Be My Valentine

Lonely in a foreign country? I was. When I was hired by Cita Hati Sekolah in Surabaya thirteen years ago I had three weeks to pack up my house in Vermont, New England, USA, and head to the airport. I wasn’t sure where Indonesia was and didn’t have much time to look at a map.

After adjusting to many different things as much as I could and feeling comfortable with the routine of school and the essentials of life, I realized I was lonely. My school colleagues were friendly but Indonesia is a family-centered culture and they were busy with their families.

I heard about a dating site called IndonesianCupid and took a look. Why not? I didn’t have anything in mind honestly, just some friendly contact with a woman. I was raised by women. I like women. Of course I knew no Bahasa Indonesia at that time which made things difficult but not impossible as many Indonesian people know some English. I saw a picture of a young woman I liked very much, for the right reasons I think. She had a fun face and a positive aura about her, something special.

So, I sent her a message and found out she lived not too far away, maybe thirty minutes by taxi. We arranged to meet at Food Fest in Pakuwon City, the place where I ate dinner almost every night. “Let’s meet at The Wok,”  I said.

Her mother delivered her to our date, so I had a chance to meet her and say something and then she left saying she would come back an hour or so later to pick up her daughter. All this seemed good to me as her mother cared and wanted to be part of the picture.

How do you start in a situation like this? We walked across to the Wok and I noticed she was very thin and walking unsteadily in high heels. I grew up with three sisters so I know things about girl stuff. I would say she had very little experience wearing high heels. It was charming to me that she was making an effort, risking breaking an ankle or a leg! And she was very thin and small, “pendek dan kecil.” That charmed me too for some unknown reason. More than that, I saw in person the honesty and humor and positivity I had seen in the photo.

I touched her shoulder, to support her as we crossed the street. Or maybe I just wanted to touch her.

“Too small?” she asked.

“No,” I said. I like it.

“My name is Kwee Liang Yien,” she said, “but call me Jovita.”

I don’t remember if we ate. We talked for an hour straight, standing up getting bitten by mosquitoes. She could not sit comfortably because she was recovering from a serious operation for endometriosis,  a female problem requiring surgery. And the surgery didn’t seem to have been particularly successful as she was still bleeding weeks after.

This would be the place where the man might call a cab and send his date back where she came from, but I already cared about her for some mysterious reason. We talked and I asked her what kind of a man she was looking for. She answered, “faithful, God fearing, responsible, kind, gentle,” and on like that. I said, “ I am not sure I am all those things but I think it is great that you want a man like that.” And I did and do think it is great.

I was sixty-five at the time. Now, when I think about it, I wonder how I could have been so bold as to enter into a relationship with someone twenty-four years younger. How could that make any sense? Well, we are who we are.

Mom came to pick her up and we arranged to go to church on the weekend for our next date. In the meantime, I thought about it a lot. We did go to church at Bethany, a space that can hold thirty-five thousand people on the big occasions. When leaving with the big crowd, she looked for my hand and held it, leading me through the throng. Back at her house, which she shared with Mom and her daughter Grace, I learned more. She had studied at the best Secretarial College here, Widya Mandala, and had a good job in export administration at a big Chinese company, Langgeng Makmur, working six days a week for many years to support her daughter and her shared life with Mom.

She and her daughter Grace, who was about sixteen at the time, shared a small room with a tiny window. Jovita had a computer in the corner where she listened to music and did some chatting online with “pen pals” as they used to be called, some contact with somebody.

This seemed amazing to me and still does. I totally respected her life, her sense of responsibility, her commitment to raising her daughter and to helping her mother.

After all these years I still think about that with the same sense of respect and awe I did then.

Someone at school suggested I send her flowers and they helped me do that. A giant bouquet was delivered and soon I saw a picture of her with it on Facebook with the caption “Who?” It was very cute and sweet.

We established a routine. Most evenings after school and when she got home from work, I would take a taxi to her house and sit on the couch in the parlor area. Then we would all go shopping or sometimes Mom would take us to a restaurant. It went on like that for a long time.

We also went to her old gynecologist many times to check on her condition. I even contacted a top gynecologist in Singapore and talked on the phone with her. Anyway, finally the condition healed and Jovita was healthy again.

Some things back home in Vermont were a problem for me. The people who were living in my house decided not to pay any more rent. That could not continue and I also had some problems with my situation in Surabaya, especially the little house the school provided. So I prepared to go back.

A lot of things happened during that time. Jovita had some lumps in her breast. Previously, some fibroid tumors had been removed but now there were more symptoms. We went to the oncology clinic. While we were waiting for the results of all the tests I was thinking about what I would do if she had cancer. I come from a cancer family and know more about it than I would wish anyone to know. I also knew about Indonesian health care, the expenses involved for good care. What would I do?  I am a teacher, not a wealthy person. But I had a good house in Vermont worth something. I decided I would sell it if I had to in order to  do what I could to help my darling Jovita. That was a turning point as I am actually a selfish person. Coming to that decision inside myself was transformational for me.

The tests came back negative. We had dodged another bullet. The next problem was that Mom didn’t want to let go of her daughter. We had decided for me to go back to the states and then for Jovita to follow. It did happen like that but not without a lot of drama and effort from her side, escaping from Mom to live in a boarding house, and several trips to Jakarta for medical checkups to qualify for a fiancé visa, and more.

