Los Angeles

Drawing Big: Sumi Ink Club

Sumi Ink Club - The Portrait

Doodling -- a treasured pastime of many young procrastinators and a rigorous habit of dedicated artists, troublemakers and creatives across the globe. When we were children, we were often encouraged not to doodle while talking to other people, listening to others or participating in an activity, but the Sumi Ink Club wants you to do the opposite.
A group designed to host collaborative group drawing/paintings workshops with one publicly owned large-scale piece of art as the finished product, Sumi Ink Club invites the world to join in and draw together.

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Sumi ink brush painting is a 2,000 year old tradition in Chinese, Korean and Japanese cultures. Early practitioners were rooted in Zen Buddhism and were highly disciplined in art of concentration, clarity and simplicity, many of whom were Buddhist monks. These masterful practitioners dedicated themselves to the art form with spiritual intensity through years of meditation, reflection and strict discipline; they were encouraged to enter a deep contemplative state when creating a sumi ink painting. Even the creation of the ink and materials themselves is an intentional act of meditation and concentration.

This inherent clarity and peacefulness of the tradition of sumi ink painting remains at the core of L.A.'s newest collaborative sensation, the Sumi Ink Club. Originally born as a brain child of artistic team Sarah Rara and Luke Fischbeck of local band Lucky Dragons, Sumi Ink Club has spread across the world as a collaborative self-starting program to engage communities and open up dialogues among strangers, while creating a community-owned large-scale sumi ink painting.

SUMI, process, colomiers

"It started in a similar form to what it is today -- a gathering of people, open to all who want to attend," explains Rara. Rara and Fischbeck started the first Sumi Ink Club in 2005, in Providence, Rhode Island, but now, there dozens of Sumi Ink Clubs popping up all over the world -- in L.A., Pennsylvania, New York, Scotland, Mexico, British Columbia, Australia and many more locations. Rara and Fischbeck hope to have as many clubs exist as possible, as that's part of the whole point of the program.

"We think of it kind of like a recipe, something open we can really put out there and people can make it in their own way, but it's kind of an objective thing, to see if the thing that is made is the thing the recipe was made for," Fischbeck explains. "And there are also variations on ways people can reconnect back into the larger community -- like they can post the results of holding the meetings, or they can publish books, or there's ways to loop back and share with other people who are doing it as well."

Sumi Ink Club gathering at Heart of LA (HOLA).

It seems a bit daunting, to draw with complete strangers on an artwork that you don't even get to take home with you. Drawing on a shared space is difficult for many artists, and adults in general, as it turns out, but the conversations that come out of the activity seem to be more meaningful than taking home the physical evidence of the experience. "It's a pretty intense conversation when you're sitting down with someone, and there's no music or food or movie - -it's quiet, and you're sitting across from someone for anywhere from 15 mins to 2 hours, so there's something always generated from that -- and its interesting," Rara says. "It's a completely different kind of social interaction," Fischbeck adds. "There is this kind of way of triangulating the conversation."

Multi-Sumi meet up in L.A.

SUMI, process, venice

Sumi Smockshop meet up

Rara explains further: "It's been said that doodling and small amounts of distraction can help you learn. So, the fact that there's this motor skill happening, like controlling a brush while you're having a conversation, the conversations are usually so earnest or sincere or lucid -- they're very special. They're different from conversations I have with people at the post office or on a bus with strangers -- they're very focused somehow."

Participating in a Sumi Ink Club painting session can act as a kind of therapy for some people. With a more focused conversation, no judgments, and a busy hand in painting pattern, it can be a personally relaxing experience as well as an expressive way to create something for the community, by the community. A Sumi Ink Club in New York even hosted a group drawing event at a women's shelter, as a kind of therapeutic practice. Rara said it gave the women a way to talk outside of their therapists' office, on a more natural level, and it gave them a way to make friends, feel connections and be creative -- all very good feelings to have. Since the finished product is owned by everyone who participated, the patterns and designs can be replicated and printed, scanned and shared, used for whatever project or purposes the artists feel appropriate.

Sumi process shot at PMCA

Sumi mural site, L.A.

