Justin Fetterman
Brushstrokes

We don’t know where it goes. We don’t really care.

When painting alla prima, you work back towards yourself. Oil based, wet-on-wet. Translated Italian: first attempt. Coat the canvas with magic white or phthalo blue. A single point of yellow, spread by the almighty fan brush, becomes the sun, the harvest moon. Clouds swirl and distant mountains rise from the borders, always outward in. Continue layers until all is dry, set. As your world appears on canvas, you are free to realize all that lives within it, within you. Discovery is the joy of painting.

We should find perfect existence through imperfect existence.

Toshitaka Suzuki grew with the waves of Sagami Bay echoing in his father’s temple. The Meiji Restoration modernized the cities, but could not reach the boy, called Shunryū, Excellent Emergence. When he was nineteen, 1923, the crust beneath the bay shook the province, inundating three provinces. The poor Zen temple survived, but Toshitaka was already drifting away. He arrived in Tokyo one year later and found the city still laid low. They were rebuilding from Great Kantō earthquake with all the tools of industry. The young man, now also called Shogaku, Perfect Enlightenment, did not propose to study machines. Instead, at Komazawa Daigaku, he majored in Zen, Buddhism, and English.

Shogaku Suzuki would return, reluctantly, to his childhood home. He had seen England and longed to see America. He had trained at Eihei-ji under Gempo Kitano Rōshi, cofounder of the Zenshuji temple in Los Angeles. Shunryū was happy in his post-graduate position at Sōji-ji in Yokohama, preparing for the next step. Shogaku was young and full of excitement, but his father was aged. “My master died when I was thirty-one,” Suzuki later said. “I had to succeed my master at his temple.”

The interference by auditory stimulation results from competing threads.

The colors of sound circle: white, grey, brown, red, pink. Ocean waves, rain, and morning meadows are imperfect, shades of brown. The heart beats in pink. The humble oscillating fan is almost pure white. Silence is black.
What we know: These multifrequency sounds can mask intermittent noise, even speech. Random noises disrupt sleep and focus. Loud environmental noise improves the performance of extroverts. Introverts suffer. At lower volumes, white noise may ease sleep or hinder cognitive development.

Let’s just blend this little rascal here.

There were gators when he was a boy and grizzlies when he became a man. In Florida, Bob was expected to be a carpenter, like his father. He lost a finger to woodwork, but none to gators, even nursing one back to health as a boy. Pitched in a cold war, Vietnam not yet in flames, the Air Force claimed young Mr. Ross. He enlisted in 1959 at seventeen and was sent to Alaska, a new star on the flag.

Twenty years he spent in service, climbing mountains to Master Sergeant. Military roles required him to be tough and mean and loud. Outside of work, he vowed to never yell again. He began to paint the mountains and skies beyond the base, calming the voice and mind. Landscapes flourished quickly with sandwich untouched on the table. Bob began to sell in local shops, extra money. The perm was inexpensive, frugal. The stiff curls made his neck itch.

Wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars that you see.

Shunryū’s first wife suffered tuberculosis. She went back to her family and Suzuki went to his temple, annulled. He and Chie Muramatsu weathered a new storm in Japan. Soldiers and displaced families slept where he sat Zazen, where he taught the meditation of everyday things. In 1952, Chie was stabbed, murdered. Shunryū raised his children, rebuilt temples, and became Rōshi: old teacher.

Soko-ji, the Soto Zen mission in San Francisco, invited Suzuki Rōshi in 1956. He declined until his work in Japan was complete. California surprised the fifty-five year old three years later. He found Buddhism watered down by Issei, Nisei, Japanese-Americans. The Beatniks flocked to Shunryū, sent by Alan Watts, the British-American Episcopal-Buddhist. Suzuki Rōshi taught them to sit for twenty minutes. For forty. Seventy two seasons passed. These Caucasian monks established the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the first Soto monastery beyond Asia’s borders. Sixteen miles from asphalt, Shunryū sat for hours, contemplating this new American Zen.

