Friday, October 23, 2015

Learning by painting. Conceptualizing ancient irrigation tanks ofSri Lanka

I came to Sri Lanka on a Fulbright scholarship to study cultural landscape ecology. In the back of my mind I had hoped to set up a studio and do some painting. As luck would have it my guesthouse has an empty beach cabana where I could get to work, just a few feet from the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean. 

We got to Colombo after several weeks of walking, exploring the by-ways of the countryside in the North and North Central Provinces. My focus was irrigation tanks, large bodies of water induced over the centuries to gather, filter, and distribute water to the rice fields. Amazing as these are as a scenic feature (and they are abundant--as many as one per square kilometer in parts of the country), it is even more amazing to start to understand how they work. 

For me this learning came not from reading articles but by tramping along and through the (seasonally dry) tank beds. Feeling the contours, the breezes, the angles and colors was my goal. And it taught me a lot. 

Coming to paint the tanks seemed a natural idea, not as scenery, at least at first, but as a kind of map. I had studied topo maps of this part of Sri Lanka for several years and recently got a hold of the new and immensely informative 1:10,000 series. 

But as it turns out the tanks are less lines on a piece of paper than ever-changing focal points of the local landscape. Mappable? Yes. But every map is an approximation. 

As I set to work, very lightly painting with linseed-oil thinned paints, I tried to depict the mosaic form that characterizes tank vegetation. This meant irregular shapes that suggested change and impermanence. I painted the several of the various named components of the tanks (there are upwards of 50 according to my friend and colleague MUA Tennakoon who is rehabbing tanks with the help of the UNDP). 

What emerged on canvas was, to me, something that approached a depiction of organs. Not by intention I was conceptualizing the tank as a body with its component organs, most of which filter, move, and detoxify water, much as our organs do. Could the tanks have been designed as a reflection of the human body? Perhaps the Mahavasama or other written work will be able to enlighten us as to these inscrutable, complex bodies of water. 

So with a new model of tank morphology and anatomy in mind, I look forward to a break from Colombo. Hopefully Janet and I will take off next week, after the International Conference on People, Places, and Cities sponsored by my friends at Moratuwa University. Maybe I'll be able to test my organs-and-body hypothesis further as we wander through the landscape observing, documenting, and analyzing what we see. 

My hypothesis itself I think is less important than the idea that we learn from doing--even (or especially) by doing art. Lots more opportunities for this kind of learning are coming up the pike during this amazing Fulbright. 

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