Rara admits that it's not really about the object. "We don't really hold onto the drawings, we document them, but we don't hold onto them as precious objects, it's more of the gathering and the conversation that is the main output of the thing," she explains. Fischbeck adds, "The point can be the experience, but there's also the sense of research, of what kind of drawings people make when they make something together --what these drawings look like," He says. "We generate so much data, so many drawings, that we have a really good sense of how people can make something together."

With just a short list of qualifying rules, and a forum to share information, images, videos and more, Fischbeck and Rara encourage people to create their own Sumi Ink Club, and host a group drawing session. Art is often thought of as a solitary effort, a lonely reflection of the world, seen through the eyes of one artist, but there is a lot more to gain from inclusive art-making like this, and it may or may not be the art itself.

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Sumi Ink Club at UNC

The Sumi Ink Clubs have been gaining a lot of steam lately, with recent collaborative group exhibits at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Pasadena Museum of California Art, Riverside Art Museum and Noguchi Museum, in Long Island City. The club has also done collaborative performances at Berkeley Art Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, MUDAM in Berlin, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and LACMA as well. Starting his month, Sumi Ink Club will also be involved in a new line of notebooks envisioned, designed, and illustrated by contemporary artists, called Plumb. As in their cooperative nature, this is a collaborative project between publisher Knock Knock and artist Tucker Nichols where Sumi Ink Club was invited to create some great sketchbooks for the line. Sumi Ink Club's journals for Plumb reflect the ways Rara and Fischbeck use their own personal notebooks as well as explore the participatory nature of their creative process. "I'd really like to make a notebook that somebody's best friend would feel they can grab and leave something in," says Rara. "It's that kind of spirit where it can be for focus and deep thought, but it can also be something that is passed around and shared."

Sumi Art Box for Plumb | Image courtesy of Knock Knock.

Fischbeck and Rara have presented collaborative work in a wide variety of contexts, with and without Sumi Ink Club, including the Whitney Museum of American Art (as part of the 2008 Whitney Biennial), the Centre Georges Pompidou, London's Institute for Contemporary Art, The Kitchen in New York, REDCAT and LACMA in Los Angeles, MOCA Los Angeles, the 54th Venice Biennale and the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, among others.

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Their band, Lucky Dragons has been active since 2000, and has been blowing audiences' minds in and outside of the L.A. experimental music scene. I had the pleasure of seeing Lucky Dragons live in 2008, and was entranced and enthralled by the performance, the open-spirit, playful sound exploration and the non-judgmental collaborative essence that Lucky Dragons is known for. Fischbeck says the name "Lucky Dragons" is borrowed from a fishing vessel that was caught in the fallout from H-bomb tests in the mid-1950′s, an incident which sparked international outcry and gave birth to the worldwide anti-nuclear movement.

Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara for Lucky Dragons

"We experience sound moving from live utterance to processed signal, amplified and diffused into the room. We enact a translation, listening and responding to the processed signal, attaching new layers to it, simultaneously forging and following a wave of sound that condenses into patterns and disperses into clouds. Simple video images form for us an anchor in time, progressing slowly, with action that is hard to perceive until gradual changes are made apparent. A flute, a lily, a newspaper, a triangle, a mirror, a discharge of smoke -- these visual elements provide a medium through which to perceive a specific speed, a dilated scale of time passing."

SUMI, process, classic

Sumi books in a Sumi installation

Soon Sumi Ink Club will host an exhibit and event in Mexico City, at the Museo del Chopo. With the help of the local Sumi Ink Club, they will do a two-day drawing event, and they will publish a collaborative zine for the museum's new zine library.

Above all else, Sumi Ink Club facilitates conversation, friendship, discourse, collaboration and creative spirit among strangers and communities. These participatory groups and projects have become popular in the last five to ten years, and the club creates a great way that history, popular culture, and relational aesthetics can join forces and strengthen human relationships and independent spirit. "We encourage anyone who is interested to come and try it out for themselves. The best way to learn about it is by doing it," Rara says.

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Top Image: Sumi Ink Club - The Portrait.

About the Author

Evan is the Editor in Chief of Inland Empire Weekly, Culture Magazine, and Rogue Art Research & Writing (RARW).
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