Perhaps we’ll never know.

What we don’t: Binaural audio, designed colorful noise, can ease pain or induce hallucinations. Music is sound, not noise. Beliefs about noise and sound alter the effects of sound and noise. White noise replicates sound in the womb. The sound of water calms stress and improves health.

The draw of the ocean, of the rain, may be in our genes. From water are we born and nourished, individuals and life itself. Water drops prism sound like light, all colors in, white returned. Is this relaxation or meditation? There is so much more to be seen and heard.

Nature is fantastic. Enjoy it. Let it make you happy.

There was more money in painting than in being tough and mean. Ross perfected quickness at the easel of William Alexander. Wet oil paints run together, bleed colors, produce landscapes in thirty minutes. Ross watched Alexander’s show, The Magic of Oil Painting, on public broadcast and practiced in all his spare time. After twenty years, he finally quit yelling. In four more, he flew to Indiana, taking his mentor’s half hour. For the second episode of The Joy of Painting, Bob recalled the great mountain he’d known and left behind.

But it was not really Mount McKinley. None of Ross’s places were real. All the mountains and skies he’d seen in Alaska – his paintings were about them but not of them. “This is your world,” he constantly reminds. “Maybe there lives a happy little tree over there.” Maybe, he implies, there doesn’t. “You really can’t control what happens here. Don’t try to. Don’t fight it. Use what happens.”

To express yourself as you are is the most important thing.

Near the bay and in the mountains, his followers began to write him down, to trace him. Mostly, he sat in silence. When he spoke, it was mostly Japanese. English, his studies found, could not communicate Zen. His disciples – their word – recorded his lessons, over years, and transcribed, over years. They bound his lessons, his calligraphy, sent the folio to press. Toshitaka Suzuki, Shogaku, Shunryū, Suzuki Rōshi, passed away one year later. “Nothing exists but momentarily in its present form and color.”

We are drops of water separated from the river. We have fallen over the waterfall of life, spread by the wind and split by the rocks. Only when separated into drops can water have or express feelings. When the water returns, it resumes its nature, has composure. What feeling will we have when we die?

Are you familiar with this feeling?

It is a sensation you can get when you watch someone perform simple tasks, listen to certain sounds, voices or both. The tingling begins at the crest of the head, filtering down through the spine, radiating out to the limbs. Autonomous sensory meridian response. Do you experience ASMR or do you have ASMR? “Some people may, may be unsure,” she says.

She is not particularly eloquent, but this is not poetry. Her name is Ilse. She is The Waterwhispers. Choose from her hundreds of videos. If the whispers do nothing, simply watch her tap on a book or table, fold socks, or brush hair, for twenty minutes. For forty.

You can put as many or as few as you want in your world.

For eleven years, there was Joy. For two hundred hours, there was Bob Ross painting, unedited. For each episode, he painted thrice: One was a guide, to sit off screen as inspiration. One was there, before the cameras and the millions. One came later, each stroke captured in stills for publication, images “how to.” Twelve hundred paintings, most donated to public broadcasting stations. Beyond the show: twenty-eight thousand, eight hundred. More to be seen. Some found their way to galleries and auctions. Some are still adrift in Alaska.

Dozens of mountains, dozens of lakes, dozens of barns. Everything repeats. Koans, parables, stories. When painting a cabin, Ross tells of its owner hunting a moose too big and he – the moose – ran off with the man. The old cabin stands abandoned. Now, a new hunter may pass and decide to stay the night. Bob knows the old hunter kept an animal or two, so the cabin needs a fence. Another winter scene features another cabin, that of an old trapper. This poor chap fell into the nearby river and drowned.

I shall not be drowned to death because there are many students.

The lessons of Suzuki Rōshi share much about sitting, about breathing. Lotus – left foot on right thigh, right foot on left thigh. Spine straight. Shoulders in one line. Cosmic mudra – left hand on top of right, thumbs lightly together. “What we call I is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.” Moment after moment, each one of us repeats this activity. “We do things one after another. That is all.”

