ANNUNCIATION TRIPTYCH  oil on canvas  2002 – 2012

This image combines three paintings arranged in the form of an altarpiece. They are part of a series started in 2002 in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, and look in particular at the destruction of cities by air war.

In 1937, air war against cities first entered public consciousness in a series of sensational events: the destruction of Guernica on April 26, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, and in August of that year the bombing of Shanghai, and then Nanking and other cities in China. By 1941, bombardment of civilian populations in cities had become an accepted method of war. Now the levels of attainable destruction are beyond description.

One of the difficulties of making imagery that reaches into this subject is that the event itself is to a large degree unseeable, or almost entirely unseen. Miles of collapsed concrete and rubble are evidence of something that was there before, like a scan after life has gone. Today the threat of future use is low-grade terror, invisible to our senses, again beyond our powers of giving it a shape. The weapons themselves are portrayed as beautiful and fetishized.

Historical memory about the recent past has been reticent. While detailed and accurate accounts of the area bombing campaigns of the German cities and the firebombing of cities in Japan are available, the subject remains politically contested and the central issue of ethics is, in the main, still a matter of silence. Even Guernica, in its tapestry version displayed outside the Security Council in New York, was covered over with a blue shroud in early February 2003.1 It was deemed an unacceptable and shame-making visual background for television interviews, in the last months before the attack on Iraq.

In September 2002, I bought a map of Baghdad. Descending in a diagonal though the city was the Tigris River, a series of loops and bends. On the map the ancient river was coloured bright blue. I have never been to Baghdad. But I have been in other old cities. We always begin with these map-images and then find ourselves on the ground, peering at the folded paper, filling in the empty spaces with our re-traced steps, astonished as we apprehend the scale and complexity of districts and lanes. Later I read a description of the city given by an English traveller in the 1930s. She wrote that the river is “lion-coloured, like the Tiber or Arno. Its broad flowing surface is dyed by the same earth of which the houses and minarets on its banks are built…”2

I began Annunciation in 2002, starting with the shape and colour of the river. I put in bridges across the Tigris wherever I thought they should be. I thought of them as bracelets on the arm of a beautiful human figure. I painted the city by inventing neighbourhoods and folding the densely inhabited spaces around each other, like the marks of calligraphy.

In imagining this city on the ground, I borrowed from other cities where I have been. Wooden gates lead into courtyards, doorways painted blue, green, or red. In the interior where gates were left open I could see curtains of glorious colours that separate the inner world from the street; a shaft of natural light in a garden; the trunk of an old tree, a pot of flowers.

Parts on the upper right side of Landscape with Fighter-Bomber are drawn from another place, a town south of the glaciers of the Tian Shan in Chinese Central Asia, in a market where a small bridge crossed a riverbed. The riverbed was almost dry, but down the side closest to me a shallow rivulet of water had gathered in a series of pools. A donkey pulling a cart had crossed the almost dry bed, and stopped to drink. Along the edge of the pools boys were playing in the mud, building dams and floating pieces of wood. A crowd of girls about the same age, about ten to twelve years old, were promenading in a circle around the boys, who ignored them. Women were washing clothing on the boulders. I rested by the bridge and began to draw. I took that river and put it in this painting down the right hand side. In the upper-right, across a small bridge, I painted some fruit trees. I put the fighter-bomber above on the left, and down below the shadow of it moving across the ground.

We know something of paradise gardens: the Garden of Eden, or the mythical gardens in the Metamorphoses where there is always a stream, a meadow, trees that give shade. In Dante’s Purgatorio, the garden of earthly paradise is located at the top of a mountain, high above the disturbances of weather. These gardens are in the background of 14th and 15th century paintings in Italy, and in Persian and Mughal miniatures – protected places, often enclosed by walls. Strangely for us, the Garden of Eden in Milton’s Paradise Lost is situated in Mesopotamia, where the Tigris River is described flowing southward.

An evocation of the earth as a protecting place is found in the Aeneid, when during their hazardous escape by sea after the destruction of Troy, Aeneas and his exhausted companions go ashore on a beach to rest: “At last we lay down by the waves of the sea in the lap of earth”.

But the garden sanctuary is not always inviolable.

The essay Hiroshima, first published in the New Yorker in 1946, records how the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima thousands of civilians sought refuge by the river in Asano Park among the pines, maples and laurel, to escape the fire. There was “an atavistic urge to hide under leaves”.3

W.G. Sebald in The Natural History of Destruction describes how trees and plants quickly grew up in the rubble of the German cities after the air raids, as if forests might completely cover the ruins. He refers specifically to Hamburg and Cologne.4

We are confronted with two currents, which are logically incompatible. One current is the irrefutable presence of annihilating destruction that hovers over the earth.

We have only fragments of information about annihilation, and whether it may be complete or partial, perhaps limited to one people, or a few cities at a time. There are eight nuclear armed states, which in addition hold conventional weapons with destructive force equivalent to tactical nuclear weapons. Their planning is covered by secrecy. In 1996, an influential article called “Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance” was published in the United States.5 It addressed the conundrum of modern weapons: notwithstanding their massive destructive power, their effectiveness as instruments of control is limited in coercing the great mass of an adversary’s population. Even after an adversary’s regular military formations are destroyed in successful “force on force” attacks, there can still be “societal resistance” – for example prolonged insurgencies of the kind that characterized the Vietnam war and, as it turned out, the war in Iraq after the invasion in 2003. According to the authors, effective military strategy must break the will of the civilians, not just eliminate military targets. The article declared that the objective of military action should be “collapsing the will to resist” of an entire society, either by “delivery of instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of destruction directing at influencing society writ large …” or by “a kind of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in slow motion and with conventional munitions”, or by more selective application of force. One option is “massive destruction against purely civilian targets such as the firebombing of Tokyo”. In a subsequent 2010 publication, the lead author of the original document expanded on the central idea of shock and awe, which is the name given to designate this strategy and the various methods aimed to break the will to resist of an entire society:

“In our usage, shock means the ability to intimidate, perhaps absolutely; to impose overwhelming fear, terror, vulnerability, and inevitability of destruction or rapid defeat; and to create in the mind of the adversary impotence, panic, hopelessness, paralysis, and the psychological incentives leading to capitulation”.

