… after Shahzia Sikander — Nemesis

In her interview at the beginning of her companion book to the show, Nemesis, Shahzia Sikander explains that one of her goals was to challenge what is beautiful. I’m not so ambitious. I think, where I am as an artist, is learning what is beautiful, and if I were to challenge this, it would have to be later when I had a better grasp of what I’m challenging.

With some irony, what draws me to Shahzia Sikander’s work is that I find it beautiful. I think only when you look more closely, after maybe first noticing formal elements, like borders, visual rhythm and bright color schemes, you notice that the story told by the smaller details can work against the mood the formal elements convey.

In Pleasure Pillars (2001), the pillars of beauty are being matched with the word pleasure. Being only 17” x 12,” the work is almost overwhelmed by all its details. You can easily miss the circle of fighter jets that resemble a group of birds dancing somehow in synchronized formation, wings overlapping and noses pointed toward a shared center. You might miss the lion tearing at a deer’s throat in the opposite corner. Images of the West challenge the images of the east. Venus de Milo with her head and arm missing is slightly left of center, separated from a eastern formal dress by two connected hearts displaced from a body. There is, at the heart of the work, a woman’s head with large and impressive ram horns.

The colors are beautiful. The polka dots, elements seen in many of Sikander’s works, create layers and dimension. There are multiple frames, which help a viewer focus on specific figures. I am drawn first to these formal elements and am made to look at figures, objects and acts of violence side by side and to interpret something that is beyond the formal elements.

For my own work…

I want to offer a view into a world that has a sort of mood, manifested out of the symbols and interactions of those symbols found in that world.

Symbols in a visual work of art can be more literal than words in a work of literature. Words representing an object can carry a variety meanings given a person’s unique set of experiences and the context in which they employ those words. For example, what bees might mean in a poem by Sylvia Plath. When you use pictures of objects with symbolic meaning, you begin with the meaning given to the object by a people and their culture and history, and it might not be how you feel about the objects, intuitively or personally.

So for an audience who might not be aware of what certain objects can symbolize, I want to offer at least something that is pretty; while for those who respond to those symbols, not just as a bystander looking in but somebody who responds emotionally to them, I want to make the story I’m telling cohesive and meaningful in some way.

Elephants (2021) 9″ x 12″ watercolor and gouache

For the above image, I’m borrowing the idea of elephants as symbols of wisdom. I don’t see this personally, but I like how they can be animated. I can use the image of an animal to convey an act or interaction, which can then be a metaphor for how wisdom can look while in action, despite it being abstract and difficult to define in words.

There’s an oak tree (also a symbol of wisdom) that a string of elephants are walking toward. They are coming from the horizon and the sun is setting. These are all within a red frame, while a baby elephant has its trunk outside the frame, the trunk being slightly transparent.

I don’t want to psychoanalyze myself, but I might be fearing ignorance or not knowing enough.

My mother used to tease me as a child and say that I have no common sense. I’m older now… and I’m hoping a little more wisdom can make up for this.

On the Subject of Style

“The trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap…. Words exist because of the meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.”1 Chuang-tzu, Chinese philosopher

This used to be how I felt about writing. Even when I took up creative writing, I thought it was all about the content… and it’s not.

Getting to the meaning of one’s words is not the only reason why we listen.

We create to bring form to ideas, and this, I believe, is all about style.

I understand there’s a major difference between linguistic expression and visual expression. The first uses symbols (letters of the alphabet and the words they make) to guide you to conjuring up the ideas in mind, while the latter provides a physical structure to show you an idea at play.

But both can show how one sees the world.

I’m going to focus now on visual expression… and use a recent drawing to illustrate what I mean.

Initially, I got lost in the details and tried to copy this more precisely, but I stepped away for a day and when I looked at it again, I realized I had smoothed over all the nuances. It was static like a rock.

I often tell myself to “always know what you’re looking at,” but in this case, I decided to refer to a thumbnail of the original, so I could see again what initially made me decide to choose the image. I decided the goal is not to draw a poppy, per se, but to get ideas about what is a “good line.” Or, overall, when looking at a model, I am not drawing the model, I am making note of what makes the model pretty.

This approach is especially useful when thinking about auto-drawing, because with auto-drawing, the challenge is to maintain variation, to avoid making it look like patterns on wall paper. Looking all around me, I see “pretty lines” and beautiful color compositions everywhere and realize I can use almost everything as a resource. I just have to like what I see.

