Recently, I had a wonderful opportunity to speak on this topic to some amazing aquascapers from all over India at the ADA [Aqua Design Amano] nature aquarium festival, Bangalore. Aquascapers with great passion bring their imagination, craftsmanship, knowledge, patience, care and hope to recreate some beautiful pieces of nature in aquariums, ponds and even small containers. They use materials like plants, rocks, driftwood, sand, substrate, etc., to create them and add fish, shrimps, snails etc to create an ecosystem. They do this just out of their love for nature. Aquascaping is art-making, too.
As a hobby aquascaper myself, I long to fill my eyes with the gift of beauty aquascapes offer. All that is required to enjoy this beauty is to calm down and without any utilitarian goal, focus all my senses to receive what these offer. It is always satisfying, and I never get bored. It is a perpetual novelty. Though you always see something to trim, remove or modify they remain beautiful — not perfect but beautiful. Why are we drawn to these beautiful pieces of nature?
My friend Makoto Fujimura is an amazing person and a respected artist in the contemporary art space all around the world but especially in the US and Japan. He practices a traditional Japanese art form called Nihonga but brings it out in more abstract figurative style.
In his book Culture Care Makoto writes about an incident that occurred early in his career. As a newlywed couple, in 1983, he and his wife Judy began their journey with very little. They had moved to Connecticut so that Judy could pursue her master’s degree in marriage counselling. During that time Makoto taught at a special education school and painted at home. They had a very tight budget and often had to ration food to get through the week while living in a small apartment.
One evening while Mako was sitting alone, waiting for his wife to come home, worrying about how they can afford the rent and pay the bills that weekend. His wife walked in; she was carrying a bouquet of flowers. This really made Makoto upset. “How could you think of buying flowers when we can’t even eat?” he said to her. In his book he admits, that her reply has been etched in his heart for over thirty years now. She responded to Makoto’s frustration by saying “We need to feed our souls, too.”
“We need to feed our souls, too.”
Makoto, writes, “that day Judy was the artist: she brought home a bouquet”. Though Judy is not an artist in a typical sense but she carried the heart of an artist. Where as Makoto who was an art practitioner lacked that heart that day. He was preoccupied with worrying about tomorrow. As humans do we need to feed only our bodies? Do we have a soul? Do we need to feed our souls also? If so, what sort of food our soul need?
As an aquascaper you may have brought home a small aquascape that day. It is because you see beauty through these aquascapes, that feeds your soul and the souls of people around you. This is at the heart of an artist. It doesn’t mean that we should not care for material needs. The problem is with our self-centred, materialistic mindset which makes us blind to the beauty that is around. Judy was not carried away by worry, fear, anxiety, despair in spite of the scarcity around, but her care for the soul sustained her with love, goodness, truth and hope.
The problem is with our self-centred, materialistic mindset which makes us blind to the beauty that is around.
So what is this beauty? Beauty is notoriously hard to pin down, and it is often spoken of together with the true and the good. Dallas Willard has even tried to define it as “goodness made manifest to the senses.” Unfortunately if you search for beauty on Google it will show you women in their photoshopped images suggesting that beauty lies in certain fashion or features of their physical appearance. This skin-deep ‘beauty’ is what today’s world talks about. Let’s listen to what C.S.Lewis has to say in his book The weight of glory, “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing, for they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
“Goodness made manifest to the senses.”
All people are beautiful but skin-deep beauty is deceptive and most of the time will betray you and leave you emptier than before. For example, I visited Kodaikanal in 2004. This is a hill station in southern part of India. The best part of it is its beautiful lake. My memories of my time around that lake are so vivid. I had always wanted to visit it again. So we as a family took a trip to Kodai again this month. It was still beautiful. Because of over tourism I did notice some damage but still it is beautiful though not perfect. After the recent visit I read that this lake is highly poisoned with mercury because of the Hindustan Unilever thermometer factory. This factory got closed down in 2001 because of the protest from the locals. But this fact has marred the beauty I discovered. It saddened me. Though the lake still looks as it was and my memories are still vivid, I don’t long to connect with it like I used to. In the trinity Beauty, Good and Truth, if one is lost, the other two are also lost. Lake that is poisoned by human corruption is not good, so it is not beautiful anymore to me. Yet we can still love this lake and work to restore it’s beauty. By the way, we cannot create beauty, it does not come from within us. We can only create things, conditions or experiences where beauty fills in. That is why we call something beautiful. Something that is full of beauty. That is why Lewis tell us that beauty is not located in the things. It only comes through them. Beauty is transcendent.
You may say, ok Mark, our world is losing this beauty everyday but, can’t we move on without it and just survive? Fortunately you are wired to long for it. Again C.S.Lewis puts it so well “We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” This reminds you of Blaise Pascal who once said “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator.”
Why do we long for something beautiful? Why do we as humans long to create beautiful things? What inspires you as an aquascaper to create those beautiful aquascapes? Why are you drawn to beauty? We long for beauty because we have a soul that feeds on it. It not only feeds our soul but it ultimately unites us to the source of beauty who is our creator. Our world is broken because we cut our souls off from ourselves everyday. We try to ignore its longings. We shy away from the longing to be united with this source of beauty, our creator. Like Makoto, we get frustrated in our pursuit to feed our soulless bodies because our hungers are not just physical, our soul is still starving with in. Like Judy we need to revive our soul with beauty that can unites us with our creator who will fill us with love, goodness, hope etc.
Like Makoto, we get frustrated in our pursuit to feed our soulless bodies because our hungers are not just physical, our soul is still starving with in.
Beauty is a gratuitous gift of the creator God. A fuller understanding of beauty begins with the recognition that God does not need us, or the creation. God, out of his gratuitous love, created a world he did not need because he is an artist. So as an aquascape artist, or any artist. Don’t shy away from beauty that is calling you, and demanding your response. Be ready to encounter it, contemplate on it. After discovering this gift, receive it , let it feed you, care for it, make more of it, that people around you may also discover. As Judy brought home a bouquet, we too should carry beauty to our broken world. Create opportunities to take your beautiful aquascapes to hospitals, rehab centers, schools, public places where they are least expected, so that you may help others discover beauty they needed. This is your calling as an artist. This demands your honesty, care and sacrifice. Then this beauty will lead us as individuals and communities, from our brokenness to forgiveness, healing, wholeness, and flourishing.