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«Georgia State University ScholarWorks Georgia State University Art and Design Theses Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design 4-8-2012 My Trip to ...»

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Georgia State University

ScholarWorks @ Georgia State University

Art and Design Theses Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design


My Trip to Notan

James M. Chapman

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Recommended Citation

Chapman, James M., "My Trip to Notan." Thesis, Georgia State University, 2012.


This Thesis is brought to you for free and open access by the Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design at ScholarWorks @ Georgia State University. It has been accepted for inclusion in Art and Design Theses by an authorized administrator of ScholarWorks @ Georgia State University. For more information, please contact scholarworks@gsu.edu.




Under the Direction of Stan Anderson ABSTRACT My Trip to Notan charts my own journey from the rawness and acceptance of multiple life losses into understanding, and finally, renewal. The key result of this project is a prototype book, a 48-page digital Print-On-Demand (POD) publication, which also includes a DVD that inserts into book’s back and features live demonstrations, interviews and other segments related to the book. Additionally, the body of work from which the book was gleaned was presented at the thesis exhibition. Ultimately, My Trip to Notan is a sketch of my understanding of the framework that threads through design, physics and philosophy, inspired by the simplicity of the ancient art of Notan, and upon my own fragmentary observations gathered from the journey. My hope was to reveal some sense of the pulse that drives the inquiry, rather than the suggestion of any sort of destination.

INDEX WORDS: Notan design, Symbol, Gestalt image, figure/ground, Positive and negative space, blank, White space, Otherness




A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts in the College of Arts and Sciences Georgia State University Copyright by James Michael Chapman




Committee Chair: Stan Anderson Committee: Elizabeth Throop

–  –  –

Eternal thanks to my wife, Carmen, whose support and encouragement in my MFA quest have been both heroic and steadfast, even when my own was not. Thanks to my thesis committee, chair Stan Anderson, Elizabeth Throop and Paige Taylor, whose insight, patience and guidance have been considerable. Thanks to graduate director Joe Peragine and all the excellent professors, instructors and fellow students for their friendship and inspiration. Thanks to my family for their support, especially to Rick for the strong coffee before my long bus commutes. Salutes to Ken Williams, Gene Coker and Drew White for moral support.

Thanks to Ben and Kari Niles and Rick Johnson, amigos all. Thanks to Keith Albertson, editor dude and friend. And in honor of my late, great friend, Jeanette Niles, who never feared the tides.

–  –  –


List of Figures


Travelogue 1: Early Rumblings

Travelogue 2: The First Shape I Saw

Travelogue 3: The Case of the “Afro Panda’

Travelogue 4: The Bounded and the Unbounded

Travelogue 5: The Difference in Looking & Seeing

Travelogue 6: Saying and Not Saying

Travelogue 7: Science and the Science-Minded

Travelogue 8: The Image, Once Loose in the Mind

Travleogue 9: Arrangement & Rearrangement

Travelogue 10: Light, Mother of Shape



–  –  –

Figure 1. The Resulting Project: Book, CD and original work

Figure 2. Movie stills from an animation.


Figure 3. Drawing monuments, which the mobile application renders as sound

Figure 4. A ‘singing’ drawing from the session (shown in Figure 2) using an iPiod

Figure 5. Insect 5, The study of a insect under magnification.

8” x 10”, colored pencil on paper.............5 Figure 6. Drill, 36” x 70”, oil pastel on plastic, 2011

Figure 7. Rock Piling chart, randomly-tossed paper triangles into patterns

Figure 8. Woodruff Park, using the basis of notan design couple with watermedia 2011

Figure 9 Negative and positive triangles compared

Figure 10 The World Wildlife Fund logo

Figure 11. The “Afro Panda” made using a numeral 3 and an 8.

Vector illustration, 2010

Figure 12. Greenish Self Portrait, a watermedia painting, 20 X x 27, 2011

Figure 13. Anachronesia I, 20” x 27,” watermedia, 2010

Figure 14. Circuit, 12” x 12,” watermedia, 2011

Figure 15. Anachronesia II, 15” x 22,” watermedia, 2011

Figure 16. Rabbit or duck?

Figure 17. Light striking a skull

Figure 18. Value applications

Figure 19. But what color red is it?

–  –  –

Last year I witnessed the birth of my son and the death of my mother; both events were marked by dogged struggle, as if passage into or out of this life meant breaking through a heavy veil, and only then by sweat and troubled flesh. I marveled at my son’s emergence and was stunned at the absence of my mother. Just prior, I had lost my first wife in a long, cruel war with cancer. I also had lost my father, many relatives and close friends and even my favorite little collie – all in a terribly short time. The blows shattered my little world, and I milled about like a windblown scarecrow trying to piece together some sense of it. Still, I believed that in time, my life would resume much the same as before, except with a sense of subtraction for all that was lost.

–  –  –

Absence has its own quality, but it is not one of subtraction. It is one of peculiar presence. It is akin to hearing a distant music whose source you can never reach, no matter which direction you turn. It tinges all it touches with its silent rippling waveform.

Many have written of this enigmatic space with eloquence. I am moved by a passage, for instance, by author Loren Eiseley: "Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments, or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war."2 Albert Einstein wrote of “a knowledge of the existence of 1 Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group,1953), 44 2 Loren Eiseley, The Unexpected Universe, (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace & Company: 1969) something we cannot penetrate...”3 And I marvel at the words of poet Kakuzo Okakura: "Real beauty can be experienced only by one who mentally completes the incomplete."4 These musings speak of things hidden rather than things non-existent – things perhaps obvious to the babe, the warrior and the mystic, but invisible to others. I recall how my son, as an infant, frequently chortled at the ceiling as if watching cherubs play dog pile; I have seen the dying suddenly perk up to smile and greet long-deceased people from their past.