When I picked up drawing in 2008, I was mesmerized by a “pretty line.” It was a gateway into the visual arts, and a year later I wanted to utilize more color, but I couldn’t see where other artists were getting there ideas (color schemes) from.

Intuitively, I knew that you have to enjoy something to bring it into your work… or I should say you have to know what you like to gauge the progress of your work… to know that you’re achieving what you want to achieve.

Okay, it’s not simple. But creative work doesn’t need to be precise.

I made a sketchbook for the purpose of experimenting with color schemes, and discovered the joys of working with Marie’s watercolor tubes, particularly 511 (bright blue green) and 451 (looks like Prussian blue)

Here’s a picture of a poppy I painted.


1 This is from the introduction of Jerome Silbergeld’s Chinese Painting Style, and Silbergeld is using a translation taken from Burton Watson’s The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, published in 1970 by Columbia University Press, p 302.

Materials: Xuan paper

There were a couple of problems.

1. I thought my first problem was a lack of nifty, one-day projects. (I could only think of bigger projects, and for those I found myself procrastinating, while telling myself that I was waiting for the ideas to percolate.)

Believing this to be my first problem was a problem.

I finally picked up a brush when a “nifty” idea occured to me, and this had a lovely domino effect.

2. I wanted to make use of a set of Japanese watercolors.

I’d only made color cards, by applying a wash over individual sheets of cold press watercolor paper, each cut down to just larger than a playing card.

When they dried, they curled, and despite having them underneath heavy books for a month or so, they wouldn’t remain flat. (I’ve heard of “stretching paper,” but I’ve procrastinated on that too.)

Solution: xuan paper which dries very well.

3. I wanted to compile a “book” of my “sketches” on xuan paper but the material is very thin. Creating a traditionally designed book made only of xuan paper didn’t pan out even in my imagination.

Solution: I folded a sheet of xuan paper into a “book,” which allowed me to avoid stitching pages into signatures.

4. I hadn’t posted anything in a while.

5. I had stopped reading.

Solution: I would post something about the “book” I was making.

6. I applied a wash again of each color to each panel, but it wasn’t enough for a good post. (Yes, I let the idea of what others might think have an influence on my creative life.)

Solution: I browsed through the many books I own and looked for ideas.

7. I had a few books that had been waiting to be read for… well, a long time.

Solution: Peach Blossom Spring: Gardens and Flowers In Chinese Paintings by Richard Barnhart

(I have not really sat down with this, but from what I can tell, it looks anecdotal, which I think is the best way to write about art history.)

Below is the “book” unfolded. There are eight panels and the upper middle panels are each only attached on one side.

When you fold it in half, you see the first two panels (besides the “covers”) and the last panel.

The first two panels are based on a part of Plum Blossoms By Moonlight by Ma Yuan, who was actively painting 1190-1225. (p 21)

Here’s the “book” with the two upper middle panels folded in.

The lower bottom middle panels are the third and fourth panels. For the third panel, I was looking at the flowers in Carnations and Amaranthus by Yun Shou-p’ing (1633-1690) (p 84)

For the fourth panel, I was looking at Tree Peonies (1688) by Yun Shou-p’ing (p 87)

Here’s the book folded in half and the middle panels have been flipped to reveal the third, fourth and fifth panels.

For the fifth panel, I was looking at the leaves of One Hundred Flowers by Yun Shou-p’ing (p89)

For the sixth and final panel, I was looking at the rocks or depictions of mountainside in Peach Blossom Spring (1719) by Huan Chiang (active ca 1690 – 1746) (p 115)

I have to be more patient with waiting for the wash to finish drying before adding fine lines, so it got muddled there (and elsewhere), but hopefully I’ll improve with more practice.

Below is the book neatly folded.

Folded, it’s about 5″ x 6.” The paper didn’t exactly dry smooth, but it didn’t get warped either, with some parts more stretched than others. Instead, the pages are wrinkled and only because I creased them when applying the wash.

Salvaging Old Drawings: Fire Balloons


Gaa Wai (dot) com, Figure 5c

Like the initial drawing for Solar Flare, the figure above is an old drawing which I want to make use of. I’ve been thinking of creating layers and using sketches as elements in a larger story.