I went back “home” and then had to fly back to Surabaya another time to pick her up and bring her  to America. We were married in Bradford, Vermont in a beautiful field full of autumn leaves by the Justice of the Peace. We stayed a year, then traveled to Trinidad and Tobago for a teaching job for two years, then to Bali for two years, and finally settling in Jovita’s home town, Surabaya.

We are coming to a conclusion to this story or it would have to go on for many more pages. The unusual way our relationship developed depended on solving problems together one by one, and not dodging any of them. That is what made the difference and still does. We are a great team. Our latest project was the two-year process of buying and renovating a house in Surabaya where we are finally moved in and are very comfortable.

In the process of facing problems and solving them together we developed the deep affectionate relationship everyone wants but few people have. We consider it a gift. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Ricker Winsor



Standing on the edge of the highway I held a sign that said “London”. It was cold, early spring, and I was hitching from Newcastle. I was nineteen, and the year, nineteen sixty-four. At a pub that evening a Canadian guy told me, “You know, once it starts it never stops.” He was right and I knew it even then.

Expatriation is an inevitability for certain people. People with prolonged expatriate experiences due to work move through well-known stages of adaption: the honeymoon of excitement at a new place, the disappointment as the downside is revealed, and the final accommodation to it all. Eventually, surely, they go home. And what happens then? Most just carry on where they left off in their communities but others have a hard time readjusting.

We all know about “roots” and what that means in a personal way to each of us. Back then, at age nineteen, I shook up those roots, and if they were not yet dislodged, they also never returned to their original condition.

Restlessness attends the expatriate personality. What else could make a person leave for a strange place without friends and without knowing the language or the culture? That same drive sent Leif Erikson, Christopher Columbus and many others on their way into the unknown. It is in the human personality to want to know what is over the next hill but some people experience that tendency as a deep need.

I don’t even like traveling and I never had an interest in being a tourist. Yet here I am, having lived all over the world and now settling in Indonesia. I returned to my home in the northeast of the USA more times than I can count and every time I left again, not because I didn’t like it but because all my other foreign experience tugged at my heart and called me into action almost in spite of myself. It just seems so much more interesting “out there” wherever that may be.

Someone back home said, “Oh, I would never move somewhere I didn’t have friends”. But the expat knows that there are good people everywhere and new friends waiting for you. They may not be the old friends that are so precious but they are good friends and could be even better friends if you would only hang around, something that is always a question mark both for you and for them.

And up comes the down side. After yanking on those roots hard and long, they wither and die. You find yourself “out there” on your own. Back home the friends are huddled together around a fire of communal warmth and you are like the wolf circling from the bushes, wishing you could get closer. You are different and everyone knows it. And when you are with them, they talk about their normal lives without much interest in hearing your foreign stories. And why? Because your stories have no connection with their lives or their experience.

Loneliness is a part of the expatriate condition and it is part of the artist condition. My leaving home had everything to do with two things: wanting to know myself better and wanting to know how I would meet the world and react to it. Those two ideas are central to the artist personality, the artist mind and character. When you are home with the people you have known your whole life and with the burden of their expectations, no matter how benign, you are in a box. An artist wants out of the box.

At first, I didn’t know what kind of an artist I wanted to be or even what that meant. I had the impulse and I had a few notions. I thought I might want to be a writer and doesn’t a writer need something to write about? That was part of it. What I did not know then was that I had plenty to write about even if I went nowhere and that the endless rambling and questing for new experience could actually be a distraction from that. But those ideas are distant from youth; they become clear with age.

Becoming an artist is a process and becoming an expatriate is a process; both can have a great deal in common. It is important to distinguish between the working expat who always has home in mind and the expat who can’t go home and knows it, the one who has accepted that as a fact. And there is a distinction too between the person who enjoys art of one kind or another as a hobby and the artist who builds his life around it and makes it the priority.

Recently a friend, who is a writer and a painter like me, published yet another book. They are good books but without getting the readership they deserve which is typical of the artist plight. In his book he tried to steer aspiring artists from that path with advice about a “practical major” in college so that they might have a “practical career”. As a younger man I might have seen this as a betrayal of the artist quest and calling but as an older man I sympathize completely. The artist life is very tough, its rewards measured against poverty and loneliness, two heavyweight enemies.

Expatriation also cuts out its pound of flesh when you leave your friends for the third or fourth time, friends who depend on you for friendship, company, leadership, many things. They tire of your inconstancy and turn their backs. And who can blame them? This is the steep price paid for the expat’s new experiences and for a deepening or one’s artist life. And yet, for me, there was never much of a choice and I am sure that is true for many others like me.

I grew up with a lot of privilege and luxury and all it did was bore me and make me feel like I couldn’t breathe. For me there was no comfort in materialism. And if poverty has been a burden, at least it has finally made me appreciate what I do have which was not the case earlier on.

These lives, the artist life and the expatriate life, are ways beyond the metaphoric box in which most of us live. They point in a spiritual direction toward spiritual goals, and they are part of what ultimately is a spiritual path. To accept oneself as an artist, to accept oneself as a true citizen of the world, requires a deep exhalation, an acceptance, a letting go. When the supports of a “normal” life are taken away, humility, surrender, and trust fall on you whether you want them or not. Trust? What if you refuse to trust, just cannot do it? Then come the plagues of panic, terror, and depression.