This hopelessness and terror does not just impact the targeted adversary. Like a current it infiltrates into the lives of everybody. It is calculated to make us turn away, to cut out our tongues, to retreat within ourselves.

But the other current, a much older current, gathers together those very beliefs and myths we have about gardens and our notions that the earth will protect us. That is our inheritance of several thousand years. We carry it with us.

Images fashioned from stories of the ideal landscape (the walled garden) should in principle carry no conviction, even as metaphor, in light of our new knowledge of destruction. And yet the old stories built around the topography of the earth still open our minds to experience wonder, or awe, at the complex structures of the natural world, its rivers, forests, and the lives inhabiting them. Martha Nussbaum explores the close association between our emotions of wonder, and of compassion, in Upheavels of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, where she develops the argument that emotions are part of our system of ethical reasoning.6 Wonder plays an important role “in marking the world for our concern, and thence in directing our attention to the sufferings of its members”.

The images of the paradise garden, even deprived of their protective magic, still illuminate the richness and fecundity of the earth, and take us outside our own skins. Painting is much dependent on surfaces, touch, and reaching across the boundaries between our bodies and the physical earth. It allows a world where we can envision that we are in the lap of the earth, where a bridge on an ancient river is a bracelet.


Two recent examinations of the history and ethics of area bombing and adoption of the policy of targeting civilian populations are John W. Dower, Cultures of War, Norton / The New Press, London and New York, 2010; and A.C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities, Walker, New York, 2006. The chapter “Protection of Civilians” in Michael Byers, War Law, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto, 2005, includes a discussion of international humanitarian law and the conduct of the Iraq war, including Fallujah in 2004. Air bombings before 1937 that indiscriminately targeted civilian populations are Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-1936 and Japan’s attack on Shanghai’s Chapei district in 1932. Aircraft were used in European colonial repressions in the inter-war years, including Britain in Iraq in the 1920s and France in Syria and Morocco.

A measure of the compartmentalization of this subject in Canada is that the only recent large-scale public airing of these issues was not in connection with any contemporary event, but arose out of the language of an 85-word text printed on a wall-panel at the Canadian War Museum as part of an exhibition inaugurated in 2005, which dealt with the 1941-1945 bomber offensive against Germany. A vehement public controversy about whether the text should be altered lasted until 2007. The June 2007 Interim Report of the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence described the controversy as “an unneeded public spectacle” and concluded that the Museum “will want to consider alternate ways” of presenting the history of the bombing. In the end the text was altered.

1 Picasso’s tapestry of Guernica shrouded in February 2003: Gils van Hensbergen. Guernica, The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon (London, Bloomsbury, 2004), p.1; New York Times, February 5, 2003; The Toronto Star, February 9, 2003. The painting itself was originally exhibited in the Spanish pavilion at the Paris International Exposition in July, 1937, less than three months after the attack on the Spanish city.

2 “lion coloured like the Tiber or Arno”: Freya Stark, Baghdad Sketches, 1938.

3 An “atavistic urge to hide under trees”: John Hersey, Hiroshima, first published in The New Yorker in 1946.

4 W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction, Knopf Canada, 2003, pages 39-40.

5 Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade and others, Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, National Defence University, 1996. The authors were a group of former senior military officers and civilian defence officials. Donald Rumsfeld joined the group as an observer before he assumed the post of Secretary of Defence in the Administration that planned the invasion of Iraq. The subsequent article is Harlan K. Ullman, “Shock and Awe a Decade and a Half Later: Still Relevant and Misunderstood”, Prism 2, No 1 December, 2010, National Defence University.

6 Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 321-322.


The Blue Table

THE BLUE TABLE   40″ x 30″   2012

The physical space and the objects that figure in this painting go back almost 40 years. It is the interior of a room on the ground floor of an old apartment where I lived in 1974. A low, round blue table is set close to a row of windows, though only one frame of the windows can be seen. The other windows extend to the right, where a canvas blind is drawn down and can be partly seen. On the table is a red porcelain brush washer – or at least it is red on the visible side. On the other side it is celadon green and has the rounded shape of an apple with a wide mouth on the top. I bought it in Singapore in 1967 or 1968. To the left of the brush washer is a cylindrical pink object, a container made of silver wire that was used to hold fruit. Standing some distance behind the brushwasher is an empty picture frame, which may have contained a blank piece of paper – or possibly it was a small mirror, although if it was a mirror it was never given any reflection.

There is some uncertainty in my mind about the exact arrangement of the table. When I lived in the apartment I made numerous drawings looking out these windows and a number of the blue table. In the years afterwards I would use the old drawings as a source for a new painting, but rearranged the objects and added things. A recent version was done in 1997. This painting was begun in September 2011.

On the surface of the blue table, running underneath the brush washer, there is a large sheet of drawing paper with a branch of a flower or tree, probably done with brush and ink. The image of the branch might alternatively be a shadow, a band of light coming across the table and a shadow cast by a cutting on the window sill. There was in fact a glass jar on the window sill which is shown in this painting, with a long stalk and buds or pods of seeds running upwards towards the ceiling. But from the alignment of the window and the table, it is impossible that this shadow on the table could be coming from that branch in the window. In any case the window looked out to the north-east and it could not have cast a shadow like this. Perhaps originally there was a shadow of some kind on the table, but I think most likely it was invented when the original drawing was done.

Directly behind all this is a radiator of the old kind for hot water heating. The apartment was built in 1917. Sitting on a shelf above the radiator, to the left, is a ceramic bowl with green glaze. It was purchased from a young Japanese potter who, in the early 1970s, had his studio on Powell Street, in Vancouver. After a time he returned to live in Japan.

