DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


A Useless Tree

A Useless Tree, 2009, by Fred Hatt

A Useless Tree, 2009, by Fred Hatt

“Tzu-ch’i of Nan-po was wandering around the Hill of Shang when he saw a huge tree there, different from all the rest.  A thousand teams of horses could have taken shelter under it and its shade would have covered them all.  Tzu-ch’i said, “What tree is this?  It must certainly have some extraordinary usefulness!”  But, looking up, he saw that the smaller limbs were gnarled and twisted, unfit for beams or rafters, and looking down, he saw that the trunk was pitted and rotten and could not be used for coffins.  He licked one of the leaves and it blistered his mouth and made it sore.  He sniffed the odor and it was enough to make a man drunk for three days.  “It turns out to be a completely unusable tree,” said Tzu-ch’i, “and so it has been able to grow this big.  Aha!  – it is this unusableness that the Holy Man makes use of!” – from Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson, 1964, Columbia University Press.

The world is always looking for useful things and people.  But those that are most useful get used up quickly, exploited, trampled and destroyed.  They are valued not for themselves, but only for their usefulness.  To be useless, or complicated, or different from the norm, is a powerful way to protect one’s essence so that it may be allowed to develop naturally, to thrive in its own way.  I strive to be as useless as possible.  If it seems that my work may be becoming useful to someone in some way, that is the sign to me to change directions, to give it a twist!

Many people are familiar with Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching, perhaps the most poetic of all the ancient philosophical texts.  Chuang Tzu, or Zhuangzi, the second famous Taoist philosopher, living in the fourth century BCE, used jokes, parables and tall tales to liberate the mind from the slavery of conventional attitudes and values.

Here’s a link to another version of the story, from Thomas Merton’s great collection of Chuang Tzu’s pithiest bits.

My illustration above is an ink-brush sketch on paper, 11″ x 14″ or 28 cm x 36 cm.  It was made during a break from observational drawing at “Cross Pollination“, a monthly open session for artists, dancers and musicians to practice and inspire and be inspired by each other, at Green Space Studio in Queens.

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