But trust in what? Something, something to discover for you alone. Carl Sagan, referring to “that pale blue dot” of our earth from space said, “Every saint and sinner who has ever lived has lived on that mote of dust in a sunbeam.” Carl Sagan did not have a particular religious affiliation but his perception of creation, of our planet, our life, speaks of humility and awe. Ernest Hemmingway, in his short Nobel laureate speech said this about being a writer, “for he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”

Ricker Winsor
Surabaya, Indonesia

My Grandpa


Chicago  in the 1940’s, just after the war, some  houses I visited had no furniture or maybe just a card table with two chairs like the Honeymooners. I was only four or five. Down the street I went to play with a boy and his sister and they had a broken telephone as the only toy in an empty living room.

My grandparents lived in a tenement. Their apartment had a bed that folded into the wall. It is called a Murphy bed.  In the back was an interior courtyard for all the tenements. Kids played, roller skated, caroused and stairs climbed up from the ground level to all the floors. Wash was drying everywhere and the sounds  of life were bouncing back and forth from all directions.

My grandpa Ed was a good-looking man, tall with strong features, especially his Roman nose. His people had come from Austria sometime back, not long. He had no education at all nor my grandmother. When he had to write something, he wet the “lead pencil” with his tongue.  My grandpa was as bald as I am; I liked to stick those suction cup arrows on his dome. He enjoyed that. He smoked cigars, wore a long wool overcoat, and had a vest which held a pocket watch on a chain.

My grandpa called me Old Timer and gave me sen sen when we went to the corner store to buy cigars. Sen sen was a breath freshener that had a licorice taste. I was just four years old when he took me to see “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” with John Wayne and a lot of Hollywood Indians. I still remember it, sitting next to him in the dark theater, smelling the cigar smoke on his old overcoat, watching the action on the big screen. My father probably had given him a few bucks to take me around and I know my strict grandmother  told him directly not to take me to the movies. She knew he loved the movies.

Grandpa’s  career needed help. One new job required him to be up early in the morning, maybe about six. He was up and ready for sure and out on the street in front of the old apartment building. He waited and waited. Finally, somebody noticed him and asked what he was doing. That is when he learned it was 2 AM.

Another job he had was painting a flagpole. Up high, he forgot where he was, reached for the paint can and fell, breaking an arm.

Next he became an assistant jailer. Grandpa was well liked. With him there was nothing not to like. So, when a prisoner complained about the heat and wanted the window open. Grandpa gave him the keys and went about his business of sweeping up. Next he knew, the window was open and the prisoner gone..

A wealthy man thought grandpa would be a fitting chauffer. That went well for a while despite the big sedan never getting out of second gear. Unfortunately, after cleaning the car one morning, grandpa backed out of the garage with the passenger door open. Goodbye door; goodbye job.

We moved to New York shortly after and we didn’t see them much anymore. My father had moved far beyond his humble background. Probably that was the reason.

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya 2022

Ten Years in Indonesia

From Bumi Floor 15

“Everyone is good at the honeymoon.” Have you ever heard that? Recently some friends in the states moved to San Miguel Allende in Mexico, of course. They were retiring and had heard a lot about the wonderful life there for expats. “Wow! Great! Cool,” we all said on Facebook and other places. Do you know how many people I have known who have “retired” to Mexico, or Costa Rica or Spain?  Many. They stayed for a couple of years and came back home with their collective tails between their legs. It is not that Mexico is not a cool place but how’s your Spanish? What about the debilitating bacteria so hard to avoid. How about your small circle of friends there  that get fewer with time, not larger? I don’t know all the issues there despite my knowledge of Mexico and Spanish. What I do know is that everyone is good at the honeymoon. It is after that that things get real.

Actually, I came to Indonesia fourteen years ago but bounced back into the international teaching scene for a few more years before settling permanently ten years ago. I met my wife in Surabaya. She is a Suraboyo, born and raised here. After a few years trying to adjust to so many things that are so different I asked a teaching colleague who had lived here for many more years than I, “ Pat, how many years before you stop complaining?” “About seven,” he said. Guess what? He was right. After about seven years I stopped complaining, accepted everything, almost, and basically fell in love with my new country.

Let me give you a few examples of my struggle. For six years ear plugs were survival equipment for me. I have a lifetime supply but don’t use them anymore. For someone who likes quiet, peace, and nature, Indonesia is very noisy and urban. If there is a sound system available, Indonesian people will always feel they have to turn it up full volume, often to the point where it is probably damaging hearing. They like it like that.

Then there was the trash. Indonesia is a dirty country outside of the malls or one’s house. They haven’t figured out what to do with the trash. That was one of the most difficult things and still is to some extent. But now I don’t go out in the morning with a bag and pick it up. My wife warned me about that. “They will think there is something wrong with you,” she warned. So I stopped doing that, also because it made no difference to anyone but me.

