Visualising the elements

Each of us brings a unique perspective to the elements based on our personal experiences, upbringing and interests. Recently I have met Corinne Costello, an artist who has opened my eyes to new ways of seeing, feeling and interpreting these fundamental building blocks of nature. I have been intending to write a post on how artists see, express and work with the elements for some time. That time has come. It has been greatly enriched with Corinne’s input.

I love the vibrancy and spontenaity of this painting by Corinne Costello. It is based on the mythology of Aphrodite and the practice of Zen in the studio. Corinne sees painting as circular in nature, a process that evolved until there is no dichotomy of content and form. Source: corinnecostello.com.

I love the vibrancy and spontaneity of this creation by Corinne Costello. It is based on the mythology of Aphrodite and the practice of Zen in the studio. Corinne sees painting as circular in nature, a process that evolves until there is no dichotomy of content and form. The interplay of water and colour lends itself to portraying the elements, as with this painting of the ‘dew of the sea’.  Source: corinnecostello.com.

The elements have inspired artists since art – defined as the production of works appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power – began. Once you start to explore, the connections between artists and the elements are vast. The original idea I had for my post was to focus on JMW Turner as an exemplar of the visual arts, a British painter who so beautifully captured the different moods of the sky, sea and land. Around five years ago an exhibition titled ‘Turner and the Elements’ was held in various venues across Europe. One review of the exhibition noted how Turner was fascinated by the interactions between the elements, creating unusual, frequently dramatic combinations of air, earth, fire, water. To this I would add spirit. Once seen, his portrayals of these ephemeral scenes stay with you forever. His ability to create these atmospheric works with oil and colour is impressive.

I have read that JMW Turner had a 'nature first' policy when naming his paintings. I like that! This one is called 'Rain, steam and speed: the Great Western Railway.' It was painted in 1844 and illustrates that 'The Sublime' (see text below) was not longer confined to natural phenomena. Source: Wikipedia commons.

I have read that JMW Turner had a ‘nature first’ policy when naming his paintings. I like that! This one is titled  ‘Rain, steam and speed: the Great Western Railway.’ It was painted in 1844 and illustrates his mastery of the elements. Source: Wikipedia commons.

Another attraction of Turner is his connection with Tasmania, where I live. Tony Smibert, a highly acclaimed watercolour artist and Aikido Shihan based in northern Tasmania, is a leading expert in Turner’s painting techniques. Tony’s own creations reflect eastern and western traditions and have a deep engagement with nature. On his website, he refers to this engagement as The Sublime, an approach  which many European artists such as Turner were noted for during the first part of the 19th century. As nature and the elements are one, Tony’s paintings have a strong elemental presence. The fact that they are also embued with the energy that comes from his practice of Aikido, another art strongly related to the elements, adds an extra dimension.

An eye-catching watercolour by Tony Smibert that captures the elements of earth, air and clouds (suspended water droplets) beautifully. Source: alchetron.com, The Free Social Encyclopaedia - this has a very good article on Tony's career.

An eye-catching and energetic watercolour by Tony Smibert that beautifully captures the elements of earth, air and clouds (suspended water droplets). Source: alchetron.com, The Free Social Encyclopaedia – this site has a good introductory article about Tony.

Corinne Costello is also based in Tasmania, this time in the south. Not surprisingly she admires and is good friends with Tony Smibert. Her works also draw on eastern and western traditions and is inspired by mythologies, her travels and philosophical concepts such as the Eastern concept of negative space. Since we met, Corinne has introduced me to several new artists whose work captures or works with the elements. Two of them, Lindy Lee and Christine Flint-Sato, add modern interpretations to traditional Chinese and Japanese imagery and techniques. Through Corinne, I was able to meet Christine in Ikoma, near Nara in Japan. Her insights into the elemental materials used in her painting, and the works themselves, opened my eyes to a new world. In a sense she collaborates with her materials, with both partners contributing to the outcome. More can be discovered from Christine’s website, blog, books and many articles.

