Ephemeralds

Today I was flicking through a book on the Japanese artist Hokusai with my daughter. He’s most well known for this image, which I’m sure you’ve seen:

The Great Wave of Kanagawa

We looked through his images, talked about the beautiful way he captured the movement of water, the sense of space and depth, how perfectly he drew petals on flowers… and then we read this paragraph together:

From the age of six I was in the habit of drawing all kinds of things. Although I had produced numerous designs by my fiftieth year, none of my works done before my seventieth is really worth counting.
At the age of seventy-three I have come to understand the true form of animals, insects, and fish, and the nature of plants and trees.
Consequently, by the age of eighty I will have made more and more progress, and at ninety I will have got closer to the essence of art.
At the age of one hundred I will have reached a magnificent level and at one hundred and ten each dot and each line will be alive. I would like to ask those who outlive me to observe that I have not spoken without reason.

Hokusai kept working up until his death, aged 89. I wonder what he would have achieved if he’d continued towards his dream of getting closer to “the essence of art”!

My daughter, just ten, loves drawing, and is already making beautiful images. I’m almost forty and I’ve drawn and made a variety of things throughout my life. For her, this paragraph read as a starting point, and for me, well “none of my works done before my seventieth is really worth counting” was both saddening and encouraging.

I often think about how the things I’ve made over the years just don’t seem to stick around for very long. I’ve made websites since the early days of the Web — mostly offline now; put huge efforts into live video performances at music events —perhaps a few documented on VHS cassettes in a storage unit; made little experimental software-art curiosities — most have since stopped working; designed printed things — faded and discarded; whole companies — now just a line in a CV.

I think of all of these creations as ephemeralds, a lovely word coined by Patrick Bergel in a throwaway tweet that I’ve since latched onto. Beautiful, fleeting creations that are for a brief moment the focus of our creative efforts before they eventually evaporate.

Hokusai achieved something that very few artists will ever manage — he created one of the most recognised images in history, alongside the likes of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and the cave paintings at Chauvet. The exact opposite of an ephemerald.

This year we’ve lost many prominent creative people who are likely to achieve similar cultural permanence, and in coming years I am sure this will continue. I think we’re noticing more this year because the current two or three generations have perhaps a wider cultural pantheon than at any point in history.

I suspect that the online world will increasingly become a place for collective mourning of the creative and cultural icons we lose, and I’m sure we’ll soon have to find ways to compartmentalise their stories into a modern day equivalent of the obituary section for our own sanity. Goodness me, I feel like I need it! Opening the Twitter app in the morning can sometimes feel like opening an envelope that turns out to be an invitation to a funeral.

Today, reading about Hokusai made me pause and think a little about how we collectively measure a creative life at its end. Hokusai painted The Great Wave of Kanagawa when he was in his seventies after years and years of work creating other less-well-known images — his ephemeralds. With each one, he was honing his skill and understanding.

If you’re feeling like so far in life, very little of what you’ve made has really stuck around, perhaps take a moment to think a little on Hokusai’s message — that no matter our age, there may still be plenty of time to make our unique mark on the world, however temporary.

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