Malls and driving endlessly in the traffic to go here and there was also very difficult for me. I had to learn to appreciate a good mall, and Surabaya is famous for them. I came to Indonesia after thirty years in Vermont where nature is close and beautiful. I think most of my fine friends there have never been to a mall. Now I not only enjoy the great malls but also driving in traffic especially at night ( we have a driver). There are no museums in Surabaya but everywhere you look there is something very interesting, creative, and beautiful: the becaks, the kaki limas, the fascinating houses and house designs, the way color is used everywhere with experimental abandon. I am not kidding. That’s how far I have come.

But the heart of my experience here is something much different. It has to do with the connection between people. The world I was raised in, New York City and New England, is competitive and cold, dingin. Of course there are  great people everywhere, but in the bule world independence and self-reliance are the corner stones of the culture. When I moved from New York up to the north country an old timer told me, “If you are looking for a helping hand, you will find it at the end of your own arm.” What a concept! But that is the culture. And now, of course, it is even rougher, more violent, and even dangerous.

In Surabaya I never feel worried about my safety. People are sopan dan ramah, polite and friendly. If it is superficial, as it might be sometimes, who cares? It still works and is better than ugly confrontations. We are with hundreds, even thousands of people sometimes, and I never hear shouting or angry words. In traffic, where we spend a lot of time, a small beep of the horn suffices. Nobody has to pull over, get out of the car, and want to kill you. That is not an exaggeration. Road rage is a reality in the western world.

We live on the east side of Surabaya, the old side, and there are almost no foreigners’ here. I go months without seeing another Caucasian and when I do we generally avoid each other, because we would rather be with Indonesian people than with each other. I speak Indonesian and continue studying it seriously like I have for over six years. My teacher is in Bali and we talk via Zoom. Our driver also helps me, and my wife, naturally. Our driver Pak Rom has learned English faster than I have learned Indonesian so he is a great resource for expressions and vocabulary and pronunciation.

The insulting things we westerners say, even for purposes of humour, are not in the Indonesian language itself or are impossible to say from the perspective of politeness. In some ways the instruction of my Indonesian teacher is therapy in one sense. My sarcastic jokes, black humour, and exaggerations fall flat. My teacher restates them for me, washing them clean of any meanness or disrespect. Despite the fact that I am deprived of what I possibly do best, outrageous hyperbole, I feel I am being made into a better person.

The way the culture is here, the friendliness, the politeness, creates a sense of belonging, There is connection, mysterious, but real. Despite not having friends here (people are busy with their families) I never feel lonely, not like I did in Vermont where I had many. How is that possible? It is mysterious. In Indonesia one has a sense here that we are sharing life together, all of us doing whatever we do, on whatever level, with a sense of respect all around.

Ricker Winsor


October 2022


  We grew up as Zionists in New York in the years after WWII. Even though there were few Jews in our town, Pelham Manor, the few we knew were smart and decent. Micky Schwerner came from our town, went to high school with my oldest sister. He was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan  in Philadelphia, Mississippi while trying to help black people register to vote.

          That is incidental. What is not incidental is the fact that, as a little boy, my first exposure to naked bodies, other than my parents, was seeing piles of them pushed into ditches by bulldozers. They were the murdered victims of Nazism. Those newsreels were played over and over and over again.

          As I got older and more involved with New York City and photography and the arts, I met more and more Jewish people. Some had numbers still tattooed on their arms, from the concentration camps.

          At that time Leon Uris’s book, Exodus was popular and many of us were caught up in the idealism and excitement of Israel, a new homeland for the Jewish people after the holocaust.

          We all admired David Ben-Gurion and Gold Meir and many others who led the early country and defended it passionately.

          There never has been co-equality and hardly even co-existence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. What I know about Palestinians is that they hate the Jews and want to “push them into the sea.” Since the Israelis are highly developed and disciplined, have all the weapons, and know how to use them, it seems to me that the Palestinians should adjust their attitude.

          Not only do the Israelis hold all the cards but they also control the water. This might be the most important of all. Israel is a beautiful, lush country and Palestine is a desert by comparison.

          One card Israel does not  have is the suicide card. Apparently, the one thing Palestinians can do is blow themselves up and take as many Jews with them as possible. I still remember the “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in my thinking. A pregnant Arab woman got into a big Jewish wedding and blew up about fifty people including herself and her unborn child. Any kind of sympathy I might have had for the Palestinian cause disappeared.

          Currently there has been more violence in the West Bank and Gaza, ugly violence, with lots of people killed and many buildings destroyed. I am always shocked to think of all the effort it took to build those buildings, and now to have to build them again.

          It is ever the same. What could possibly change it? As long as the Israelis think the Palestinians hate them and want to destroy them, they will keep making sure that can’t happen.

          Note: Some of my friends were shocked by my thoughts, “dismayed” was a word I heard. It is only my perspective, one perspective, but also a history of how I came to feel the way I do. That is all we have, to express it as we feel it and experience it. There is dualism before non-dualism to be philosophical about it.

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia

Raven’s Bread No 1

          Thomas Merton, in one of his many books, said something to the effect that,  “Monks are like tall trees in the forest, silently purifying the air.” The life of the contemplative centers on quiet purification through prayer.

          Among the many Zen practitioners of China and Japan, the ones we know about wrote poems and some also practiced calligraphy. Some taught. Centuries passed away, and still their contributions shine with intensity and truth.