There can be something playful about a painting. Not a deliberate, calculated playfulness that seeks to create illusions or trick other people, but a playfulness that is a method of questioning – like a child who looks into her reflection in the water, and pokes it with a stick. I am not attempting here to say what, if anything, these paint-marks might mean to a viewer. I am offering only my observation on the experience of a painter, that is, of a person who does these things over a long period of time with a brush in his hand, looking out at the world (into a room or at a table covered with objects). Across the top of the blue table is the shadow of a branch, or it could be a drawing of a branch. The patch on the table could be reflected light from a window, or it could be a large sheet of paper. It might be nothing more than an invented shadow, a fabrication, prompted by the convenient fact that there was already a real branch in a jar on the window sill. And it is obvious, too, that it is none of those things, it is just brushstrokes of paint on the surface of canvas. That low-key ambiguity – maybe it can be this, maybe it can be that, maybe it is nothing at all – is then slightly amplified, made more insistent, by the presence of the empty picture frame – or mirror – which is the blank rectangle behind the brush washer. Like any empty space in a painting, it cools down the activity, it intrudes as a place of calm or silence. In a low-key way it might also raise doubts: why does this scene not enter into that blank space? why are these objects not capable of being reflected on that surface? is something more going to be drawn there, will there be another scene within this one? And then in the centre stands the brush washer and a brush, which might be saying: this whole world of objects flows from the brush. For a painter the prolonged activity of looking reinforces the intuition that none of these things is fixed, that they are like “a star at dawn, a bubble in the stream”.1


This painting was used as the cover art for a book, an anthology of poetry titled The Best of Every Day Poets Two (Every Day Publishing, 2012).

1 “a star at dawn, a bubble in the stream”: from The Diamond Sutra.


APPLE TREE (PRUNED)  30″ x 24″  2010

An old apple tree grows in the garden across the fence, next door to where I live. The tree is close to my studio which is on a lane that runs behind the houses. Some distance back from the tree there is, or there was, an old garage, painted blue.

The house has always been rented. None of the tenants have ever cared for the tree or gathered the apples. Over the twenty years that I have lived on my side of the fence, the tree was never pruned. It became densely tangled with branches. In the summers a gardener would come in his truck once every few weeks and cut the grass under the tree. When the apples fell he swept them up.

One day, early in the spring the year before I made this painting, I looked through the fence and saw that almost all of the upper branches of the tree, a forest of wood, had vanished. On the ground below, like a reversal of nature, all of the branches that had been the apple tree were now laid out on the ground, detached from the tree, spectacular limbs cleanly cut at one end, reaching out across the ground in subtle arches, spreading and multiplying from one joint to another.

The pruning had happened earlier that day. The gardener had departed leaving the scene as I found it. I stood on the back steps of my house balancing a heavy drawing board and drew this scene with pencil. The long contours of the branches scattered across the grass was an inescapable subject for a drawing of lines.

Almost a year later, in February of 2010, I began this painting, working from the drawing. By chance shortly after I completed the painting the blue garage was demolished. I happened to look out just as the end wall, the one partly visible in the painting, was collapsing under the blows of a front end loader. Now after two more years the apple tree has grown back with a wild mass of new branches, all shooting upwards. This summer it was weighed down with masses of fruit. The tenants still do not gather the apples. By August the gardener, a new gardener, could be seen seen collecting them from the grass with his rake.


MEGIN RIVER  36″ x 36″  2011

The Megin River reaches the ocean on Shelter Inlet, at a place where the sea reaches twelve miles back from the open Pacific, turning around the north side of Flores island. The river comes out between two massive shoulders of rock, disguised under the forest.

If you arrive there close to the time of the high tide, it is possible to paddle effortlessly into the forest and float upriver on the high water, until you reach the first broad sweep of gravel bars that mark the upper limit of the tidal water. At high tide the water percolates back into the lower reaches of the cedar forest in hundreds of little marshes and channels. Back from the shore, cedars eight hundred years old reach upward from a floor of ferns and moss.

The water level here rises and falls twelve feet or more within the tidal cycle, about every six hours. At low tide the entrance appears as a deep cleft between the rocks, running fast but still deep enough that the ocean seems to connected to the dark of the forest. When the tide is at its height the entrance rocks are partly submerged. The entry becomes wider and absolutely calm, slowing the outflowing current.

I first came to the mouth of the Megin about twenty years ago. It is an unusual river because the estuary and up-river valley have never been logged. I had read about the Megin in a book written by Mark Hume in 1991, which included an essay about the river. Thirty years ago there was public opposition to the proposed clear-cut logging of the river valley which in 1985 culminated in demonstrations at Sulpher Passage – across the water from the mouth of the river. The Provincial Government eventually stopped all logging in the valley. I made a trip to the Megin by kayak in 1994. We spent a night at Ahousat and paddled north from there. By chance we arrived at the mouth of the Megin at high tide, and so we glided into the lower part of the valley.

I went back to the river in 2011, again by kayak. We came around the north-west side of Flora Island, and east down Shelter Inlet. Before this recent trip I found a small guidebook which mentions the Megin. It cautioned that at the mouth of the river on the low tide, “the outflow may deny entry”. We approached the vicinity of the mouth of the Megan in late afternoon. It took some time looking up and down the shoreline before we could locate the entranceway.

Just inside the entrance, an islet of tangled forest appeared to block the way – a stand of ancient growth with broken limbs from winter storms, and other giant trees uprooted with massive, intricate mazes of roots facing the sky, and logs washed down the river on the spring high water cast up into gravel banks. The bed of the river turns sharply to the right.

High tide was not due until the early evening. We took our boats in between the rocks at the entrance, believing that because the tide only had another hour and a half to go, we might be able to make our way upstream. But the river was coming out of the forest and around the corner with a strong, smooth sweep. When we turned the corner we were stopped by the current.

On the left side of the entrance the river curled into a kind of cu-de-sac, a tidal marsh bounded by sea grass, reeds and thickets of spiny trees. The dark pool led back into the forest and appeared to circle the central islet on a floodplain, but we could not penetrate the watery forest. For a while our boats slowly circled in the current. Massive cedar roots looped down the banks.

We turned and rode the current back out into Shelter Inlet. Although the weather was good, night was coming. We found a beach on the outer shore.

The next morning the tide was too low to get back into the river by boat. Instead we walked into the valley by crossing a neck of land on the east side of the entrance that separates the outer shore from the path of the river. The land around the entrance is First Nations territory, a summer fishing site. It is a place of great beauty, the inlet on one side and the river valley on the other. You can see newer growth that has overgrown former meadows, making a brighter green of leafy trees. Vines, nettles, thorns and thickets of salal close around a footpath from the beach to the river. The path was steep, pitching uphill and down and crawling over fallen trees. After crossing this little isthmus, we had to make our way through the water below a stretch of the riverbank that was impenetrable because of steep banks and heavy branches dragged downriver by the tumultuous spring flow of the river. To get around those obstacles we waded a few hundred yards, up to our waists stepping around the boulders and along the pebble and sandy bottom.

