ArtsTalk Blog - Q & A with Sumi-e artist Roslyn Levin

Roslyn Levin is sumi-e or Japanese brushstroke artist as well as a shodo or Japanese calligraphy artist. She lives in Shelburne with a studio in Orangeville at Dragonfly Arts on Broadway. She has been a SSAC member for about 20 years. 

We hope you are inspired to further your interests in the arts through this interview.

Q. When you create what is your medium? Do you ever combine different mediums and if so, why?

A.  Pure sumi-e is just black/grey ink against the paper, I will sometimes incorporate watercolours. To still be a sumi-e painting, it may not be more than 40% of the work.

Q. Does your art require specific tools which work to make the successful completion of your piece?

A.  All parts of my art form are made by hand such as the papers (washi), made in Japan, brushes (fude), some I make myself always made from natural materials, and ink (sumi), made of compressed soot and glue. There is also the inkstone (Suzuri), where I grind my ink with water which sits on a felt pad to protect and keep the ink and water from spreading uncontrollably on the washi. My signature stamps, (hanko), I carve from rock using steel wool. My husband hand makes my plywood stretchers.

Q. When you begin a new work do you have a set routine or specific steps to begin the process?

A. First I do a lot of research referencing photos and videos or even the zoo as I primarily paint birds and animals. I usually have an idea of the pose and the motion or emotion I want to create. This would be a starting point though with cats I often just paint. My space then needs to be set up for there is a specific manner to set up the water ink, ink stone, brush and paper. A clean space is as important to me as my choice of music to be played. My papers react differently so I need to choose appropriately for the type of lines I want to create. Some create crisp black lines while others give softer lighter blacks. The brush must be decided upon as in sumi-e you start and end with the same brush. The brushes have varying degrees of control and it needs to suit the purpose for the piece. Now with all selected I am ready to paint.

Q. Do you have a favourite subject you are drawn to and is there a reason for this?

A. My favourite subject is cats though I am drawn to long necked birds and horses. I can portray motion with just one brushstroke and emotion can be exhibited by the slight turning of the head, again with very few brushstrokes.
I find that through these creatures I can speak my emotional truth.

Q. Do you have a studio or specific place to work?

A. Other than my studio at Dragonfly, which I share with other artists, during Covid I paint from my home studio space, which I also use when doing large pieces, mounting and framing. 

Q. When did you become an artist? Have you found this easy to say,"I am an artist"?

A.  I have always been an artist. My earliest memories are of painting, especially frogs that ended up in our home after Hurricane Hazel when I was 4. I wanted to make art my career but spent 10 years as a Computer Systems Analyst. The stress of the job as well as not following my passion lead me to poor health. I went  to the Ottawa School of Art and took classes in many mediums. Here I tried sumi-e to help improve the strength of my brushstroke and knew it was the medium for me. I studied for the following 14 years with Tomoko Kodama often teaching for her. She saw my ability with this difficult medium and encouraged me. Occasionally I would venture to other mediums but sumi-e drew me back.

Q. Do you have a mentor or other influence you feel has helped you develop as an artist?

A.  My mother took me to the AGO, when I was 7, to see an exhibit of Van Gough's works. She had to drag me away from each painting as I was so enthused. 

In 2008 fortunately my work was seen by Noriko Maeda at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto. She asked if I wished to study shodo (Japanese Calligraphy) with her. I have worked with Noriko sensei since then. I will be forever grateful for these two women, Tomoko sensei and Noriko sensei for entering my life at the right time and presenting me the challenges I needed to grow as an artist.

Q. What would you suggest as a way to begin learning your art?

A. Sumi-e can be learned from a book such as I have written, The Brush Dances, and it is available at FortyOne: Local Art market, our SSAC location and store. It is also available on a print on demand basis from most bookstores worldwide. It is easier to learn with a teacher or sensei as they help you learn to use the tools making your venture easier. 

Q. What are some challenges you have faced as an artist and what helped you overcome them?

A. There will always be problems such as presently during COVID when shows have been online I have shied away from submitting to them. I have allowed my own belief, "you do not know a painting unless you see it in person", to hamper my desire to present my works to others. I continue to paint, sell and get commissions but know I must re-frame my thinking if I am to move forward and use social media.
Another challenge for me is my hand tremor, which is called 'intentional'. It arises when I have the need to create a precise line. This isn't good for an artist that does precise poses. I have found I a method of therapeutic touch to help me overcome this. It is important to be open to different ways to move past different obstacles. 

Q. If you have a dry spell or lack knowing what to do next how do you handle this?

A. I just begin painting cats in one or more brushstrokes and as I relax new subjects present themselves. I might also look at reference photos until a motion or an emotion captures me and I begin creating in ink.

Q. What is one of your memorable successes in relationship to your work?

A. In 1997 I set a goal which I believed was short term. I had by that time painted thousands of cats. My goal was to paint it in 1 brushstroke. At the time I was painting various birds in 1 brushstroke. It took me 6 months to get a cat down to 3 brushstrokes. Two and a half years later while teaching in my home, my cat Sophia, jumped onto the sofa and turned her back to me. I remember feeling snubbed and saw what had eluded me. I executed the one brushstroke immediately, lost in that moment. I have never sold that piece remembering that moment and the goal attained. 

Q. When do you know a piece is finished?

A. Sumi-e is completed in minimal brushstrokes. Before I put the brush to paper I ask myself if the stroke I am about to make will say what Is needed. If the answer is "no" I stop place my hanko on the composition as the final mark. 

Q. Do you have a particular quote or phrase you use generally in your life.

A. "one eye sees, the other feels". By Paul Klee

Q. If our readers are want to see more of your works or a commission how should they contact you?

A. Contact me through Dragonfly Arts 519-941-5249, my Website www.artbysoslyn.on.ca or by my home phone 519-925-2401.


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