          One of the most famous is the poet Basho from seventeenth-century Japan. He wrote Haiku, a structured form of three phrases. Here are a few:

by moonflowers

a fascinating body

floats absent-mindedly

in summer rain

would you be happy with

the moon’s face

has spring come

or the year gone away?

second last day

          Haiku poetry is deeply rooted in the awareness and appreciation of nature. Many of the Zen practitioners lived far from villages in small huts up on the sides of mountains. There, they faced two common enemies: poverty and loneliness.

          In   contemplation there is no hiding place; we make what we can from our choices. Work overcomes the difficulties and the result can be a gift of beauty to the world.

          The image of a solitary monk living alone in nature is compelling but nature is everywhere, even in the city. And solitude is also everywhere, even in the city. Solitude is a condition of humility and peace. Ironically, contemplation might be more easily attained in the city where one is reminded frequently of what one needs to avoid.

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia 2020

The Day the Servants Left

from Ricker Winsor’s book Pakuwon City

            Muslims fast during Ramadan. For a month between sun up and sun down, no water, no food. Caddies pass out on the golf course or quit after nine holes. Some don’t fast and pretend to do so. Some fast quietly. Some swoon dramatically. For the ruling class this Muslim condition creates problems. The rhythm of the game is disrupted. And, at the end of Ramadan, there is Lebaron when they go on Mudik, a journey to the home town to celebrate for a week. We are expected to give extra money to one and all. There is a mass exodus as the cities empty themselves of people. Countless families climb on motorbikes and travel as far as four-hundred miles that way- two adults and two kids on a 100 cc Honda! It’s the biggest holiday of the year. All of a sudden it is very quiet. Six-hundred people died on the road going home to celebrate this year.

            I visited my old friend and college roommate, Mark, and his wife Nicole in Jakarta. She is French and he, American, from Massachusetts. They are permanent expats living a very refined and luxurious life in Jakarta. Every morning begins with fine espresso coffee, and sprouts perched on perfectly poached eggs along with some cereal and yoghurt. The two cooks have been trained to a fine degree of excellence, following instructions and producing the requisite dishes that are organic, fresh, tasty and healthful. Three times a week a personal trainer shows up punctually to help them move their bodies in unnatural and painful ways to create stiffness in soft places and strength where weakness once ruled. After that, they go their separate ways for a while- she to the pool for a mile swim and he to the golf course in pursuit of a lower handicap. Then there is a sumptuous but low caloric lunch and maybe some movies and some attention to clients mixed into the day since they are both head shrinkers and life coaches in different ways. Certainly their life is a refinement of the life available to the wealthy in this part of the world. Their staff totals five which is not so many since I think they had about twelve in Nepal. Other than the kitchen and house team, Kareem and Marney, there is a driver named Bhari and two guards on the gate- one for day and one for night. They all make life easier in different ways. For example, in this part of the world one never picks anything up. If something needs to be picked up one just stares at it for a while and soon a person will pick it up. A jerk of the head in the direction of the object’s destination usually suffices and saves the energy of having to raise one’s arm to point. It is remarkable how quickly one adapts to this style of life.

            Although I have had some experience with privilege at different times in my life I chose to learn to work, having romantic notions about the value of that, of being able to fix things instead of calling an “expert” as my mother used to refer to anyone who had an ad in the yellow pages, anyone who knew how to do any manual labor. And I did learn and truthfully gained a lot of satisfaction from it. I learned carpentry, furniture making, electricity, and plumbing and even had a cabinet and furniture manufacturing business for ten years. I worked as a contractor, did the electrical on two houses, built and renovated four or five houses- the whole megilla. Why then, when I came back from a recent trip and found that my electric power was off in my house, did I immediately and frantically call  people – experts- to rescue me? God love them, they came flying over on motorbikes, fraught with panic lest “Boss” be inconvenienced even a minute more. Looking around, they went to the main switch just by the front door in perfect sight and flicked it on. Experts can do these things! I would like to say I didn’t know about that switch but I did know. When “experts” are around, however, it is easy to forget!

            Back in Jakarta with my friends in the middle of their sumptuous life I begin to hear anxious tones and whispers. The kitchen staff will be leaving for mudik, the exodus to the villages for Lebaron the end of Ramadan. For the last three days of my visit we will be on our own without servants. This is serious! I suggest we just check into a hotel for a few days. They like this idea but can’t do it because of obligations to clients looking to them as “experts” to fix their struggles with the human condition. And, of course, everyone else has the same idea so the hotels are booked solid! So we talk and decide that somehow we will “tough it out”. The time approaches. We shop for provisions. Kareem and his wife leave. Life careens downhill. Who is going to cook? Mark volunteers and manages the soft boiled eggs and sprouts for breakfast. Some leftovers for lunch suffice. Not bad. At dinner he decides on a fine meal of salmon and special greens and some other good things. His standards are very high so a meal like this requires a staff- me! I chop and chop and chop!  Nicole pokes a head in the door and says before quickly leaving “You know I like good food but I don’t want to spend all this time on it. I just want to eat it. I am fine with chocolate and cheese and some bread.”