We walked all day up the river valley, passing along the gravel shore and wading across the lips of shallow rapids that separate the long, deep pools. At the crossing points the strong current, clear as sunlight, curled around our knees. In its run from Megin Lake to the sea, a distance of about ten kilometres, the river drops only twenty metres. It is a subtle and gentle descent. Above Megin Lake, it is gathered in creeks that come down from the mountains, from rainfall and the snowfields.

At the end of that day when we returned to the mouth of the river, the tide again was high. It was so high that for the last quarter mile we found our wading path along the bed of the river too deeply submerged. We swam into the river and floated down the current until it carried us to the smooth rocks at the entrance.


Mark Hume, The Run of the River: Portraits of eleven British Columbia rivers, New Star Books, Vancouver, 1992.


BLACK POPPIES  brush and ink on paper  28″ x 20″  1996

This is a short essay on Zhiyong, who was one of the great masters of Chinese calligraphy. He lived about CE 540 – 609. I am an admirer of the art of calligraphy, based on the forms of the Chinese characters and done with brush and black ink. I write here about one artist-calligrapher and the way he used his brush – something that can be of interest to any painter.

Zhiyong’s brush-line is sensuous, slow in cadence, and very sculptural.

His vertical strokes are often heavier and thicker than his horizontal lines, and sometimes very full and rounded – giving a weighted, almost over-ripe motif that runs through the entire composition. That is a reflection of the way he worked with his brush, achieved by pressing the brush down more on the vertical – and drawing a finer line on the horizontal. He was bold and original in his use of lu feng – which means “revealed” or exposed brush tip – a technique which describes the way, at the start of a brush stroke moving from left to right (or moving vertically from the top of the stroke downwards), he brings his brush tip down onto the paper and goes directly into executing the line, without any hesitation or reverse stroke of the brush at the start. His strokes begin with a sharp, almost knife-like cut and then becomes thicker and heaviier as the brush moves down or to the right.

The characters chuan (river) and liu (flow) in cursive script (left) and regular script (right), by the 7th century calligrapher Zhiyong.

This characteristic “revealed brush tip” of Zhiyong contrasts with what was then the more conventional technique, called hui feng or “concealed tip”. In the case of hui feng, at the moment of beginning a stroke the calligrapher makes a slight counter-move in the opposite direction, which has the effect of folding-over the hairs at the brush tip before they are drawn to the right. The technique of concealed brush tip creates a more rounded, heavier starting point in a brush mark. These are exceedingly fine differences in the methods of brush-handling. But that is the subtlety of this art. Zhiyong’s brush-strokes begin with a sharp, clean line. At the end of the stroke his lines are usually quite rounded and even plump, an effect that is achieved by almost lying down the brush on its side so that the oval stomach of the brush engages the paper.

There is a trace of archaic form in Zhiyong’s style. His diagonal, upper-left to lower-right strokes (the na stroke) flare out to a broad, rounded shape in the lower right – like a dragonfly’s wing. In this exaggerated broadening of the diagonal stroke, Zhiyong echoes earlier styles, especially the elegant clerical script with its blade-like strokes.

Zhiyong’s character huo (fire) in both cursive and regular script.

This pendulous diagonal was a feature of sutra script, a distinctive brush style of monk-calligraphers, most of them anonymous, who copied out the Buddhist scriptures translated from Sanscrit into Chinese. Collections of sutra script from the 3rd century and after have been found at Dunhuang and other Buddhist monastic sites in central Asia, along the trade routes from India to China. The archaic flavour in Zhiyong’s brush work reflects the fact that he worked at a transitional moment in the late 6th – early 7th century, a generation before the Tang court at the capital in Changan created an academy of scholarship that fashioned a more standardized calligraphic style.

Zhiyong was a minor official and Buddhist monk who lived between 540 and 609 at Changan – now the city of Xian – in the western interior of China. A period of political fragmentation was then coming to an end. The new Tang dynasty (CE 618-906) unified the empire, and soon expanded Chinese military domination into Central Asia. Buddhism from India, and trade and travel and Sanscrit texts, would create at the capital of Changan a cosmopolitan city with a population of a million people. With the accumulation of new wealth and new ideas, the second emperor of the Tang, Taizong (598-649) became a patron of learning and the arts.

Zhiyong left an exceptional work, famous in the history of calligraphy, which I found in a cheap printed reproduction in Vancouver long before I first travelled to China. It is called the “Thousand Character Essay” – the Qian Zi Wen. This composition consists of one thousand different characters, which Zhiyong executed in two versions, arranged in parallel columns. One version is in kaishu, or regular script. The other, set opposite the regular script, is a cursive or caoshu rendition of the essay

Zhiyong’s character a (exclamatory expression) in cursive and regular.

The original text of the Thousand Character essay was composed in the middle of the 6th century, when one thousand different characters were copied from a stone inscription of writing done by the 4th century master, Wang Xizhe. A new composition, incorporating the individual characters copied from the 4th century text but re-arranged to create a new work, was designed to have the appearance as if it had been written by the 4th century master himself. Later artists took the famous essay and re-worked it in their own style. Zhiyong’s version of the Thousand Character essay was therefore created from an existing work, which already had a convoluted history of copying. Zhiyong re-wrote it in his own style – although his style echoes in some ways the graceful brush-strokes of his 4th century predecessor.

Zhiyong is said to have brushed six hundred ink-on-paper original versions of the essay. Only a single paper original is said to have survived, and resides in a private collection in Japan – although part of the text is missing. A photographic copy of this paper original can be seen in books. The ink marks are clear, the visible touch of Zhiyong’s brush at the start of each stroke sharp and distinct.

Zhiyong’s ren (benevolence) and ci (kind/loving), again in cursive and regular.

A copy of his original work was engraved on stone. Multiple rubbings could be made from the stone image – like a kind of printing. In the city of Xian in western China in the grounds of the museum known as Beilin there is a tall, grey stone – higher than a man – engraved on its surface with Zhiyong’s Thousand Character Essay. I saw it when I visited Xian in 1996.