Through teaching, we may learn human nature. Through teaching alone, it is impossible to know I. It is impossible to know water in itself. For that, there is practice. The student should teach himself. When you sit, sit. When you bow, bow. When you eat, eat. When you paint, paint. These are the practice of humans. Waves are the practice of water.

I just wanted to share with you.

The water whispers over and over. As she brushes hair, Ilse tells stories. Her hair, it turns out, is not brown at all. It is the darkest shade of blonde. Imagine. She imagines sitting on a light, thick, fluffy, floating cloud. Some days, she layers white noise behind her. Today, she can hear the rain outside, lightly, and she imagines it as ocean spray. Perhaps it is calling her back to the womb, to the shore, to the temple.

Brushing hair. Wrapping presents. Writing pencil on paper. Engaging our brain to interact carefully and thoughtfully with our environment. The brain tingles. No research but experience. No test but watching, feeling. Do you experience ASMR or do you have ASMR? Brushing on makeup. Bristles on fingertips. Whispering; painting.

People will think you spend hours doing this.

He appears in Amsterdam three days a week. Mexico has held him since 1990. Costa Rica gave him air waves in 2001. Even when viewers do not speak English, the audio remains. Most will see him and never pick up painting. Still, they will watch and listen. Run once a week, The Joy of Painting lasts for eight years. It repeats and repeats, because we’re having so much fun here with these trees.

Cadmium yellow. Sap green. Titanium white. Dark sienna. Alizarin crimson. Colors from the earth. Cadmium stores energy. Sap protects life. Titanium is as strong as steel. Sienna was used to paint caves. Alizarin will stain bone. It was bone that let Bob Ross go. Lymphoma. The little clock on the wall says we’re out of time. Painting ended, and Bob left one year later.

The painting is already there before you paint.

The ensō is a circle in one or two strokes. Sumi-e. Ink wash. Once a stroke is laid, it cannot be undone. Use the big cloud brush, wool filled with ink. The line is wide. Black on white. Silence through the noise. Listen to the bristles on the washi. Technique the same as calligraphy, the same as Suzuki Rōshi drawing “beginner’s mind.” Eight brushstrokes. Eight waves of the hand. Eight folds to the path of Zen.

A Note on Research

All italics are quotations. Goes, Blend, Nature, Many, and Hours are from Bob Ross, The Joy of Painting, various episodes. Existence, Clouds, Yourself, Drowned, and Painting are from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki, published by Weatherhill, Inc. (copyright Shambhala Publications as of 2011). Interference is from “Noise effects on human performance: A meta-analytic synthesis” (Szalma and Hancock, 2011). Perhaps, Familiar, and Share are from Ilse at thewaterwhispers.com, various clips.

Other quotes and information on Bob Ross taken from “Bob Ross Uses His Brush To Spread Paint And Joy” by Linda Shrieves (Orlando Sentinel, July 7, 1990) and “The Undying Magic of Bob Ross’s Happy Little Trees” by Cameron Morfit (New York Times, November 18, 2001). Biographic details of Shunryu Suzuki can be found at sweepingzen.com and in Crooked Cucumber by David Chadwick, published by Harmony Books; further lectures have been published as Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness (University of California Press) and Not Always So (copyright San Francisco Zen Center, published by HarperCollins). Additional research on noise was taken from “An update on noise and performance” (Smith, 2012) with commentary from “Scientists discuss ocean’s effect on the brain” by Suzanne Bohan (Contra Costa Times, June 6, 2011). ASMR information can be found at asmr-research.org, the NeuroLogica Blog run by Dr. Steven Novella (a neurologist at Yale University), and on episode 491, “Tribes” of This American Life.

Justin Fetterman grew up in Ohio and studied at Ohio Wesleyan University. After a brief stint in Alabama, he moved to Boston and completed an MFA in creative writing. He currently teaches philosophy, film, and English. Previous fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Dialogue, and the OWL.