            In fact the meal does take quite a bit of work and produces more dishes than I have ever seen. It is very good but quite late at night by the time it is consumed and then all those dishes!

“When is your kitchen help coming back?” I pleaded. “Maybe we can just throw all these dishes and stuff in the corner for a few days?”

“It’s too long,” Mark says. ”It will attract bugs and things.”

“Oh, “I say, taking a different tact, “Don’t you think they are sick of their village by now?” “Probably their relatives are pestering them for money.” “Can we call them? Probably they miss being here. It’s got to be much nicer here than at a hut in their village!”

Mark says, “We’ll just have to do the best we can. I did the cooking so I would like to be relieved from the dishwashing.”

“Oh, oh,” I am thinking to myself. So I say, “I am not good at dishes. Francine would never let me wash them because when I do they come out dirtier than before.” Nicole had already rewashed something I had tried to wash earlier in the day so I had some credibility.

Nicole says, sighing, “Ok, I will wash them if you dry them and put them away”.

I counter, not giving up,” Listen you know they are missing us very much and wondering how we are getting along without them. How about a helicopter?  Will they take a credit card? ”

Nicole says, “You can’t get a helicopter at this time of year. Everybody wants a helicopter. I say, “Can the pool guy be trained to cook? How about the garbage guy? Maybe he could work up the food chain  …”

            A day earlier Mark had asked me to paint one of the walls in the house- a big mural of a traditional Indonesian village.  I am an art teacher and a landscape painter.

“It doesn’t have to be too good” He said. “ It’s going to be background for some photography I want to do celebrating village life. ”

“No sweat, Bubbie” I said. “I am happy to help you to promote the native culture living close to mother earth!”

            While Nicole and I struggle with the aftermath of the sumptuous salmon dinner he prepared I happen to hear him talking on Skype using his laptop in the room with the painting on the wall. He is talking to his ex-wife, someone I know well since we went to college together and I was the best man at that wedding. They had recently made contact and were interested in resolving some difficulties needing attention after about 40 years. What’s more, she’s one of the founders of the voluntary simplicity movement and quite famous in that- Opera guest, author etc. So while I am drying the multitude if dishes one at a time I poke my head in and listen and understand that what she is seeing on Skype is Mark,  now out of his silk pajamas and stripped down to a T shirt and shorts, with an Indonesian village in the background.

            “Oh yes Vicky” I hear him say,” we have simplified our life and reduced our carbon footprint to help our mother earth. We even make our own toothpicks from trees that have died of natural causes. In place of toilet paper we use the leaf of the Po Po plant just after the seeds have dropped. We use no Po Po before it’s time!”

I am liking this all very much. “Wow” I muse, “This guy can think on his feet!”

Back in the kitchen, Nicole is repeating, just audibly, “Just give me some chocolate and bread. My hands will stink for weeks from these rubber gloves! Merde!”

Mark finishes his call and checks on the progress here in the kitchen.

“By the way,” I mention, “what are we going to do about laundry? I didn’t bring that much spare clothing! ” Normally you throw your dirty stuff in some designated spot in the room and the next day Marney has it all ironed and back in the closet or on the shelf the way God intended it. But now??

“I don’t know,” says Mark who has lived in the house for 6 years. “I don’t know where they keep the washing machine. Is there a washing machine? ”

Ricker Winsor

Denpasar, Bali

From Pakuwon City, Letters from the East 

Mud Flat Press

What I Know about Art


          What are we doing here in this life anyway? For a lot of people, a six pack of beer and a football game answer that question very nicely. For others it’s family, grandchildren, and community. To be an artist is to not be satisfied by those happy ways. To be an artist is to be an outsider looking in, like Thomas Mann’s “Tonio Kroger”, a character to whom I related strongly as a teenager. All those material and social comforts are not for us.

An artist has to find his own way, driven to respond to his experience of life in the best way he can. As my teacher and friend Harry Callahan put it, to share “what I feel and have always known”. That is the motivation, to do something, say something, make something that is a deep expression of who you are and how you feel about this mysterious life. On the most basic level, the artist is someone who produces something, but to be called Art the thing produced must have special qualities attached to it. Skill coming from talent is appreciated by everyone, easily appreciated. Skill is important but, to my mind, other values are more important.

          In the best work there is a sense of passionate intention, the desire to capture a feeling in whatever medium. I started as a photographer and the great photographers were able to do that. My heroes were Cartier Bresson, Danny Lyon, and Harry Callahan. I knew them all. But for me, the simple, direct approach of a reed pen drawing in india ink on paper and oil paint on canvas provided a more satisfying experience. So that is what I have been doing now for over forty years.

How did this all happen? Why did it happen? The oracle of Apollo in Delphi said in Greek, “Gnothi Seauton, Know Thyself.”It is a hard directive, easier said than done. For whatever reasons, this idea attracted me strongly from a young age. When young Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye, smack dab in the middle of teenage angst and confusion, went on a quest “to find himself” I related.

          The affluent world I was in after WWII was not satisfying to me. And I noticed that it didn’t seem to make the adults I knew very happy either. It certainly didn’t solve the problems of our family, something I wrote about extensively in my book, The Painting of My Life.

