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ABRS Blog Post Week 7 PART 2: Wabi-Sabi in creative expression/Vulnerability in relationships

In my final blog post tied to my time as artist-in-residence at the ABRS I am going to touch briefly on another parallel I have wondered about between the process of working in string and that of forming human relationships. The parallel is in the paradox of finding beauty and meaning in the midst of chaos and ‘ugliness’.

In Japan they have this term called Wabi-Sabi that doesn’t translate super well into English. In my post about the Zen of materials prep, I refer to definitions of “Wabi” and “Sabi” as having to do with solitude and the suchness of ordinary objects. From what I understand, the combination of these two terms is informed by historical connections to Buddhism & tea ceremonies, and alludes to themes of impermanence and finding beauty in decay. This is often contrasted with idealizing perfection, which was more often the model seen in Ancient Greece and the Occidental societies that followed.

In the film Shozo Kato – Way of the Sword, Kendo Sensei Shozo Kato compares these two philosophies of beauty as follows:

“Western beauty is radiance, majesty, grandness and broadness. In comparison, Eastern beauty is desolateness. Humility. Hidden beauty.”

While the film’s subtitles the word desolateness is chosen as a translation, what he actually says is Wabi-Sabi.

Here is another quote, by Andrew Juniper from his book Wabi-sabi: the Japanese Art of Impermanence.

“Wabi-sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things.”

You can find more explorations of Wabi-Sabi and it’s cultural context here.


In any case, I think one of the things that appeals to me about working in string is its tangled and messy nature. Nothing I make in string will ever be clean, reproducible, or photo-realistic. But this is what gives it visual interest and expressiveness. The life of the work is in its twists and curls. It’s all just kind of a big mess. But a fascinating one.

I have already written about the relational process of creating my string portraits and how that can be conceptualized as reflective of identity-formation itself. Just like how I find interest in the messy nature of string as a medium, I believe there is something about being honest and genuine with other people that binds us together in meaningful ways.


We live in an era where instant gratification and image-building are paramount. There is a persistent desire to be Photoshop handsome, live our best lives, and have a killer social media highlight reel of positive deliverables. This affects many of us but especially those of us who struggle with mental health issues. I wrote about this earlier this spring in relation to a temporary tattoo I had that read “It’s Okay not to be Okay”:


“We live in a society that fetishizes ‘happiness’, a temporary occurrence like any other emotional state . It fetishizes happiness because it is an easy carrot to dangle in front of people, the unobtainable pursuit of which feeds the capitalist machine. Our accepted measure of success and individual worth is measured first and foremost  by how an individual generates income, and then by how much they ressemble the colonial model of ‘success’- white, christian, affluent, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, neurotypical…

There are no good or bad emotions. All emotional states of being are valid. I have been angry, ecstatic, numb, dissociative, suicidal, proud, in love, scared, grieving, joyous… And that is all okay. Finding peace with the drastic fluctuations in mood that come with my particular lived experience has been a journey. Accepting that I cannot control them, but that I can make choices around how I react to them, has been empowering. Noticing without judgement has been grounding.

It’s okay to be thriving or struggling or anywhere in between. Taking medication for mental illness is okay. Reaching out is okay too- if you are in distress there is 24/7 supportive listening  available at the distress line (780-482-HELP) #mentalhealth #temporarytattoo #mantra #personaltruth”

The funny thing about the above piece is that shortly after I posted it, I received quite a bit of feedback from other people, thanking me for speaking out about something to which they, too, could relate. I am not sharing this to give myself a pat on the back. Rather, I think it demonstrates the power of vulnerability in connecting us to one another.


Clinical social worker and researcher Brene Brown has done some brilliant work on this very idea. If you have not seen her ted talk on the power of vulnerability, I would highly recommend it. It certainly got me thinking.

In her book, Daring Greatly, Brown defines vulnerability as a combination of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. She goes on to describe it as follows:

“Vulnerability isn’t good or bad. It’s not what we call a dark emotion, nor is it always a light, positive experience. Vulnerability is at the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness it to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from that gives purpose and meaning to living.”

It is important to note that vulnerability is not the same as just oversharing or dumping. In relationships it is carried by trust and also an inherent piece of the trust-building process. But with the appropriate respect for our own and other’s boundaries it is an amazing thing.

I think visual art and other forms of creative expression like movement or vocal improvisation can create a framework for being vulnerable in a non-verbal way. In the case of my string portraits, the edges of the canvas create a physical boundary that keeps the exploration contained and safe. I think this metaphor can be extended to the internal and external boundaries required to delineate healthy interpersonal exchange.

But within those boundaries, physical or metaphorical, there can be a lot going on. Not all of the stuff is pretty. In fact, if it was, it would probably be incredibly boring. Instead, it is ever-shifting, chaotic, and at times unfathomable. In small ways, we can make order, and find meaning. We toggle between judging and feeling in relation to ourselves and others. We play. We suffer. We breathe and get groceries and have sex and we take out the garbage and do the laundry and pick up the kids or maybe we don’t. We go on twitter and vacuum the rug and try not to let the existential dread set in, or maybe sometimes we do. As an artist, I am making a choice to see beauty and find meaning in that. One lumpy strand of fibre at a time. It’s not always pretty, and the path remains unclear, but one day I hope to share this with others in my own small way.

This String Portrait Project  is supported by the Edmonton Arts Council and the City of Edmonton.

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