Painting Chinese by Herbert Kohl

Posted: under Reviews.
Tags: , , , , December 1st, 2011

by Kelly

by Kelly

Bargain bins in book stores always catch my eye. Many months ago I came across a book in one such bin called Painting Chinese. The author was Herbert Kohl.

The book jacket description intrigued me. The book, it said, had been written by a retired teacher and was the story of how he learned to stop being a teacher and be a student instead.

One day, while wandering about San Francisco, Kohl came across a school of Chinese art. He registered for a painting class and assumed he would be placed in a class of adult learners. But when he showed up on the first day, he was the only adult in a room full of children.

In his professional life, Kohl had been highly respected as a teacher of kids and as a teacher of new teachers. Yet when he signed up for Chinese painting classes, his reputation did not proceed him. He knew little of painting, brush strokes or Chinese landscapes.

Kohl was used to thinking of himself as an accomplished and educated individual, but when it came to Chinese art, he was an utter beginner. Even the kids, his fellow students in his class, knew more than he did.

The book, Paining Chinese, is about Kohl’s attempt to accept this new circumstance in his life. It is also about his struggle to grow old with grace and dignity.

I enjoyed the book immensely, but I found I couldn’t read it for long stretches of time. Brief snatches of time seemed to help it sink into my mind better. Even after I had set the book down and moved on to other things in my day, I found myself thinking about it, for Kohl’s attempts to learn how to paint Chinese landscapes reminded me of my own attempts to learn how to write Japanese haiku.

Towards the end of the book, after three years of learning, Kohl wrote about the daily walks he had gotten into the habit of taking and how the process of painting Chinese landscapes had altered the way he looked at nature. He wrote:

“On the walks, I discovered how much my perception of nature had been transformed by painting Chinese. I looked at the ocean as a force, alive and active. Trees had become individual beings, establishing their place in a crowded natural environment … All of this had been around me for over twenty years, but I hadn’t seen it with such detail and specificity. I was fully there, living that moment and not distracted. I let the environment take hold of me rather than just walk through it … the world suddenly became light, beautiful, and most of all more visible.”

Haiku, in many ways, has done the exact same thing for me. Now that I am ending my third year of posting on Haiku By Two, I am finding that I see my own natural environment differently.

Because traditional haiku requires a kigo, or a nature reference, I have been been paying attention to natural cycles in ways that I wasn’t before I started writing haiku.  For example, I have been watching the big cottonwoods by my driveway for three years now. I know that, come fall, they are not the first trees in my yard to loose their leaves. I also know that a family of squirrels has built a new nest among their branches. In the spring, I know how to look up into their canopy and judge whether or not their cotton-ball seeds are going to start dropping tomorrow or next week. These trees have become individuals to me. And, for me, there is value in that.

I don’t know how long Alison and I will keep Haiku By Two going. But I do know that learning how to haiku has changed how I view the natural environment around me. And that’s I lesson I intend to hold on to.



  • 1

    Kelly, I am on page 60 in this book. I find it fascinating, and I wish that I could be in such a class. It is helping me to think about painting in a new way. The author’s personal scenario, learning amongst children while he lives out his golden years, is also a very beautiful one. Now here is the funny thing… each night I feel compelled to pick up this book and read it. And each night I read no more than 2 – 5 pages. How odd! I’ve never read a book in such short snippets while also feeling compelled to keep reading.

    Comment by Alison — January 30, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

  • 2

    That’s exactly how I approached it too!

    I just knew you would dig this book. Your name is practically etched into every page!

    Comment by Kelly — February 1, 2012 @ 7:55 am

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