Tuesday, January 29, 2013


the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, or incomplete;
the beauty of things modest and humble; 
the beauty of things unconventional.

Walk through a boatyard, 
preferably an old one that struggles
to survive yet another harsh winter, 
and you will discover the essence of wabi-sabi:
nothing permanent, everything in beautiful transition.

The once proud bow of an old sloop
has now become a semi-abstract painting
which beckons me to look across a snowy landscape
in search of the timid winter moon.

The ancient boat lift 
can hardly serve its original purpose,
but finds new life as a sculptor, 
reminding my eyes of the loveliness
and necessity of negative space.

The corroded 
rudder of an aging ketch
is no longer just a steering utility.
It's a quiet embodiment of Zen simplicity 
 that invites the heart to stillness and meditation.

Paint from a shed
flakes, peels, takes flight
on the winter Chesapeake winds,
 leaving its message that man's best devices
can never hold together what nature is destined to alter.

What appears
to be raw corrosion
is simply a new birth,
 a creative act of destruction
born of wind and water, grit and grime, 
bringing nascent beauty to an unexpected place.

From Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers
by Leonard Koren

Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else.  Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view.  Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.

For previous postings about wabi-sabi on this blog, see:


  1. These are absolutely gorgeous. I love every single one of them. What a beautiful study in wabi-sabi. Your words compliment your images perfectly.

  2. Thanks so much, TERESA. I find that the world is a much more interesting place when I open myself to revelation and beauty from unexpected things and places.

  3. Fascinating. I missed your earlier wabi-sabi posts. I'd never heard of it although if I "get it", then I've always been attracted to wabi-sabi without having a name for it.

    It has often been said that there is paradox at the heart of John Cage's music, that although much of it was composed using randomizing processes, it still "sounds like John Cage". Could it be that behind that apparent paradox lies an appreciation of wabi-sabi? A quick google reveals that this is a pretty common assumption that I was merely ignorant of! How could I be a Cage fan for decades and not come across the term? 4'33" is quite simply sonic wabi-sabi. As I said, I've always been attracted to it without having a name for it.

    In my googling I came across this essay


  4. I also found this book on Amazon which has a very generous amount of "look inside!" preview:


  5. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this post. George. What a wonderful marriage of word and picture. In fact, these photos are paintings. Just breathtaking — photography as the art of transformation.

  6. "Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness." I am quite drawn to this passage you've shared from Leonard Kohen. Reading it and looking at your stunning photos of gorgeous boat decay reveals a very strong case that it takes that altered state of consciousness to convey such beauty. No one who sees your photographs here could not be struck by their beauty, but I imagine that many who see the boats themselves might simply think they are "in need of a good coat of paint."

  7. Your comment is fascinating, DOMINIC. I've seen the wabi-sabi aesthetic applied to myriad areas of our lives, but not to music. What you say makes complete sense, however, for wabi-sabi is closely connected with Zen, and I have often heard music that is inspired by Zen. It's also true, as you recognize, that "wabi-sabi" simply gives a name to a way of experiencing things that many of us have felt passionately before ever hearing the description.

  8. Also, DOMINIC, you might consider obtaining a copy of Koren's book. I've really enjoyed this small jewel, and I've returned to it often.

  9. Thanks for your generous comments, ROBERT. I think that Koren is spot on when he states that beauty is not only a "dynamic event" between the observer and the observed, but is also "an altered state of consciousness, and extraordinary moment of poetry and grace."

  10. Thanks, RUTH. I, too, find great inspiration in Koren's observation about the nature of beauty. As I noted in my response to Robert's comment, I also think it's important to remember that beauty arises out of a "dynamic event" between the observer and the observed. It follows, I believe, that the experience of beauty requires both presence and engagement. That's the reason, as you say, that many would look at these photos and simply conclude that those old boats are simply "in need of a good coat of paint."

  11. I might get that book, George. Thanks for drawing it to my attention. Have you ever read Cage's books? His most famous is "Silence" but there are several, including "A Year From Monday".

    I liked the photos too (I think I'd be tempted to blow them up really big and mount them), but Robert's observation that "these photos are paintings" made me think. To what extent do things attract our eye because they "look like" art and to what extent do we simply see what we're looking at (if you know what I mean). What aesthetic preconceptions (our idea of the picturesque, Carravagio-like lighting, Rothko's textures, etc) do we bring to the natural world? I suppose we just can't escape them. It's probably like the layers of an onion. If we strip aside our Western art assumptions, we'd probably start thinking subconsciously of Oriental art, or something else.