In my sketchbook, the figure fills the page, but it’s like the detail of a larger image. You get a character and not a full vignette, much less a full story.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Fire Balloons, Oracle.JPG

The challenge of creating a story for the element goes hand in hand with the challenge of making the new drawing look like everything in it was meant for one drawing. I was looking for something simple and which the figure could naturally support. I randomly thought of fire balloons.

I prepared the paper with tea and created my first layer, which were lines depicting clouds, in the style of old Chinese paintings and painted with coffee.

I then made a carbon copy of the figure with the idea that it would act as a double image: an oracle and a fire balloon on fire.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Fire Balloons, sketch (1).JPG

Midway, I thought of titles, but I may have gotten ahead of myself or ahead of the drawing. I thought of “Oracle on fire and there are people watching,” and I let the words guide me, because I couldn’t think of how to complete the drawing and sketched in silhouettes of people on the bottom.

I put it away for a couple of days and when I was ready to paint, I realized it was too much or it felt contrived or it didn’t seem like the drawing was developing organically in that way. (I can’t quite articulate the problem, but people on the bottom was not the right choice.)

So I replaced them with a close up of one of the balloons, which gave me an opportunity to have two elements interact.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Fire Balloons

I knew, even while painting it, there were too many colors or it’s not a unified color scheme, and I definitely need to spend some time developing basic skills in watercolor. However, having completed the drawing, I could look at it critically. I could also look back at the process, which has revealed to me a few things.


New elements, like the wisps of smoke near the figure’s head and the fire/smoke in the balloon at the forefront of the picture look pretty and I’m already using them effectively as elements in this drawing, so I know I can use them again in other drawings.

They’re simple and can be used as building blocks, unlike the oracle, which seems too complex to use again in the same drawing without it looking like wallpaper or contrived in some way.


In the original drawing, the lines in the bodice of the figure feel like lines from another drawing, so it looks confused.

However, if the bodice is really a balloon and the smoother lines are really fire and smoke, there would naturally be tension between the two elements, and using different lines for each can be seen as supporting this tension.


It’s in the context of the story that this can work. It makes use of the structures that are already there and helps explain them.

There’s also the theme of Man vs Nature, and thus the oracle. Fire balloons are sent to float up into the heavens with the hope of granting wishes, while an oracle is burning. Or is the message too didactic?

The oracle having a girl’s face seems a little too explicit. Maybe I should focus more on the fire and less on the oracle… but the face is what’s pretty about the oracle. … Maybe it’s the hair, which looks too much like hair. Yes.

I’d forgotten the initial drawing had the face as the centerpiece and everything flowed from the figure of the girl, so it looked too much like a girl. It demands your attention and competes with the fire balloon as the center of everything, when it’s not anymore.


I originally had the figure in red, but decided midway that it would be difficult to use it and have an overall unified color scheme, so I added blue to make it purple.

I’m not very good with colors, and it’s something I need to work on in terms of finding what I like. You have to like what you draw in order to gauge whether or not it’s getting better or worse each time you edit the piece.

I tend to approach my work with the idea that Less is More, and for this drawing, as with many others, I want to show off the line. I tend to use the variety of colors (if there is a variety) to help me do this.

Like Flowers II, each color can help a viewer keep an eye on an element while it interacts with another element.

The elements for this drawing are Fire (bodice of the oracle, bottom fire balloon), smoke, fire balloon (intact), fire balloon (not intact) and Oracle. (Some parts double as parts of two elements.)


Layering two colors of ink looks really cool.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Fire Balloons, Edit 1 sketch

So I decided to limit the colors to red and black (Fire vs Smoke vs Fire Balloon) The smoke and fire balloon will both be in varying hues of gray, which suggests the fire balloons, even the ones intact, are floating up like the smoke; they are both the color of ash.

This makes room for the color of the clouds, which are painted with coffee.

Gaa Wai (dot) com, Fire Balloons, Edit 1, sketch 2

I had considered not having clouds and actually freaked out a little when I added them midway, because they seemed to be overwhelming the figure, but after applying ink to the bottom fire balloon, it all balanced out again. One of those things you don’t know until you try.

Because they are in a different color and are a different style of line, they do not readily interact with the figure and fire balloons, and therefore add another layer or the illusion of depth. They also make the transparency of the ink more noticeable, which underscores the idea of the fire balloons being beautiful and fragile, which creates tension with their being dangerous and their power to wreak havoc on the environment when their thin shells inevitably burn and start fires elsewhere.


I still have to finish the larger balloon and add and color in a few smaller balloons but the overall idea is there.