In many cases the finest works of calligraphy are known only through copies or ink rubbings. Techniques of copying were highly developed a thousand years ago. Even copies of copies may preserve to a remarkable degree the brush work of the lost originals. In some cases ink rubbings survive but the engraved stones have long been lost.

Chinese calligraphy is exemplary of how human experience in the deep past can be so directly transmitted to us – how the gesture, the touch of the artists’s hand a thousand years ago moves through one material form to another, brush to paper, then paper and cutting tools to stone, and from stone to paper.


Kizil Figure

KIZIL FIGURE   24″ x 18″   2001

In 1999 I travelled by train from Beijing to the far west of China. My main purpose was to see the Buddhist wall paintings at Dunhuang, and the monastic site of Kizil which lies north of the town of Kucha. This essay is a description of my visit to Kizil, where I made some drawings.

The oasis city of Kucha is located on the road that runs along the north side of the Talkamakan Desert, on the way to Kashgar. On my map Kucha was like a small island, coloured green on the pale yellow ground of sand and gravel that runs for a thousand miles to the Pamirs. North from Kucha the road enters foothills of dry rock, a kind of “badlands” of eroded hills. Further north, a hundred miles away, you can see a hazy wall of mountains, the glacier-covered Tian Shan. At altitudes of more than 10,000 feet, the Tian Shan run west to east – a natural barrier between China and the former Russian republics to the north – now Kyrgystan and Kazakhstan.

The highest peak of this line of mountains is Khan Tengri at 23,620 feet, though it was beyond my line of vision. In 629 CE the Buddhist scholar Xuanzang on his way to India came this way, passing around the base of Khan Tengri. He crossed the Tian Shan at the Bedel pass, just north of where I was. He followed the caravan route that led to Samarkand, and then south through what is now Afghanistan. Xuanzang stayed for two months in Kucha, waiting for the heavy snow to clear in the mountain passes.

Melting snow fields and glaciers on the southern flank of the Tian Shan feed fugitive rivers that find their way down into the desert. These rivers eventually are lost in the desert, drying up. Over time the moving sands driven by the winds shift the course of the rivers, so that they leave in their wake dead forests of willow, poplar, and tamarisk.

A painter I met in Urumqi told me that I should go to Kizil, a ruin of Buddhist cave temples. Kizil lies about fifty miles north-west from Kucha – through bare rock foothills and stretches of flat sand. The road north from Kucha followed a clear river tumbling over boulders. We entered a plain of sand that seemed to be as fine as dust. Trucks occasionally passed the other way, enveloping us all in a cloud of yellow haze. The only landmark was the constant band of the Tian Shan, suspended like a curtain along the north horizon.

After an hour heading across this severe landscape the road came down into a deep valley. A smooth-flowing river crossed the floor of the vally, with dark green fields from one end to the other. Along the face of a rocky ledge, on the north side of this natural depression in the earth, are the remains of Kizil, which between the 5th and 8th centuries became one of the great centres of Buddhist visual art in Central Asia. Wall paintings cover the surface of hundreds of chambers cut into the rock cliff. These paintings incorporate Sassanian Persian, Gupta Indian, and Chinese influences, as well as ideas of the human figure drawn from the Graeco-Buddhist art of Gandhara. In India the wall paintings at Ajanta – not far from modern Mumbai – were close in time to Kizil.

Astride the major trade route between the West, India, and China, Kucha drew a cosmopolitan traffic of artists, scholars, and merchants. It was an age of extraordinary infiltration of new idea into Central Asia and China. One remarkable aspect of this flow of ideas was the human figure as a motif in painting. Sometime after about the 10th century – long after the Kizil paintings were completed – the Buddhist tradition in Xinjiang was over-laid and gradually replaced by Islam. Islam became the religion of the oases, as it is today.

The caves at Kizil are reached by climbing a scaffolding of walkways and steep concrete stairs erected along the cliff. I stood inside one of the rock chambers looking out through a small window cut through the thick exterior wall. I could look south down into the valley, across the lanes between the fields to the slow moving surface of the purple-blue river reflecting the sky. I found a painting that I wanted to draw, at my eye level on a wall under a low ceiling. I could stand right in front of it, a foot or two away, and study its chalky colour and clean lines.

The painting showed a figure, head turned and looking down, with left arm raised and right hand held out towards me, palm outwards. The figure was male but androgynous, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. The ground was pale flesh tone. Draped over his shoulders and arms in a rhythmic, circular flow was a turquoise sash. All around were loops and curves of ultramarine blue, including an encircling blue nimbus that showed this was a Bodhisattva – a human who had achieved salvation but, out of compassion, has stayed in this world to help the suffering. Large circular earrings like discs on either side of his neck repeated the circular movement of the painting. A jewelled bracelet traced the contour of his lifted shoulder and forearm. Another long necklace of jewels was draped across his chest and stomach, and pressed against his right hip. The jewels, with their weight and touch against the body, convey the volume and breathing life of the figure. The eyes seem half closed, as if completely at ease, drawn with a few lines. The nose and brow on each side was a single long line. The painted surface around his mouth had been damaged. Despite that surface imperfection, his confident and graceful character was fully revealed in ten or twelve painted strokes.


XIAN MOSQUE GARDEN (detail)   12.5″ x 52.5″   private collection

The above detail is from a long, horizontal painting done between the early morning and late afternoon in a walled garden of a mosque in the city of Xian.

The city of Xian is seven hundred miles inland from the Pacific ocean, situated about half way between China’s coastal provinces and the start of the Central Asian desert that extends to the mountains in the far west – the Kunlun, the Pamirs and the Tian Shan. By the 7th and 8th centuries it was probably the largest city in the world, the eastern terminus of the overland trade routes to India and a center of Buddhist scholarship and translation. Later it became a connecting point to Islam in Central Asia. Today Xian is a city of over eight million people with a sizable Muslim Chinese population.

I went to the grounds of the mosque in June, 1996. Through the gate, a series of park-like gardens unfold to the west, divided by rows of trees, flower gardens, stone paths and and doorways opening through walls. I turned towards the south side of the grounds, where through a shaded passageway in a side building I could see another garden. A small ante-room led into a narrow courtyard built along the south wall of the mosque grounds, around a sunken garden of trees, ferns, cropped bamboo, and pots filled with small blue irises. The wall separated this quiet place from the city outside. From the top of the south wall a tiled roof projected five or six feet back over the garden, supported by a row of timber columns. The effect of this projecting roof, in combination with the adjacent roofs that enclosed the courtyard on all sides, was to shut out the sky except for a long rectangular opening like a cut. Light came down on the leaves moving in the breeze.

