Art, fun, and ancient Eastern philosophy in a single volume
I Ching or Book of Changes, Symbolic Landscapes, by Elizabeth Nelson, translation by Brian Arnold. $27 at Bookbaby.com
Reviewed by Chris Braithwaite
Elizabeth Nelson’s new self-published book is a rich variety of things. It’s a trim, nicely designed art book that won’t dominate your coffee table. Every right-hand page is devoted to a reproduction of one of the 64 paintings in her I Ching series. That’s been around for some time. Ms. Nelson started painting her interpretations of the I Ching pentagrams in early 2012 and finished the series in late 2017.
The book is also a richly illustrated version of the I Ching itself. Facing each painting on the left-hand page is a translation by Brian Arnold. Each provides a “decision” suggested by the pentagram, the “image” it evokes, and a list of six observations that may, or may not, have relevance to the situation the I Ching user is hoping to resolve.
For people like this reviewer with no knowledge of the I Ching, it’s something of a puzzle book. Ms. Nelson has kindly included a set of simple instructions the reader can use, by simply tossing three coins six times, to construct one of the 64 pentagrams. That will lead the reader to one of Ms. Nelson’s paintings, and an opportunity to draw fresh meaning out of the artist’s richly imaginative work.
That’s a lot of art appreciation, ancient Eastern philosophy and intriguing fun to squeeze into a slender book.
The road to its production is about as convoluted as an I Ching pentagram. In her brief introduction, Ms. Nelson reveals that she’s had a fascination with the ancient Chinese text since she was in art college.
“One could say that the hexagrams are arrived at by chance,” she writes, “but the cosmos is interconnected, and so seemingly chance occurrences are attuned reflections of conditions within you and around you. Your awareness or consciousness of your conditions brings these interconnections into focus. Accordingly, by focusing your awareness on a particular matter, and generating chance results through an activity such as tossing coins, the results become a reflection of your present situation and how it is changing. In this way, to cast the coins while ruminating on a question or situation is to divine in the hexagram clarity and direction.”
Well into her career, she writes, “during a fallow and unproductive period in my art practice, I asked the I Ching for advice and inspiration.” The answer, after contemplating a pentagram called K’un (natural response) and sleeping on the matter, was to get to work on this series of 64 paintings.
Mr. Arnold, who designs and builds apps, stumbled across a newspaper review of a show of the I Ching series at the Barre Opera House. He got in touch to ask if he could use them to illustrate his new app, the Yi Jing-Book of Changes. Ms. Nelson agreed, then turned the tables when she decided to reproduce the series in a book. Would it be okay, she asked Mr. Arnold, to use his text?
The result could perhaps be summed up in the pentagram Shi (collective force): “Collective force requires right determination. A noble spirit will bring good fortune, and there will be no mistakes.”
They premiered locally on the long walls of the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro, and it was a show full of surprises for those who knew Ms. Nelson for her celebrations of the Vermont landscape. There are plenty of landscapes in the I Ching series, but they run to the exotic, some oddly framed, some punctuated with severe geometric shapes. All are done in oil on 20-by-20-inch birch panels.