Wabi Sabi - Beauty in Imperfection

May 08, 2022

Hmmm...  Wabi Sabi and Wasabi? Just to clarify - both originate in Japan, both have a connection with nature. Wasabi is a plant from which a spicy condiment is made to add to foods. On the other hand, Wabi Sabi is a sensitive approach to aesthetics, a way of seeing beauty in things which are not perfect - often in our natural environment. But it is the relevance of Wabi Sabi to Art that has piqued my interest here. 

Curriculum Connections

Key elements of the Australian Curriculum: The Arts are making and reflecting. The rationale for Visual Arts states that students are supported to ‘view the world through various lenses and contexts’ and to ‘develop understanding of world culture’.

In the Physical Education and Health curriculum, there is an emphasis on students developing and engaging in activities that can improve their own and others’ sense of wellbeing.

As I tried to understand the concept of Wabi Sabi, I realised that it seemed to connect very well with these aspects of the curriculum. Observing, reflecting, considering, accepting, appreciating, empathising - with a window on nature. Finding some inner peace in the process...

Japanese Aesthetic

Studies in art and design use ‘Wabi Sabi’ to describe a particular type of aesthetic. It relates to beauty seen in things which are not complete, perhaps have ‘mistakes’ in them, or reflect a sense of change even decay or ageing. This is a traditional Japanese form of aesthetic which differs from the more western sense of beauty seen in perfection.

I like this idea especially as we encourage our children, our students, to take risks with their artworks, to experiment with their creations, to be innovative, to make mistakes. The journey can often be more rewarding than the end result. We can learn so much from our mistakes - which may end up not being mistakes after all.

To learn more about Wabi Sabi, one of the resources I used was a British documentary featuring Marcel Theroux who travelled across Japan to find out for himself what Wabi Sabi is to the Japanese people. 

It was a difficult concept to come to terms with. Language didn’t seem able to explain it. But it is very much an inherent part of Japanese culture, perhaps a religious as well as aesthetic embodiment of their soul. It seemed to be synonymous with their Tea Ceremony. This traditional ceremony is linked to Zen training which is part of Buddhist meditation.

Wabi 

Meditation and mindfulness can be a way for any of us, young or old, any nationality, to clear away our thoughts and declutter our minds. This relates to WABI. Apparently there are two parts to Wabi Sabi. Wabi relates to the clearing away of unimportant things in our life, focusing on the essentials, living in the moment - learning to be mindful. This is such an important skill for children to learn these days.

This decluttering can involve our physical environment too. In the home or in the classroom, this may look like storing toys and ‘things’ away and just using shelving to display ‘treasures’ or items relevant to now. These can be rotated to ensure ongoing stimulation and engagement of children. Kids can have so many toys and games (classroom resources) that they no longer ‘see’ them nor appreciate them. But these possessions can just have a ‘holiday’ and come out again another time. Becoming more minimalist in our settings, in our minds, and simplifying things is Wabi.

Sabi

The way the environment and things in our lives change is SABI. Nature is at our core and the key to Sabi. Being outside can help bring us inner peace. For example, spending time noticing the beauty in each of the stages that leaves go through in Autumn as they change colour, fall and gradually decay. In Winter, there is beauty in the incompleteness of the bare trees, in deadwood and driftwood. In Spring there is the freshness, the rawness of rebirth. And Summer can dry and crack the landscape creating a different aesthetic again. Sabi is the sense of time passing - the impermanence of things, their transient nature. Appearances change but things inherently stay the same.

Learning environments at home or at school with windows and doors that allow easy flow and viewing of the natural environment help develop this sense of Sabi. Consider the use of simple, neutral furniture and accessories, changing cushions, rugs, mats and wall paintings to match the seasons and the weather. Try to bring more of the outside inside - plants and wooden textures. Things that are not perfect or complete, but are beautiful. Nature’s gift to us.

Wabi Sabi together

So combining these two concepts, we have a way to simplify our lives and focus on what’s most important while being in tune with nature and its sense of time passing. I think it encourages us to simply walk gently with nature and sense the beauty in each day. 

…and into Artworks

Providing opportunities for artistic activities where children are focused in the moment on sensing and appreciating the details of their environment - the sights, the smells, the sounds - can help remove them from some of the stresses and worries of their day, their world. If this can be out in nature, so much the better. Encourage them to focus on the small things, the perfect things AND the old and broken things - to find beauty in things that look ‘wrong’ or ‘unfinished’. How might something be seen as perfect or imperfect? How might both be beautiful? As always, drawing children into creative activities which use or reflect nature can be therapeutic and obviously fun. Perhaps a positive with the pandemic is the increased time we have been spending outside.

What about a diorama depicting miniature village scenes perhaps in a shoebox with animals/people made from nuts, leaves, twigs, bits of grass and weeds? Creatures created by adding things from outside to the core of paper rolls - colourful autumn leaves for dresses or clothes, nuts for facial features, twigs for limbs. Artventure has many lessons that relate to Autumn, other seasons, weather, plants, leaves… Try setting up art activities outside under a tree, on the lawn, on the beach, sitting on a rock - anywhere outside. Ask the children to draw what they see. How do they feel about what they see and what they create? How do they feel about making mistakes, about things that perhaps look ‘wrong’?

My hope would be that with a dash of Wabi Sabi we can more readily accept our faults, our mistakes and who we are; and see things in the world that are not right or finished, or are broken and find some window of hope, even beauty.

Erica
Teacher and Artventure Blogger