Friday, April 11, 2014


When my husband and I first moved in together years ago, he brought to the household a framed print of a blue and white wave towering over a distant snow-peaked mountain. It is a nice image, but I honestly didn't think much of it. The picture hung in our bedroom for a long time, fading in the sun until I was ready for something different. Since then it has been stuffed in the back of the closet left to collect dust.

Recently, in meandering the stacks at the library I found a picture book that tells the story of our disregarded print. I took the book home to read and realized that I had not given nearly enough credit to this image. 

The painting called "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" from the collection called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji was created by a man named Hokusai when he was seventy-something years old. The book Hokusai- The Man Who Painted a Mountain by Deborah Kogan Ray (2001, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) explores the life of Hokusai and how this painting came to be. 

Hokusai grew up as a poor kid in the capitol of Japan in the late 1700's. The story of his struggles and successes in becoming an artist is an inspirational one (thought long-winded as per the early 2000's picture book style). Hokusai got his start because he loved art and books. He wiggled his way into working at a library so he could study art books for free, was later invited to work at a woodblock printing shop based on his self-taught skills, and then found his way into an apprenticeship with a master artist. With his passion driving him, Hokusai made his way through his world to become what he wanted most- to become the best artist he could be. 

For most of his adult life, Hokusai pursued his passion, sketching, painting, creating wood cuttings of all he saw around him. His great project was Mt. Fuji. He spent years observing, drawing, and painting it from every angle with every type of scenery around it. Finally, he converged his work into a collection of these images, with "The Great Wave of Kanagawa" standing out among them. 

Hokusai said "From the age of five I have needed to sketch the form of things. Yet all I drew prior to the age of seventy, there is truly nothing of great note.
"At the age of seventy-two, I finally understand something of the quality of birds, animals, insects, fish, and the nature of grass and trees. Therefore at eighty, I shall have made some progress."

He goes on to says that as he ages he will further come to understand life's deeper meanings, and thus his artwork will grow to be "marvelous." Hokusai died not long after his Fuji collections was published. But he left a great legacy in his wake. 

After learning about this poor artist from Japan, I am looking at the print in the closet slightly differently now. It is not just a picture of a wave; it means more. Now for me, this image means passion, dedication, and a focus to explore that all-consuming artistic drive. I get it now. In fact, it's time to stop typing, go fish out that old print, clean it off, and hang it somewhere where I can be reminded daily that becoming the best artist I can be takes drive, time, and an understanding that nothing I create before I am seventy will be any good at all. 

Keep at it. We'll get there.

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