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.