The concept + inspiration for the Awareness Collection comes from three main things the Japanese concept of 物の哀れ (mono no aware), the ancient Jewish metaphor of הבל (hevel), and my current season of life. The concept of mono no aware and hevel have not only helped me to navigate this season of grief and joy but are also huge influences on this new body of work.
The Japanese phrase 物の哀れ (mono no aware) can be translated as “an empathy towards things” or “a sensitivity to ephemera”. It is an awareness of impermanence, a gentle wistfulness at its passing. And in the Japanese understanding, this makes something more beautiful. The word 哀れ (a-wa-re) on its own, is an expression of surprise. But when used in this sense, it translates roughly to poignancy, sensitivity, or awareness. Sadness and joy in this sense are not opposites. Rather they join together to form a deeper appreciation of the present.
I first learned about this concept in a book called, the Japanese Mind, as I prepared to live in Japan in 2019. But it wasn’t until this past Autumn that I really felt this for the first time. It was a combination of the changing maple leaves outside of our new home, grieving the loss of my dad, and celebrating the new life within me. I had a deep awareness of life’s impermanence and it seemed more beautiful precisely for that reason.
In ancient Hebrew, הבל (hevel) means vapor or smoke. However, the word also has a deep metaphorical weight. This metaphor is largely used in the book of Ecclesiastes, one of the most beautiful but dark books in all of the Bible.
In its metaphorical sense, hevel means fleeting, enigmatic, or paradoxical. Similar to how smoke or steam are a visual paradox. Smoke and steam look solid but aren’t. If you try and touch them, there isn’t anything to grasp onto. And if surrounded by smoke or steam, it is impossible to see clearly. Ecclesiastes uses this metaphor to describe what life is like. It asserts that life is an enigma. Once it feels like you have things figured out, something happens that turns everything upside down and makes you realize that you, in fact, don’t. Sometimes life is good, sometimes bad but never predictable.
This concept is not saying that life has no meaning. Rather that it cannot be fully understood. But just because we can’t decern the meaning, doesn’t mean there is no meaning. It reveals a perspective that life is not black and white. And creates a framework for what to do with all that gray.
Ecclesiastes and hevel expose our smallness, fragility, and fleetingness leaving us in a place of humility. We cannot change our fleeting nature only have an awareness of it. It encourages us to hold life with open hands because all we really have control over is our attitude toward the present moment. It urges us to let go of worry and choose to enjoy the simple things.
Like I said above, I am in a season of both joy and grief. The death of my dad and the growing life of my son. In the last year, life hasn’t fit into nice neat categories. There haven’t been good seasons and bad seasons. Everything has been a jumbled mix of hardship and goodness with beauty woven throughout all of it.
I’ve come to see that good and bad, joy and grief, life and death are not opposites but two sides of the same coin. Entirely connected and inform of one another. Sorrow is often evidence of a good or loved thing lost. And all good things require some sacrifice and effort.
But would we not love so as to not experience the consequence of loss? Or not put forth any effort to sacrifice to obtain good?
My garden requires much work and time sacrificed in order for its abundance to be enjoyed. And for me, all of that work has become enjoyable. My unborn son will require much sacrifice of my time and lifestyle but it is one which I am more than happy to make to care for him and love him well.
Hardship required my husband and our community to lean on one another for support. And in the process deeper more intimate relationships were formed. Grief over my father’s passing is evidence of a relationship we did not always have. And it was actually his sickness that gave us the opportunity to build that relationship for the first time.
Two sides of the same coin.
The death of my dad makes me very aware of how fleeting slide can be. And thinking of my pregnancy and the life of our son makes me very conscious of how fast time can slip by. To not allow sadness to eclipse joy and the other way around and to see that they are not mutually exclusive. All of this urges me not to waste time worrying about what I can’t control. It encourages me to savor the present.
So when I started on this collection, the challenge became figuring out how to represent all of these ideas in a body of work. The Awareness Collection will be my attempt at doing just that.
I am using the images of smoke and steam to represent hevel as well as mono no aware. The images will be very close up, abstracting the subject slightly. This highlights a beauty that is common but can go unnoticed without a close and intentional awareness.
I have photographed smoke and steam using a flash to create intense contrast with light and dark. This method of photography also echos mono no aware too. The flash takes time to recharge before firing again, and even though this takes mere seconds, many of the twisting forms of the smoke and steam are missed. Their fleeting beauty only entirely captured by my eyes.
The cyanotypes will be toned black and white to further echo these concepts. Bringing the light and dark to the forefront of the image. The pieces themselves will be small requiring extra effort from their viewers to see their beautiful details. This reflects how the three concepts are subtle and will be missed without intention and mindfulness.
I am intending on releasing the Awareness Collection in late winter. I am in the thick of creating and happily experimenting with the new techniques of color toning and exposing using digital negatives. Which I will be sharing more about in next week’s blog post. In the meantime, you can get my latest updates in my weekly studio letter or watch behind the scenes on my Instagram.