This ink painting by Christine Flint-Sato in the sumi-e tradition. It is part of a series on vertical landscapes and has a fire theme. This is appropriate as the colour of the ink comes from soot made from burnt pine branches. I was fascinated to learn from Christine that soot comes in different colours. This one is tinged with blue.

This ink painting by Christine Flint-Sato is in the sumi tradition. It is part of a series on vertical landscapes and has a fire theme. This is appropriate as the colour of the ink comes from soot made from burnt pine branches and oils from other plants (see Christine’s contribution in the comments below). It has been referred to as a living ink. I was fascinated to learn from Christine that soot comes in different colours. This one is tinged with blue.

Another artist that Corinne has introduced me to is Bill Viola. His work on the elements is in another sphere. Some may find his video installation titled ‘Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)’ makes them feel uneasy. Published on YouTube on 22nd Aug 2015, the piece sets the Christian notion of martyrdom against the concept of the four elements. I found it mesmerising. The video comes with music by MUSE. Originally it seems that the installation was silent. One of the comments on YouTube said: “Viola has said that the sound of his silent installations also have a sound, and that this sound of silence should be thought of as the “soundtrack” per say of the piece.” Watching the video in silence or with the accompanying music provides very different experiences, in my experience. It demonstrates the importance of sound in how we react and respond to art.

I majored in art at high school, where art theory and practice were my highest scoring subjects in the final year. That was over 35 years ago. From high school I trained as a scientist which has been my career ever since. I have always had an interest in art, particularly as a way to communicate messages about the environment. Currently my artistic expression is through photography. I find it lends itself to depicting the elements at a range of scales. It is also an art form that can be shared instantly through the internet and social media. Two friends who constantly share their wonderful images of nature and the elements on FaceBook are Gaylene Norton and Bill Roberts. They use professional cameras. 🙂 I believe that being exposed to beauty on a regular basis like this helps calm your mind and enrich your soul.

I captured this sunset image from the window of a small plane travelling from Melbourne to Devonport, Tasmania with an iPhone. It is one of my favourite photographs. Most of the images in this blog were taken by me. I really enjoy the process of selecting the composition of the picture and the story you are trying to tell.

I captured this sunset image with an iPhone from the window of a small plane travelling from Melbourne to Devonport, Tasmania. It is one of my favourite photographs. Most of the images in this blog are mine. I enjoy immensely the process of selecting the composition and the story you want to convey.

While I dabble in art I have not delved into the theory behind it since high school – having focused on science related concepts and literature instead. As well as introducing me to new artists, Corinne has provided insights into the deeper meaning and philosophies that underpin art that represents or is inspired by the elements. Many of the artists in this post have been influenced by eastern traditions and philosophies such as Zen. The media they use is diverse. Here I would also like to direct people to Lesley Kehoe’s gallery and website. The Japanese artists she represents are masters of beauty and form. Thoughtful and thought-provoking essays and videos can be found on the galleries website. They have taught me much about the connection between artists and the elements, and the passion, skills and energy that the artists bring to their creations.

The most recent exhibition held at the Lesley Kehoe Gallery in Melbourne explored the impact of the smartphone on a viewers experience of the energy of artworks. It included a selection of diverse works that are accompanied by a series of thought-provoking essays about the art and its creation are available on-line. These and other essays written by Lesley have given deeper meaning to the connection between artists and the materials they work with.

The guiding philosophy of Lesley Kehoe Galleries is to create an environment of beauty, one that indulges the senses, provokes the intellect, and stirs the heart. The most recent exhibition held in Melbourne explored the impact of the smartphone on a viewers experience of the energy of artworks. It included a selection of diverse works by Japanese artists. The exhibition was accompanied by a series of essays about the art and its creation that are available on-line. Many of the perceptive stories that Lesley tells in these and other essays and videos are related to the elements. I always learn something from engaging with them.

When representing the elements, other artists take their inspiration from artistic traditions and schools of thought outside of the Asian realm. They may be drawn, for example, to the Impressionists of Europe or the Inuit artists from Canada. Or Turner. Whatever the influences are, all artists draw on their own experiences. With a renewed interest in the theory and practice of art in a way I am coming full circle, with some other skills added. So thanks goes to Corinne for rekindling these interests.

