Dried Fish, the Past, the Present and the Green Mountains

Dried Fish, the Past, the Present and the Green Mountains
Watercolor and Ink on Mulberry Paper (74cm x 44.5cm)
John Shrader, 2013

Rambling Thoughts of the Artist

Dried Fish is the first painting of my Green Mountains series. It did not start out with any intended meaning, but rather a collection of images I thought looked interesting. As I painted, ideas and meaning started to develop, which I carried on through the others in the series. Dried Fish was not completed before work on the others of the series began, so the final painting is both a rough start and a full embodiment of what I’m attempting in this series, namely looking at the questions of contentment and romanticization via traditional media and images of the past, the present, and folk art.

Dried Fish began with the titular dried fish. It was a snack at a small Korean pub, about as thick as my thumb, length from the base of my thumb to the tip of my pointer finger. While I had had plenty of fish, dried or otherwise in Korea, that was my first, and so far only time, to have that fish. I’m sure I’ll come across it again on the future. I found it interesting and snapped a few shots of the fish. It’s unique look up close made me think it would be quite interesting to portray it much larger.

As other elements started to fall into place, certain meanings started to concretize for me. First is the presentation of time. On the right there the past reminds us of a seemingly better time. The jangseung (Korean totem) and duck sculptures are romanticizations of when we were more connected and had stronger communities. On the left we see a monochromatic city from which emerges a giant dried fish. We often see our lives as dull, lost midst the mundane homogeneity of the modern city, our lives with as much purpose as an emaciated fish.

Another important feature is the frame and mountains. The mountains are nature, which we are always a part of, and always have a relation with. But they also can be dreams of a simpler, better life, as expressed by circa 9th century courtiers:

Let’s live, let us live
Let us live in the Green Mountains
Let us eat wild berries and herbs
And live in the Green Mountains!
Yalli yalli yallaseong yallari yalla!

-Song of the Green Mountains

This call is echoed by romantics throughout the ages; W.B. Yeats likewise expresses:

I will arise and go now,
For always night and day
I hear lake water lapping
With low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway
Or on the pavements gray, 
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

-The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Y.B. Yeats

The mountains are found on the other side of a frame. This may be a window frame, suggesting the better life is just beyond the walls we construct for ourselves. We only need leave. The saying ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ comes to mind. On the other hand, the frame may also be the frame of a painting, suggesting that perhaps we construct our own happiness. We only need create it.

Whether we need to go out and find happiness or we need to shape it, the rest of the painting needs to be reexamined: the structures of the past and present are not the only things found in the foreground. Firstly, we find pine branches reaching for the heavens. In both Eastern and Western cultures, the pine is a symbol of life and longevity, because they keep their leaves and survive the harsh winter when other trees appear to die. We too are hardy, flourishing through the good and the bad, and while our ancestors were also hardy, the tree on the right is dead. They are not with us any more; for better or worse, their struggle is over.

Likewise, while the light of the past shines with us even today, we shine even brighter. Our lives and thoughts are diverse and growing, allowing for a flourishing of culture our ancestors could never have imagined. Yet the problems of our day are close at hand while the problems of our past is not. Contrary to Shakespeare, the good of people often lives on, the bad is oft interred in their bones.

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