          What did make sense was my father’s clever and skilful cartoons, his writing, my mother’s excellent painting, the painting of my sister Mary, and the good reproductions of Van Gogh paintings on the walls of our house, “La Berceuse” and “Boats at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer”, as well as my father’s black and white photographs. Our neighbour Rowl Scherman was a teen idol with the guitar and later a fine photographer working for Life Magazine. A book and a film about him came out in 2016: Eye on the Sixties: The Iconic Photography of Rowland Scherman.  His brother Tom was exceptionally talented in drawing and went on to work at Disney. Down the street, a woman twenty years my senior, Lee Schoenburg, was the editorial director at Magnum Photos. We became lifelong friends. My godfather, Paul Rhymer, wrote over three thousand episodes of Ma Perkins, one of the most popular shows on radio before television took over. He is considered one of the great American humourists of the twentieth century, in a class with Will Rogers. That is a whole lot of background, something I haven’t mentioned before.

          For me, Art seemed to make sense as an antidote to the materialism surrounding me. I had spiritual awareness from an early age. Art seemed closer to religion than to business. The idea of it in my mind was quite pure. That being said, I think most of us start out wanting the élan, the fame, the honour, and the glory we associate with “specialness” and our art heroes. It is easy to forget that Van Gogh shot himself in the stomach and took three days to die, that he sold only one painting in his life, and that his mother used his paintings to plug holes in her chicken coop. We remember those things later when the artist’s path gets bumpy which it does.

I became a photographer and studied painting in the New York museums to understand art principles: light, composition, contrast, values, and many other things which were also applicable to photography. With my Magnum Photos connection, I worked in photojournalism, working to capture the street events of the nineteen sixties, working in league with great photographers as much as I could. I was just a kid, in my early twenties and they were twice my age, most of them.

But I also felt that photojournalism was not enough, not what I was looking for exactly. The beautiful idea of art was what I was seeking and if I didn’t know what that was, I did have a sense of what it was not. So I packed my bags and took my small R-18 1965 Renault all the way across America to Yosemite National Park to meet Ansel Adams and learn about photography as Art. He was a technical master and just at the beginning of getting the tremendous recognition he deserved.

But somehow his wonderful pictures, so controlled and technically beautiful, seemed dead and less personal to me than the street photography I knew so well. The workshop was a few weeks long and we had been asked to submit some of our prints for evaluation on acceptance, and I had done that. At a big introductory meeting of the whole group in Yosemite, I was very surprised to see that Ansel had made slides of several of my photographs, one of Janis Joplin I remember and a couple of others, and he talked, without having met me, about how good they were. This was very confusing since I was here in Yosemite to be more like him and less like me, or so I thought.

This gets into the essence of the oracle’s message, “Know Thyself”. Art is all about that, about being comfortable in your own skin, about showing who you are through your work. I now know I was better than I thought I was. Lack of confidence was blocking my path.

We need skill; there are technical aspects, but the important part, as I know now, is honesty, sincerity, purity, true feeling, those kinds of qualities. When you know art history from the Venus of Willendorf to the work of Cy Twombly, or Horace Pippin, or Pierre Bonnard, or Joan Mitchell, you will know this is true. Unfortunately, most people don’t know much about art at all and real artists suffer from that, being compared unfavourably to the slick practitioners who fill the commercial galleries all over the world. That’s why most artists give up, fall by the wayside or sell out, even the most talented ones.

At about the time I made my journey to see Ansel and find out about photography as Art, I met Herman Cherry, a first generation New York School abstract painter and friend of David Smith, the sculptor, Ruben Kadish, the sculptor, Charles Pollock, Jackson’s brother, also a  painter, and many more. He was part of the scene from the beginning and knew them all. I was twenty four when I met Cherry and he was fifty nine. We met through a mutual friend, Zena Voynow, a film editor who was the sister in law of Sergei Eisenstein, the legendary Russian film director, someone you study if you study film. We met in East Hampton, the most important place outside of New York City for artists. Jackson Pollock had a studio there and Willem de Kooning whom I got to know.

My first wife, Melynda, and I were sitting on the veranda of Zena and Andrew’s house and some small crab apples came rolling off the roof and onto the veranda. “That’s Cherry,” said Zena, and so it was. We hit it off immediately despite the fact that when he took us over to his house and showed us his new paintings, I said, innocently, “They look like what Frank Stella is doing.” Of course that is one of the worst things you can say to an artist, since artists, as I have mentioned, try like hell to let their own individuality come out, not someone else’s. Zena told me very quickly, pulling me aside, “Don’t ever tell an artist his work looks like someone else’s.” I remembered that.

I think Cherry appreciated my innocent honesty even if it hurt. At that time he was stuck as a painter, and not long after that he stopped painting for a number of years and wrote poetry, quite good poetry. He published a few volumes and was respected as a poet. From that point on I saw all of his life since we became good friends. I did some abstract acrylic paintings, small ones, which he liked and he was very appreciative of my photography. I became friends with his friends, Edie and Ed Dugmore were favourites and I still admire “Doug’s” abstract paintings very much.

Cherry was respected by everyone as a colorist but also as being super knowledgeable about painting, art history and many other things related to Art. He was exceptionally smart without making a big deal about it but it was recognizable to those who paid attention.

