It was my last morning in Kyoto. My office manager, who I now referred to as my “Japanese Dad” was set to take me to the airport. We had loaded my bags into the car and I took one last look at the soft green bamboo outside the apartment that had been home for the past year. The air was thick with the late July heat in what the Japanese call “hatsui”, which I can best translate as being ball sweat hot. Sonoyama said with a solemn look that he had one special stop before we left Kameoka. He had something he wanted to share with me.
It was out on the outskirts of town in an area I had never been, under the soft shade of one of the smaller low mountains that surrounded the town. The small shrine stood majestically on a little hill overlooking a willow grove with a small stream running through it. We walked the path up towards the shrine, the sun shone through the trees with a radiant reflection on the small stream we were approaching. As I stepped onto the bridge I could see thousands of little black blurs zipping back and forth over the water. I stopped on the bridge to look closer and realized that these were thousands of tiny dragonflies, but not like any other dragonflies I’d seen in Japan. These had the most delicate black velvet textured wings, more butterfly texture than dragonfly. They moved slower and with a grace unlike the quick jerky motions of the normal dragonflies I was used to.
I can’t describe how amazing they were. I can only describe that the feeling on the bridge below the shrine was one of several experiences I’ve had in my life that I truly believe pierced a veil in this mortal world and allowed me to see something that was like another dimension. If you are a Godfearing person, then you would insist on using the descriptor “heavenly”. Goodness and light flooded my eyes without hurting them. Even the air I breathed seemed to be filled with sweetness and life. The dragonflies or tombo as the Japanese call them were burned into my memory as the visual key with which I still use to recall the memory.
Sonoyama walked me to the top of the shrine where he dropped a coin behind an ancient bell. We stood as he held his hands in a praying position and prayed for my safe return to America and for a time when we would be united in the company of friendship once more. He clapped and rang the bell. Then we left. I later came to understand that this was his family shrine and the honor he had given me by taking me there was not one given lightly, as I was not a member of his immediate family.
Cultural and Artistic Meaning
The dragonfly is an especially important creature symbolizing the coming of spring, rebirth, and new life. Most cultures around the globe have a specific image that is associated with life. For me, the dragonfly filled my sketchbooks from Japan and later became just as much a symbol for goodness and light to counter my use of the mukadai or Japanese centipede as an image of darkness and decay.
I generally portray the dragonfly using different techniques that give the illusion of motion, particularly in the wings. I have done three separate series with just this one image. I most frequently use a technique of erasure like the effect you see from the ukiyo-e artist Hokusai in the wings of some of his famous bird sketches.
Out of all the images I have used in personal artwork, the dragonflies seem to always get the most positive responses and I have done more personal commissioned pieces than any other image I use. People specifically ask for them. It is the one image that I never tire of doing, no matter how many times it is requested. I never turn down the chance to stand in front of a blank surface, recalling that one memory of a morning many years ago at a little shrine in Kyoto. It is always my hope that a little bit of that energy and goodness will shine through my colors and create a small piece of that world on whatever surface I am working on.