–  –  –

My hope in coming to graduate school was to slow down and observe the wave rolling in its silence, enough so to give it a name, a face, anything. I felt by doing so, l, the windblown scarecrow, might be able to then find some semblance of peace over it at last. And though history has not boded well for those who follow music into a forest. I did so, out of the need to know.

In time, I wanted to express my observations visually.

Figure 1. The resulting project: a hardcover book, 8” x 10”, a DVD movie short, supported by a new body of work.

2009-2012 3Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions: “The World as I See It.” (New York. NY: Bonanza Books, 1988; originally published by Crown Publishers, 1954), 10 4 Kakuz Okakura, The Book of Tea, (Mineola, NY, Dover Books, 1964: originally published in 1906) Figure 2. Movie stills from Rhonda Forever software, I created several animations that allow a look through drawn 3-D space. 2009-2010.

I first turned to the digital domain, because of its sheer range of possibilities. I became an early beta tester for the then-new Rhonda Forever software, an experimental 3-D drawing program that gives an uncanny look from inside, or through, a 3-D contour drawing. 5 I later experimented with Sonic Wire Sculpture, the companion mobile application of Rhonda Forever, which translates 3-D lines against a musical scale. 6 The resulting sounds can be uncanny, and I felt that they might serve as a voice for this wave of presence and absence that I sensed. Thinking that old cemetery stones might be interesting subject matter by which to extrude sound through contour drawing, I made several on-location drawings of aging monuments that yield remarkably erie sounds. I spent a fair amount of time in 2010 doing these cemetery drawings, thinking I was giving silence a voice, by proxy. Some sounded like a child’s melancholy humming or men working on a chain gang, and many reminded me of the whale songs often heard on TV animal shows.

5 www.rhondaforever.com 6 http://sws.cc/ Figure 3. Using an iPod, I draw a basic shape of the stone woman, which the software then renders as sound.

Figure 4. The ‘singing drawing,’ from the session shown in Figure 3 using an iPod and Sonic Wire Sculpture.

2010 Later, however, I discovered two holes in my idea: First, a drawing of anything done in the Sonic application yields captivating sounds because it is an amazing technology in action. Second, I learned (after trying to describe my idea to people who do know something about sound) that in the world of audio, saying something sounds “like a whale singing” is the equivalent of saying something “tastes like chicken,” which is the equivalent of saying it tastes much like nothing in particular in itself.

Figure 5. Insect 5, The study of an insect under magnification.

8” x 10”, colored pencil on paper, 2011 I then returned to traditional drawing on paper, focusing on natural artifacts and evidence that suggest absence, such as hollow insect exoskeletons, fossils or footprints.

The idea was that a fossil, as example, is not the life itself, but it has touched the life and therefore serves as a firsthand witness, also a ‘by proxy idea.’ Similarly, I was inspired by the sarcophagus lids and masks of antiquity meant to represent the deceased in the presence of the divine. Specifically, the so-called ‘mask of Agamemnon,’ a death mask from 16th century B.C. Mycenae, inspired a series of large oil pastel drawings. I was also intrigued by the notion that the artisan who had fashioned the mask likely didn’t know the high-ranking person for whom the mask was made, which added another level of separation into the mix.

To explore this notion, I ‘stamped’ sentimental personal items by wrapping them in tin foil, and then unfolding a mask, of which I then did drawings. For example, I stamped a drill that my father and I had often used while “carpentering” together, and then I made a drawing of the tin foil cast.

Figure 6. Drill, 36” x 70”, oil pastel on plastic, 2011 The series seemed to hint at the strata of separation, a hall of mirrors represented as an impression of an impression of an impression.

Yet, something was still missing, I felt. Was any of it real, for example, or was I simply still the scarecrow milling about, fixated on what C.S. Lewis described as “the Numinous,”7 that 7 Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain, 1940, Harper Collins Books, New York, pp 5-13 age-old sense of awe or dread? I felt that there was something more; I was just missing it because no matter how clever all of my suppositions had been, ultimately the results depicted no real sense of presence or absence, nor the wave between them.

Then it hit me: this space cannot be literally depicted. If a viewer experiences it, they access it on their own. All I can might is trigger their journey. And therein lay my zen moment: The partial evokes the whole, just as the arc evokes the circle of which it is part. Seen in this light, everything material is a fragment that represents something beyond its own boundaries. For example, if you pass me on the street today, you’d see only one breath of my life, which is nothing compared to all of the breathing I have done over a lifetime. Understanding this arc/circle relationship became key, as this was the right metaphor for me, expressed with astonishing clarity and brevity.

The role of a symbol is obviously not new; it is that spark across the gap that fires all symbols. The significance is that in this leap from one thing to another, the mind has traveled. Additionally, the simpler the symbol, the greater is its capacity for idea conveyance. And since I longed to express a vastness beyond my ability name it, it dawned on me that I needed a symbol whose back door opened into the ether, where boundaries cease to have meaning.

–  –  –

Notan, a Japanese word that means the interplay of dark and light, is at least 2,000 years old and underpins much of gestalt imagery theory as well as the figure/ground exercises used in today’s twodimensional visual art classes.

The beauty of notan, as metaphor for space, is this: If two opposites, black and white (or positive and negative shapes) are placed in dynamic opposition, then a mysterious ‘third space’ is evoked. This ‘third space’ isn’t there in any factual sense, yet is there in a way that cannot be denied. Therefore, it is the combination of presence and absence, bound by a tension much like my mysterious wave that vacillates between two far shores.

One of the oldest and best-known notan symbols is the Yin and Yang mark, a circular balance of unity wherein two koi fish consume each other into eternity, yet neither lose because they also gain simultaneously. All of this is told by the by the interplay between two simple fields, light and dark.

–  –  –

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