By Kellie Wachter
I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the Japanese concept of Wabi/Sabi, but the more I research it the more I realize the beauty of its meaning gets lost in translation. At first I thought it meant it was shabby chic-esque, only with less white chippy paint, and more stylistic of Japanese culture. Wrong. It’s about the meaning behind the piece.
Wabi can be directly translated as ‘desolate.’ This is a very basic translation that harkens back to the ancient and original meaning of the word. But over time, Wabi has evolved to mean something much more like beautiful austerity. Sumi e paintings (black, calligraphy ink-art), with their delicious combination of simple and disciplined lines, are a good example of Wabi beauty. My Apache bean pot decorated with nothing more than its own micaceous clay and fire clouds gifted into it from the kiln is another example. Living an uncluttered life is also a nod to Wabi. Uncluttered is something I am still working on, but I am getting there, it takes time. Sabi it takes time. Its basic translation is ‘withered,’ but much like Wabi’s translations- ‘withered’ does not even begin to cover the meaning. Aged to perfection is how I would describe it. A great illustration of Sabi in nature would be the art of bonsai. For these trees, the growth from its hard knocks of life creates beauty: the harder the life, the prettier the bonsai. The masters of bonsai work long and hard to create the illusion of a life spent clinging to the edge of a windswept precipice. It’s fascinating what withered beauty means outside of our typical mainstream beliefs.
I like to think that I find everyday examples of Wabi/Sabi in my life. My old flea market coffee table must have spent part of its life before me as a shop bench. It has stray kerf marks from a saw gone rogue, a mysterious hole drilled right through it and now has the sofa side lip polished to a sheen from years of stocking feet resting happily on it. I find it ironic that the thing we are told not to do (because it will ruin the furniture) is the very thing that has actually perfected my own completely Sabi coffee table. And on a back road near Beaufort South Carolina, you will find the Old Sheldon Church ruins. A shining example of Sabi, she bears the scars of the wars she has witnessed, being burned once by the British in the Revolutionary War, and again by Sherman as he marched relentlessly to the sea. Her scars make her beautiful in a way that all the stained glass in the world could not. Beginning to understand the significance?
You might be surprised where you find Wabi/Sabi in your life. When I was getting dressed the other day, I reached for my old beater pair of blue Chuck Taylors. I noticed that not only was the rubber on the toe caps cracking, but that they had gotten stained while I was dying fabric for some quilt yet to be born. I suppose a more fashion-conscious individual, their eyes trained on a different sort of beauty would have tossed them out and gone shopping for a new pair, but not me.
I can’t think of a better pair of shoes to wear as I continue on my intrepid search for beauty. They will remind me to see the world with fresh eyes and to find beauty hiding in plain sight. Perhaps it will reveal itself as and old pair of desolate and withered shoes, made better by the endless miles they have walked and yet still waiting patiently like an old friend for me to spend another day with. To my mind that is the meaningful, desolate, withering beauty of Wabi/Sabi.