A Frame Is a Kind of Nest

This Saturday here at the gallery prior to the opening of our show of watercolors by Robert Tetlow, I’ll be giving a talk called “A Frame-Maker’s Approach to Framing Watercolors.” I’d forgotten about this lovely mid-century Japanese watercolor we framed a couple of years ago, but stumbled on it while preparing my presentation. The piece is 9″ x 13″, and the profile of the walnut frame is 2″ wide, with a 1/8″ black slip. The shape of the profile had to be simple for such a simple and spare composition. I took my cue for the form from the branch the one bird is perched on. Another way to do that would have been through use of line, carving it into the frame or an element of the profile. But using the branch’s form in the other dimension led to the feeling of the frame as a sort of nest, with a gentle cove and slope into the picture combined with a sturdy outer edge.

A nest is a suitable model and metaphor both for the protective and caring role a frame plays with respect to any picture, but of course especially for the subject of this particular picture.

In any case, the frame had to be simple to suit the mood of the two subjects, unrushed, comfortable and content in each other’s company—at home in their nest (as any picture should be in its frame). Otherwise, the beauty of the frame is in the wood, amplifying the love of nature the picture expresses, its natural walnut color (the wood is simply oiled) matching the walnut hues in the picture. Original paintings always put us in closest contact with the skill and artistic powers of the painter, and so the careful workmanship in the frame too is part of the harmony we were after, as well as evidence, to anyone who stops to look at it (which framing any picture encourages people to do), that someone cares deeply about the picture and, for all its simplicity, the profound happiness it offers.

I learned recently about the Japanese concept of ikigai, which many believe accounts for the extraordinarily long lifespans of some populations in Japan, notably those on the islands of Okinawa. “Ikigai” translates to “reason to live.” There are several factors believed to contribute to the longevity of Okinawans, but this philosophy and practice of focusing attention on the things that matter deeply as the very reasons for living, creating a powerful desire to live, seems to play a role impossible to ignore.

In this simple image are at least three things so profoundly and inherently meaningful that they could be said, if we pause to truly see and consider them, to constitute reasons for living: examples of nature’s wonderful creation; the subtly comfortable relationship between the two creatures, clearly mates; and the work itself as that of a skilled and expert artistic hand.

At the root of the entire purpose of the frame-maker is the spirit of ikigai—paying sustained attention to and caring for the important things in life, our very reasons for living.

I hope you’ll come to this Saturday’s presentation, “A Frame-Maker’s Approach to Framing Watercolors,” at 3:00 and the opening for the show, “Robert Tetlow (1922-1988): A Berkeley Watercolorist Rediscovered and Remembered,” from 4 to 6.


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