to not just parrot the letters but to eventually use them to express yourself. So creativity is a goal for learning the technique. With Tai Chi, creativity isn’t a goal, but still something similar is at play here .

Magda commented that the deeper you get into Tai Chi practice, the more you realize that learning to do the form (Tai Chi ‘form’ is the sequence of movements) is not the end goal.

She pointed out that through disciplined practice of Tai Chi, you move beyond the form. You no longer have to think consciously about the movements, the movements become a channel for the energy as it moves through you and around you.  But to experience this one first has to master (to some degree) the movements.

Our whole class is at the point where we can all do Tai Chi in a flowing decorative way that would impress anyone who knew nothing about it.  And every new student aspires to this goal of external appearance and achievement. But once there, you either quit because as a goal in itself it is dead ended. Or you hit a wall because you realize how little you really know.

If you stay with the practice regardless, and just keep going, eventually it all opens out again in a new way. Your teacher points out how the tineist adjustments to thought and movement can radically change your experience of your own body and thus the form.  It becomes an ongoing journey of learning and deepening.  The form is not the end goal, but the medium for discovering about energy as it flows up from the earth through your body, or from the stars down to your toes. It teaches you about how your joints function, and how to use them better, You learn how to distribute your weight, how to hold your head, how to maintain a relaxed tension deep in the muscles, so every gesture is loaded with grace and power.  Tai Chi touches on so many aspects of life: your health,  your emotional well being,  your balance,  how your body uses energy, your concentration, your mental picture of yourself, how you relate to the space around you, how you stand and walk, how you relate to others, your weak and strong points. It is endless.

I suppose calligraphy too could be approached as a spiritual practice of sorts.  Because in the end, all these disciplines- Tai Chi, calligraphy, dance music, writing, alternative therapies, etc,  are just keys to universal truths that seem to run throughout all of life. You just have to be alert to them, and practice seems to be one effective way of achieving that.

Why I do my Tai Chi

May 2, 2009

I am currently writing an article for a professional journal on dementia care. It is about the creative process in relation to this area. And I am having a hard time. So much of what I want to say, even though it is about intangibles, has been proven out by my day to day experience as an artist. Yet will require practical reasoned out arguments to explain this to  a scientifically educated public.

What they need to do to understand what I’m saying is not read an article, but pick up paints and tackle a canvas, or move to music, or sculpt a piece of stone.

Artists learn to value process over product, that is where the learning and alchemy take place. What touched me so profoundly in the ‘Cellist of Sarajevo’ was the huge power of an intended gesture. The cellist himself probably didn’t even know exactly why he put his life in danger every day for 3 weeks to play in a war zone- to memorialize people he didn’t even know. The ‘why’s’ are not important. What was important was the potency of such a commitment, and the way it touched and transformed countless others.  Music was a perfect answer to, ‘How can we overcome hate , fear, and death?’

There is a YouTube clip which shows Antwerp train station, busy and noisy. All at once, a song from a musical plays over the loud speakers. About a minute after that,  one of the travellers breaks out in a dance, He is joined by a little girl;  the dance, beautifully choreographed and obviously  professional, takes on more and more people, until there are probably more dancers than public.  It is a heart stopping moment of beauty and seeming spontaneity.

One of the more dull comments under the clip asked,’Well, what was the purpose of this’?  

We need to leave behind our literal mindedness and make room for poetry and enchantment in every day life.

What is the ‘purpose’ of doing my Tai Chi in the mornings when I don’t feel much like it?  Do I do it for the positive effect it is supposed to have on my health? Or as a meditation? Or as a routine?

 I do my Tai Chi because I do my Tai Chi.  And once in a while, I do my Tai Chi as a prayer to life, or a memorial to  a dead friend. And I do the movements to reconnect me to the place that has nothing to do with writing articles, ageing, career, household tasks. It is the part that is one with the new cherry blossoms, the waves in the sea,  the hiss of stars on a summer night. The big sun and big moon and all the seasons.

And I remember.

Continuing the insights from the previous post, ‘Enchanted Vessel’, I am always struck by the universal principles that seem to run through all arts.  The deeper you go into disparate arts like painting, calligraphy, singing and Tai chi the closer they come to one another in their essence.

In Tai Chi beginning students usually get caught up in the fancy arm movements without realizing these are grounded in combat sport. If you watch a Tai Chi master execute the form (a ritualized series of movements) , it is filled with power and a controlled tension, as well as a fluid grace. If you try to just imitate the graceful arm movements you get only empty decoration. But if the movements originate from your center, they begin to contain power.

In singing, novices try to create volume and resonace by ‘doing ‘ something with their throat or mouth. But true resonant sound comes from deep within the center of the body and from the connection between  resonant membranes in the entire body. It can’t be forced or faked.  

In painting, beginning and even experienced painters can get caught up in imitating a certain style.  But usually , a style is a set of techniques combined with a visual vocabulary that an artist has evolved over years of consistent work. The power of an artwork is intimately linked with the artist’s passion and dedication. Imitating a style will give a trendy quick fix with no depth or staying power.

Calligraphy and tai Chi are very similar. When we start, we want to be able to make all the fancy letters and swirls, but without grounding in good letterforms and consistent spacing, these will look weak and unconvincing. The power in a piece of calligraphy comes from mastery of form, then comes the freedom to improvise within that form.

In all of these disciplines I constantly learn that periods of effort give way to letting go and letting it happen. Trusting the body, to make a sound, a stroke, a movement. Sidestepping the ego’s sense of, ‘Aren’t I doing this well’  to being in service of the art. To put in enough hours with humility, that maybe one percent of the time, excellence can emerge unbidden and effortlessly.  And even more important that excellence is simply, truth. That I may make true tai chi movements, sing true notes, draw true letters and use true colours.

And when you give up all sense of needing recognition, or returns or a sense of being special, all of a sudden,whatever the art form it becomes one’s own totally unique expression,  who I really am is recognizable in that form.