  12. You raise many good issues, DOMINIC, and I will give it a shot, both as a photographer and a painter. First, things in nature never attract my eye as a photographer because they "look like" art. The first problem, of course, it that you would have a hard time finding two people in the world who could even agree upon what is to be included in (and excluded from) such an august term as "art." That said, I personally believe that all art, including the most abstract, non-objective art, has its genesis in something we have observed or experienced in nature. While I am not a trained musician like you, I suspect that even music is an often the expression of an experience, perhaps now coded in our DNA, that resides in the unconscious.

    From a creative standpoint, I believe that all good art contains elements of design. As a painter, for example, I work with dominance and contrast: warm hues against cooler hues; hard edges against soft edges; horizontal lines against vertical and curvilinear lines; soft textures against rough textures, etc. Brush and canvass, however, are only tools, and there is no reason the same discipline cannot be brought to bear in photography, where one uses light and composition to create an image that will resonate with the eye in much the same way as a good painting.

    What I like about the aesthetic of wabi-sabi is this: Like Zen, it abhors structures and definitions; it removes the concept of "beauty" for the lofty pedestal upon which the Greeks and their western descendants have placed it; and, in the best traditions of Eastern wisdom, it invites us to find something sublime in the ordinary and commonplace.

    I hope I haven't made wabi-sabi more confusing than it needs to be.

  13. Thanks for that. I keep coming back to Cage... I thought of going through some of his works to look for some quotes, but I'll be lazy and revert to google again!

    "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then Sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all."

    "The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think its not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason."

    Reading what he said in relation to the things we're talking about makes me realise what a clever bloke he was. He certainly "knew his onions" (is that just an English expression?).

  14. Thanks George, this is absolutely beautiful. I shall be exploring this - to me it is of utter importance.

    thank you,


  15. Yes, DOM, I think that "knew his onions" is an English expression. In the states, the only people who know their onions are good chefs and gardeners.

  16. Thanks, ANDY. Glad you liked this post. The reach of wabi-sabi is broad. When we are prepared to find beauty in the impermanent, the incomplete, the modest, and the unfinished, we have not only improved our relationship with the outside world, but have also learned how to discover and appreciate the unique beauty within our own individual lives.

  17. I must say George that over the past few posts you have introduced me to some wonderful writers about whom I knew absolutely nothing. I do agree that beauty can be anywhere providing one has one's eyes open.
    And ones soul too.

  18. Thanks, PAT. I would assume you are a very wabi-sabi person, even if you've never thought of yourself in that context.

  19. I learn so much from your blog! As some of the others have said, always felt an attraction to Wabi-Sabi, even if I had no name for it, till now. Thank you for helping me to look yet again, with appreciation at everything around me and seeing beauty in it. It was something that made the last two weeks+ in a hospital with my son, bearable and at times, lovely. Thanks for blogging!

  20. Thanks so much for your kind and generous comments, KARIN. Sorry to hear your son has been in the hospital, but I wish you the very best. Glad to know that this reminder of wabi-sabi has helped you in some small way. I always try to remember something Pascal once said: "In difficult times carry something beautiful in your heart."

  21. All beautiful but number two pic is my favourite.

  22. Yes, the second photo is also one of my favorites. Thanks for the generous comment.

  23. Beautiful photography paired with wise words. Truly enjoyed this.

    1. Thanks, Margaret. Glad you liked this.

  24. I like when you illustrate the theme of Wabi-Sabi, George. Your photos teach the eye and brain to appreciate what otherwise might be considered unacceptable or even lacking beauty. My favorite in this series is the negative space photo which shows such depth. The colors in all these photos make me smile. You illustrate that even the old and rusted among us have beauty.

    1. Thanks for the kind and generous comments, Barb. To ignore what some regard as "unacceptable" would be to miss most of the beauty of life. I, too, like the negative space image.

  25. I just started reading your blog...beautiful! I love this entry about Wabi Sabi and the pictures. Can't wait to read more!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Kathryn, and thanks also for your lovely and generous comment. I hope you will return and join the conversation when something posted here resonates with you. Happy New Year.