The south wall, shaded by the colonnade, was made of textured brick-work, mixing Chinese and Islamic design. Panels of grey stone carved in low relief were set into the wall: one was an image of clouds and mountain peaks, another a graceful phoenix with long tail feathers. Glazed tiles running along the edge of the roof formed a motif of ocean waves, green, salmon pink, and ultramarine.

Every surface was carved and decorated. The wooden panels around the passageway from the main courtyard were made of intricate interlacing circles and squares, so the light was filtered and subdued in the covered hallway. At the base of the wooden panels on either side were more images of mountains and exotic birds. Low down by the floor there was a carving of an ox grazing.

Over a few days I returned to the place several times. I became familiar with the courtyard and the people who came around. I decided to do an ink painting.

I carried a book of Chinese album paper, which is a very long horizontal sheet of cream paper folded into the form of a book. Album paper is the same quality as the fine paper used for painting or calligraphy, but it is sized and lightly mounted on heavier paper underneath. It is very sensitive to ink tones. In this format it can be used as a kind of sketchbook that a painter might take on a journey, putting separate paintings on the adjoining folded sheets, which can be unfolded and laid out as one long surface. One can unfold the sheets and make a painting that runs across many pages.

My plan was to paint as much of the four sides of the courtyard as I could within the day, following the surface of things around – starting with the clay pots filled with irises and the ferns in the center, the columns and brickwork on the south, the end wall facing the west with the phoenix and ocean waves, and the subdued light of the entrance corridor on the north. I began early in the morning, after the shaft of sunlight began to find its way down the inner wall. I laid out my things: a plastic container of ink, a jar of clear water, and a few white ceramic dishes. I poured a pool of ink into one of the plates.

I began with the dark tones of the sunken garden and the curved rims of the multitude of pots, and then the fronds of the dark fern and worked upwards along the stems and leafy branches, which began to catch the light as the mid-morning sun advanced across the sky above the south wall. The disc of the sun by then was just above the rim of the roof tiles, casting a sharp shadow on the ground undulating at the edges where the light traced the round contour of the tiles. I painted the shadow several times that day. It became a wavy black line, each time on a slightly different part of the paper as the shadow cast by the overhanging roof moved across the ground.

I was slowed by interruptions. A handful of pilgrims, Chinese Muslims, introduced themselves, and told me they were from Gansu Province and from Qinghai in the west. They came quietly into the little side courtyard and saw me bent over my unfolding sheet of paper. In Chinese they asked: “Why are you here, what are you doing? Are you Muslim ?” There were several entire families, fathers and mothers and daughters and boys. I told them where I was from: Jianada. There was something about the garden that loosened everybody’s inhibitions. At the end of our conversations several of them wrote out their addresses in far distant towns in the west and asked me to visit them. Qinghai is a vast western province of mountain plateaux that reach south into Tibet.

By mid-day I was painting the decorative brick-work and wooden columns along the south wall. Hours went by. The bricks were variously brown-red, some the colour of wine. Lozenge-shaped bricks were set vertically so that their bevelled ends formed zigzag lines that ran horizontally across the wall. There were diamond-shaped intervals, squares, and diagonals. Lines of rough brick formed irregular, heavily textured surfaces.

The Swiss scholar Titus Burckhart, who wrote about Islamic art and architecture, observed that an artist who wishes to express the “unity of existence” has three means at his disposal: geometry, rhythm, and light. These elements illuminate the unity that breathes through all the rich variety of the physical world. In this small garden-courtyard the craftsmen who created this place made use of all three, and most of all light.

All mosques are aligned in their direction of prayer on Mecca. From Africa, Indonesia, and Central Asia all converge on one place.

While I was in that small rectangular courtyard, as the day went on there was something disorienting about the confined space of the garden, and the way its view was up – and the fact that the sun itself was almost out of sight, just beyond the rim of the roof. I had a sensation that I was not in one particular place on the face of the earth, but I was simply in the world, and that the patch of sky directly above me held every place within close reach. For the believer at prayer, wrote Burckhart, “all distance is momentarily abolished”.

In the early afternoon I moved my vantage point. The sun’s light was moving along the north wall to the west. Beneath the image of the mountain and clouds on the south wall, a table and chair sat in the shade of the colonnade. I had already drawn the table into the painting. I decided to move across the courtyard, where I could sit at the table and lay my ink and plates on top of it. From that position I would be facing towards the north side of the garden, and so could look back through the entrance hall into the main garden. All of that could be done on the paper as it endlessly unfolded to the right.

I was interrupted by one of the gardeners, who had been sweeping the paths and watering. Would I please join the head gardener for tea? I looked anxiously at the advancing shade. I left my paper and brush, and set off following the gardener. He led me to a building near the entranceway, where a man in a gown greeted me. We sat and talked. An hour went by.

When I resumed painting the light had changed again. The garden was falling into darkness, although the intricate carving and decoration on the wooden shutters and doorway on the north side was still lit by the sun. I worked quickly on the entrance hall and doorway. I drew the ox carved on the base of the door panel. All the detail began to disappear. The luminous rectangle of the sky dimmed and the colour in the garden streamed away.


Letter III (Couldn't Hear)

LETTER III (Couldn’t Hear)   36″ x 48″   2007

The painting Letter III (Couldn’t Hear) incorporates parts of a letter written in October of 1937, about two months after the letter-writer witnessed a bombing incident in Shanghai. In the summer of 1937 Japan had resumed its invasion of Chinese territory. There was fighting between Chinese and Japanese soldiers around the city of Shanghai. On August 14, the woman who wrote this letter witnessed bombs falling into the streets near Garden Bridge. The bridge crosses a small tributary called Suzhou Creek just above where it enters into the main channel of the river that cuts through Shanghai. The letter-writer happened to be standing on the river-front near the gate at the entrance to the garden of the British Consulate, very close to the bridge:

I have been out in the garden and at the Bund gate watching the stream of terrified refugees pouring over Garden Bridge – every few minutes they broke into screams & roars and ran, thousands of them – and I asked the N.O. in charge of the guard here (he was staying with us) why they were doing this, and he said bombs were being dropped in Yangtsepo … they bombed a certain building just over the creek and, as I pointed it out to him three Chinese bombers came out of the clouds (they were very low that morning as, to add to the confusion and despair, there was a typhoon blowing!) and came straight down on the Idzuma moored just off the Japanese consulate. You can imagine how appallingly near us that was, and the noise was deafening. They missed … but the terrible havoc those bombs wrought among those poor frightened refugees.

