Sunday, September 6, 2009

The ensō

Calligraphy by Kanjuro Shibata XX Enso ca. 2000

This weekend, I received a custom order for a mizuko jizo painting. When I receive one, I feel this sense of calm, knowing I get to descend into my world of painting and meditation, happy jizo faces, prayers for our babies and babyloss.

This was fairly straight forward custom order, except the person ordering wanted me to paint an ensō on the painting. She sent me a painting of one, and a wikipedia page about what they symbolize and mean.

Ensō is the Japanese word meaning circle, as the Wikipedia told me. And "symbolizes enlightenment, strength, elegance, the Universe, and the void." That's a heavy circle.

Actually, ensō calligraphy is something I have seen before and admired. If I had an aesthetic, it is this: a simple, broken circle. But could I paint one?

I paint watercolor, not Japanese calligraphy. My brushes reflect as such. But I practiced. I made circle after circle, as the wikipedia said, in one motion. One brush stroke. I had so much trouble balancing the water with my paint, not making it sloppy, not making it too dry. I shut the door to my studio space, or as others might see it my front porch, and groaned loudly.

"It's a fucking circle, Ang."

But it is not a circle. It is different. It is a meditation. As Wikipedia annoyingly pointed out, "Zen Buddhists 'believe that the character of the artist is fully exposed in how she or he draws an ensō. Only a person who is mentally and spiritually complete can draw a true ensō. Some artists will practice drawing an ensō daily, as a kind of spiritual exercise.'" Suddenly, my mental and spiritual completeness depended on the circle?

I take these sorts of things seriously, you know. Intent of a concept. If the intent of an ensō is to paint it in one brush stroke, that will be my goal. If the intent is to clear my mind, let the circle come from the brush, I will clear my mind. Of course, the lesson today is that some of my ensō were beautiful, but they were on my scrap sheet of paper. I had to produce the circle once, after painting the entire jizo painting. It was to be the last element painted on the piece. If it failed, I would have to begin my painting over again. A true lesson in impermanence. The quality of a painting is based on its weakest element.

I guess if I were writing some beautifully wise zen fable, I would either fail miserably, or clear my mind and do it beautifully. Eh. It turned out okay. It is a circle. A fat muddy circle that is done in more than one stroke, but not more than five. And yet, this is part of my completeness, that I am not quite perfect. It was too circle-y to not use, and not quite circle-y enough. It wasn't what I wanted it to be--the ensō above this post. One thing that I absolutely connected with in the wikipedia listing was this part describing the drawing of an open circle ensō:

"The principle of controlling the balance of composition through asymmetry and irregularity is an important aspect of the Japanese aesthetic: Fukinsei (不均斉), the denial of perfection."

The denial of perfection.

Drawing a perfect circle is somehow drawing this universe as perfect, drawing an imperfect circle acknowledges our limitations, acknowledges our losses, acknowledges our failures. Our very human limitations become a beauty. I've been thinking of my own limitations lately. My own imperfections as my strengths. Somehow I have a feeling ensō will be part of my future.


  1. Ooh, I love an artist's desk! The Guardian newspaper here in the UK used to have a regular feature showing famous artists and writers' studios which I adored, so it was fascinating to see your space.

    The enso is such a perfect thing to contemplate given your affinity with circles. I loved this post x

  2. Just lovely. Yes, perfection denied. Also "turning problems into the path" is a phrase from my tradition I like. Somehow entirely different from pretending they aren't problems.

  3. If my mental and spiritual completeness depended on my drawing a true enso, then I'd be the girl in the corner drawing a triangle instead. I am imperfect. Thanks Angie. It's a timely reminder to me to focus on my own Enso, not how others draw their own. xxxx

  4. Woah. That is a heavy circle!
    But what I love about all of us here in this community, is that we are all perfectly imperfect. Love the vision of you sitting there in that studio, painting circle after circle, fat, muddy, perfect or otherwise. I really, really have to order a piece of your art, Angie. And soon.
    Lovely post, as always. So fitting with the title of your blog and all....

  5. Hey Angie

    Circle! Would you believe but as I read you post i was listening to joni mitchell's " The Cricle Game".

    I see my life and the universe in general, the Earth's path off kilter somehow. Lot's of dents in the old circulr path and frequent yet irregular stops and starts. For me the Earth stood still on it's path...

    peace and love to you
    xx Ines

  6. The denial of perfection indeed. That one phrase might sum up this entire grief journey. Love to you dear Angie.

  7. Loving this post. But loving the snapshot of your artist's space almost as much. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Beautiful... Like Native American beadwork that always includes one bead of the "wrong" color... because nothing in God's universe is perfect. I've always used that in my own bead and art work. It's a good reminder for all life.

  9. Thanks for writing about this - the idea of a broken circle has a lot of resonance. I'll be on the lookout for them from now on.

  10. What a great post. I love that the enso was just ok and neither great or very bad.

    "Somehow I have a feeling ensō will be part of my future."


    And this refection is in the blog "still life with circles"!


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