As noted, how artists see, express and work with the elements is a vast subject. I have previously written about artists working with clay (earth) and wind, water and sun. These posts presented the beauty, materials and innovation of the work. In future I plan to include posts that are written by artists themselves so that their elemental works can be explored, appreciated and enjoyed in greater depth.

10 thoughts on “Visualising the elements

  1. Thanks Jann for including mention of myself and my photography. As always, I love reading your words (a “painting” of thoughts and text to inspire people). I love these words of your text from above… “I believe that being exposed to beauty on a regular basis like this helps calm your mind and enrich your soul”. I love seeing new vistas – new interpretations of a vista and of anything…it is thought provoking, and is also a calming influence whilst I work out my understanding of what I see. I love viewing differing art too – some just “grabs” my attention, other art doesn’t “connect” with me, yet so many forms of artistic interpretations are so special. There is an artist on the west coast of Tasmania, Annette Van Betlehem, who has very inspiring work…a different style to what I’ve seen before but is has impact on my senses.

    • My pleasure Gaylene. Your love of nature shines through in your photographs and commentary. As you say, beauty is all around us – even in the smallest of things. Even if people don’t realise it, seeing your images on a regular basis would enrich their day. By the way, thanks for reading my posts. I appreciate it. 🙂

  2. This is superb writing, I have referred it to my friend Lydia who runs a worldwide dancing modality called Dancing freedom. Who dance a five elements cycle as they add ether as the fifth element. Shared with my 4,500 Facebook peeps. I am very proud of you.

    • Thanks Rod. I’m pleased that you like the post. Ether is the fifth element in the Indian/Buddhist system as you know. You could say that visual artists represent it in their works, even if it is unknowingly. Dancing is another topic I would like to cover in relation to the elements, so I will put your friend’s name against that one. While I’ve been based in Japan I’ve been focusing on the complementary blog ‘elementaljapan.com’, so the frequency of posts on the ‘mother blog’ (fireupwaterdown.com) has decreased of late. That’s OK, the different elemental stories will be shared when the time is right.

  3. Thank you for introducing us to these artists, I have enjoyed exploring their websites to view their artwork and to discover something of their philosophies and influences. I was particularly interested in how they combine the influences from their lives and experiences with their own expression. I also love that many have connections with Tasmania! The ability to express one’s view of the world is precious, as is the opportunity to appreciate the efforts of others.

    • The connections with Tasmania are a nice touch. There are many talented artists on that small island. I’m pleased that people, including yourself, have found the artists of interest and followed up their work. I know that each of them is driven by a passion to create works of beauty and share them with others.

  4. Thank you for mentioning my work and website Jann. You’ve interwoven your experiences and observations really beautifully. I look forward to seeing you and Corinne in the Autumn. One point about the soot – nowadays it’s usually made from burning different kinds of oil – often from plants.

    • Thank-you Christine for the information about different plants being used now to make the soot. My understanding is that pine branches are still used by the traditional craftspeople. Is that so? The important connection here is the burning component that links the material used to the fire theme of the image. I look forward to exploring such topics further when we meet again later in the year. I have a lot to learn!

  5. There are only a couple of places in Japan which use soot from burning pine trees in Japan now. It died out as it is a very inefficient way to make soot and also because of the lack of red pines – pine wilt disease devastated the pine population. One of the reasons they used it was the beautiful tints that were produced – alot of other material got burnt with the wood. Burning plant oil for soot is also a traditional method. It originated in the shrines in Nara when they needed alot of ink for sutra writing. Nowadays most commonly used sumi ink sticks are made from soot from burning industrially produced oil. Fire is central to making sumi ink. And then when reconstituting the sumi stick into ink you need water – an essential fire/water combination.

    • Thanks Christine, That’s a very useful addition to the post. I appreciate you taking the time to respond. Fire and water, my favourite combination. Although I do like all of the elements!

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