The bombs that fell came from Chinese planes which had attempted to attack Japanese warships anchored in the middle of the river. Instead of hitting their target, the bombs fell into the streets filled with terrified civilians. She describes the scene in the garden:

telephones were useless as you couldn’t hear, and large pieces of anti-aircraft stuff simply littered the garden one piece we picked up was almost half the size of a soup plate and over half an inch thick …

The letter-writer decided to go to the Cathay Hotel for the night. The Cathay was at that time one of the luxury hotels in Shanghai. The thicker walls there would provide more protection from bombs, she thought. But the hotel, too, had been bombed:

We told the chauffeur to take us to the back entrance … everywhere was broken glass and dismembered portions of maimed and burnt humanity and piles of corpses awaiting removal, and streams of blood running freely along the road.

I have used sections of these words in this painting, repeating some:

couldn’t hear



and large pieces

the garden

size of a soup plate

In the following months Japanese bombers destroyed vast areas of Shanghai. But the targeted areas lay on the north side of Suzhou Creek. The land on the south side of Suzhou Creek fell within the boundaries of the portion of Shanghai under the control of Britain and France. In its aerial bombing Japan avoided the European areas of the city. Therefore Suzhou Creek became a tacit boundary for their air attacks. The bombing of Shanghai began four months after the better known bombing by German aircraft of Guernica in Spain on April 27, 1937. The two events mark the beginning of the general use of air war against urban populations. A year later W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood travelled to Shanghai to witness the continuing war. In their book Journey to a War they wrote that the city north of Suzhou Creek was like a “barren moonscape”.

The original of this letter is gracefully written in pen and ink. The recipient of the letter gave it to me many years ago.

In 1996, and again more recently, I walked along the river bank in Shanghai more or less exactly at the place where the letter-writer witnessed this event.


Letter VI

LETTER VI (PROFUSION)   55″ x 45″   2008

This painting incorporates fourteen lines of writing. The words were originally done in pencil on April 18, 1911 in a cloth bound journal kept by a young man travelling up-river through the Yangtze Gorges.

The water is very low, and the tracking path very high. – in fact in many places there is no path at all … I was ashore all the afternoon walking until we tied up at 7:30 pm. All along the path one could recognize plants well known – the wild rose in profusion, the whitethorn, and the ash. Larches and pines in clumps are exceedingly common, but bamboo seems scarce.

A few days earlier Alexander Wallas, then twenty-five years old, from England, had boarded a small wooden boat on the riverside at the Yangtze port of Yichang and set off for the city of Chongqing far up the river. The trip took three weeks. His employer, the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, which was established by the European powers and Japan to control the revenue from China’s foreign trade, had assigned him to a new post in the interior. Wallas’ trip involved a journey against the current through the Yangtze Gorges, pulled by shore trackers hauling on ropes. It was a method of transportation that had little changed in a thousand years. Railways had not yet penetrated to the upper Yangtze, although everywhere railway construction was visible. Because cliffs and rocky gorges made the swift current virtually impassable, large ships could not pass north of Yichang.

Wallas’ destination, Chonqing, had been opened to foreign settlement only fifteen years before. In 1896 Japan fought an unprovoked and aggressive war against China. After China’s defeat foreigners obtained the right to establish traders and missionaries in Chongqing. It became the farthest inland point where the West and Japan acquired extraterritorial rights.

I have the original journal kept by Wallas. On the day he wrote these sentences his boat was entering Wushan Gorge. The full complement of his crew was twenty-three people, including 8 boat crew and 15 shore trackers. Some of the crew were carried on a second boat. They went about 30 miles a day, stopping along the shore at night. When they entered the rapids they relied on the shore trackers, who in teams pulled the boat up-river on long ropes from paths high up on the steep cliff sides.

Wallas was meticulous in recording the names of villages and bays, which he wrote out in Chinese. He was fluent in writing and speaking the language. His notes are full of details about the distances travelled each day and the changing winds and currents. He notices the vegetation and topography of the shoreline. When walking along the shore he names the trees that are familiar to him from his own English landscape. But he shows no interest, in his journal, in the people he is among.

Gunboats and repeated wars had opened the Yangtze as a trade route into the deep interior of China. When anti-foreign feeling in the north of China exploded in the Boxer Rebellion around Beijing in 1900, the British and other “allied” powers brutally suppressed the uprising. The British fought two earlier “wars of choice” against China in 1839 and 1860. The decisive battles of the earlier wars took place in inshore waters, in the estuary of the Pearl River upstream from Macau and around the mouth of the Yangtze – where the Chinese sail-driven vessels could not be easily manoeuvred. At that fatal moment of confrontation between two cultures, the Royal Navy was just beginning to introduce steam-powered , iron-hulled warships. H.M.S. Nemesis was a paddle-wheel vessel driven by six boilers fuelled by coal. It could operate in shallow waters and fired heavy explosives. Nemesis was the “smart weapon” of its age, present when Shanghai was taken, threading its way through the Yangtze and then up the bending arm of the Huangpo. The ease and confidence with which Wallas travelled up the river rested uneasily on sixty years of violence.

For two days Wallas passed through the Wushan Gorge. On April 23 at the end of the day his boat arrived just above Qutang Gorge and reached a place called Kweizhuo, a walled town. He spent the night moored outside the town. It was too late in the evening, he recorded, to go into the city. Kweizhou then was a small frontier custom station.

It was in this same remote river-side city that the poet Du Fu (712-770) spent two years in exile, taking refuge from a terrible civil war that had spread through the interior of China. Du Fu wrote a series of eight poems about this place called the Autumn Meditations. There is no indication in his journal that Wallas was aware of Kweizhou’s connection with Du Fu or that he knew anything about the poems.

The Autumn Meditations were written in 766. The civil war was in its tenth year. Du Fu had fled the capital Ch’ang-an (modern Xian) which was a cosmopolitan city of over a million people. In one of his poems he describes the far-away capital as “like a chess board”, alluding to both its vast urban grid of streets and the fateful game of politics and war.

Today Kweizhou has more or less vanished. The Yangtze Dam project which became fully operational in 2008 has raised the level of the river about 300 feet, creating a reservoir that extends 400 miles. The entire shoreline around Kweizhou with all its villages and cultivated hillsides has gone.

The series of eight poems, written by a man who lived there for two years 1300 years ago, includes a sensitively drawn landscape. The time is autumn. The late afternoon sun cuts in low, diagonal lines across the whitewashed city wall. At night the moon illuminates wisteria vines on the wall and reeds growing along the shore. “A thousand houses rimmed by the mountains are quiet in the morning light”. The trees he named are the maples. He writes of the wind, the mist, the violence of the waves, and the desolation. When the dark clouds descend into the canyon and the thunderous waves surge upwards, it is as if the sky has come down to touch the earth. The extreme conditions confound the natural order of things. These images of gloom and disorder prefigure the next five poems, which recount the catastrophic disorder unleashed by the war that began in 756. He recalls the elegance of the peacetime capital.

In the seventh poem, in words that apply readily to our own time, he sees the immeasurable loss of war:

Look back with pity at the singing, dancing land.


The translation of two lines from the Autumn Meditations are by A.C. Graham, Poems of the Late Tang, Penguin 1965. I have never been to the site of Kweizhou. Other transliterations of the name are Kw’eichow and K’ueichou. Recent maps show Baidicheng, which various accounts say was situated so close to Kweizhou that they were virtually indistinguishable. The rise in the level of the river has now submerged most of Baidicheng, leaving only the highest part as an island.


Flood Tide

FLOOD TIDE   36″ x 36″   2008

This is a painting of the tide. The vermilion along the lower part of the painting is a small island called Ksuilades, which lies in a cluster of islands between the north end of Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. At the top of the painting are two smaller islands, unnamed, which on a marine chart are shown with contour lines and numbers showing their elevations at the highest point.

A narrow channel about 600 feet wide runs between these islands, cutting in a diagonal down to the left. This narrow gap is like a short-cut for the tide. It comes swiftly alive here at every change.

To the far left, beyond the frame of the painting, lies Weynton Passage. It is a mile wide. Four or five other large channels lead south from the open ocean which reaches down from Alaska and the North Pacific into this place. Hundreds of other narrow passages (Beware Passage, Canoe Passage) allow the ocean to infiltrate into the vast basin between Vancouver Island and the mainland. About every six hours this massive flow of water changes direction.

I first came through this place about twenty-five years ago in a small kayak. You have to cross here to get from the village of Alert Bay into the necklace of islands that lie north and east, places with wonderful names like Midsummer Island, Spring Passage, Sunday Harbour, Eden Island, and the historic villages of Mamaliliculla and Karukwees.

In the Canadian Tide and Current Tables, for Weynton Passage, four pages of data are published that predict in detail the tidal currents that flow through this place. Columns of fine print show from January to December the exact moment each day when the flooding tidal current reaches its maximum velocity. Another column of print under the bilingual headings “turn” and “renverse” record the time, measured to the minute, when the incoming tide ceases its movement and – after a moment of equilibrium – the tidal current begins its approximate six hour cycle of ebb. The time that the maximum velocity of the tidal current will occur is predicted to the minute. The maximum comes about half-way through each cycle. The velocity increases and decreases through the month, driven by the moon – and the alignment of the earth and moon in relation to the sun. All of this comes down to govern what happens in this narrow channel. On the day of the new moon the predicted velocity of the tidal current in Weynton Passage might be 5.8 knots on the falling tide. The rush of tidal water in its endless alternation creates a rushing sound when it builds its wild tassel of white crests, like rapids on a river. You can hear it half a mile away.

The hazard in Weynton Passage is not the current itself, but the combination of current and wind. In the summer months the prevailing wind is from the north-west. It can blow 15 to 20 knots even on a day of mild weather. Usually in the early hours of the morning the wind is quiet. The potentially dangerous time is when the current is at its maximum and when a strong wind is blowing in the opposite direction – on a falling tide with a strong westerly. The conflicting mix of tidal current and wind can produce steep-pitched standing waves, like horrendous furrows in a field – rows of tumbling crests that suddenly appear and advance across the surface of the water. They can generate a heavy thundering sound, like a river canyon.

Marine charts are marked with cautionary symbols that tell of these wild possibilities. Finely drawn arrows show the direction of the tidal current where it is significant, often with a notation saying “5.5 knots” where the velocity is fast. Arrows for the ebbing tide are drawn with just a point and shaft, while the ones for the incoming tidal current carry delicately drawn feathers. Another poetic symbol consists of six or seven horizontal, wavy lines – very fine – which are found at strategic points where big standing waves are likely to appear.

Scattered across the surface of a chart are small numerals that count the depth in fathoms. The main channel of Johnstone Strait south of Weynton Passage drops off into a canyon a quarter of a mile deep. These depth soundings are linked by dotted lines of different kinds that reveal the contour of undersea valleys, with shallower waters along the shore marked with crosses, asterisks, and other notations warning of rocks that lie just under the surface.

These islands are in Kwakwaka’wakw territory. Ksuilades is shown on the chart as Indian reserve land. By about 1878, commercial fishing was seriously encroaching on the rich, traditional fishing sites of the people in this area. For a short period after 1881, an Indian reserve commissioner appointed by the Canadian government identified important indigenous fishing sites and set them aside as exclusive Indian fisheries. The reserve lands allocated for that purpose were very small. They were called “fishing stations” and were supposed to provide secure access to traditional fishing places. Later the government repudiated the existence of any protected Indian fishing rights. The little island of Ksuilades is a survivor of that time. The handwritten records of the reserve commissioner say the place was valuable “for halibut fishing”.


On the “fishing stations” and the the loss of fishing rights by the indigenous people, see Douglas C. Harris, Landing Native Fisheries: Indian Reserves and Fishing Rights in British Columbia 1849-1925, UBC Press, 2008.