Over the next twenty four years, until his death, we were in touch and visited as frequently as possible. He started painting again and the work he did the last fifteen years of his life was truly great and appreciated by galleries and buyers. I was with him when I met my French partner, Francine, and I was at his wedding when he married a German woman my age.

He knew Aaron Siskind who became a photography teacher of mine at Rhode Island School of Design, (RISD). He had known Siskind’s great friend Frans Kline, whose work Siskind had followed in photography, a clear path and a successful one. And this mention of Aaron Siskind, a very good guy and a great teacher, ties into the fundamental value I am trying to reveal. I pondered this deeply at the time; how much of what Siskind accomplished was due to basically imitating in photography what Kline did with paint on canvas? Aaron did what he did very well and I won’t try to take that away from him. But what I was looking for was something more personal, deeper, and connected to the core identity of the person. If one believes in the idea of a soul, then that is what I was hoping to express. I want art to be, above all, soulful.

 In photography Harry Callahan had that gift and so did Henri Cartier Bresson and some others but not many. For me expression in the way I sought was very difficult with a camera because of the machine itself, the mechanical thing between you and what you were hoping to express. And that’s why, as soon as I got to RISD at age thirty and was encouraged by classmate Jenny Holzer, (“If you want to paint, paint”), I jumped ship and spent the next three years drawing and painting with the support of very astute and kind teachers.

My first drawings in ink drew immediate attention. Out of my lack of experience came a direct, unfiltered, strong expression. Most of my classmates were impressed and encouraging but a few were upset because their more technically skilled works were not so appreciated. Technique is respected by everyone but not loved and technique alone is not Art, far from it.

I was thrilled to see what I could do with a reed pen and India ink and I still am. I believe strongly in what I do that way. Painting has been a lot harder although I think, after all this time, there is a sense of me, my own style and personality in my painting. It can take years to work through influences, other peoples’ ideas, before you become you as an artist.

What I might hope for is that my painting be as personal and individual as my drawing. I think that is everything I know about art. It is a special calling. Art is a rejection of materialism and comfort in order to find a deeper meaning and it comes from the belief that the individual has something special to say, to contribute. It is beyond the glitz and noise of this grinding world. It is an oasis of purity in the middle of all that. In its essence, Art is spiritual.


Ricker Winsor

Surabaya April 2018

Wild Things in Our Indonesian Neighborhood

          We live in a Balinese neighborhood with Balinese people who have home temples, who make offerings every day. One can hear gamelan music and mantras, vendors, kids crying, laughing, playing, cats yeolling, motorbikes and piano lessons making their presence known all at the same time. It is a very rich fabric.

          And despite one house next to the other, there is a natural world that is also complicated and rich. In this part of the world, a small garden, even a few square meters of grass and plants, can be home to a variety of wild things. Adding to this is a system of drains on either side of the street, drains for household water if not sewage, drains to catch the monsoon rains. And these drains support a lot of life.

jalan kami_web

          Our maid, Tutus, found a snake skin shed which led to a snake hunt, which, unfortunately, led to a dead snake. I like snakes and might have been a herpetologist if things had worked out for me as a young naturalist. I don’t think I have ever killed a snake before, but the snake was in a hard-to-reach place and with 400 species thereabouts and me not knowing them all, and some of them, many actually, poisonous, and with cries of “kill,kill,kill” coming from my wife and Tutus, well I didn’t have much choice. The snake below is a garter snake since it was very similar to our visitors and since I haven’t been able to make a definitive identification yet.

garter snake

          This led to a Stygian effort by my wife, Jovita,  to close up any possible crack through which a snake might enter the house. I would say she might have overdone it but snakes scare her as they do many people in this part of the world where a lot of people die of snakebite. Worldwide the number of fatalities is about 100,00 so I heard on Nat. Geo Wild just yesterday. I think there are more than 50,000 in India alone as I remember, and I don’t know about Indonesia, which has spitting cobras, many, and king cobras too.

          So I was surprised to see a few days later, in the evening as we were closing up the house, another snake wriggling across the floor. By this time I had looked in my books and found that the snakes coming in were classified as “water snakes” of a certain species. They were like our garter snakes, which, by the way, swim very well and like to swim and also swim under water as I have seen myself. I thought I might deal with this snake without Jovita knowing, but she pays attention to everything so I knew that wouldn’t work. So I said there was a snake and for her to go in the other room since I didn’t want her to see it. It was about two feet long and had squirmed behind a trash can and was hiding there. The squirming and wriggling were caused by the fact of the smooth tile floor upon which a snake finds very little traction. It is an awkward situation for them who move so efficiently in their proper environment. Anyway, I put on a glove and quickly grabbed him and let him go in the garden.

          And then, as a tracker, I wanted to figure out how they got in, why they got in, and the first clue was that they were both found in the same area. Sure enough, at the end of the tile baseboard there was a gap just before it hit the door casing, a place you really cannot see, and sure enough there was a hole there. Underneath the house, in the crumbling slab upon which it was built, there must be a world of worms, frogs, toads, mice, rats and so forth and I expect the snakes followed a mouse trail since the hole most probably was created by a mouse or rat and those creatures use the same trails time after time, which is one of the things you need to know if you want to trap them. And then the snakes were stuck inside.

          In my house in Washington State years ago I found a similar rat hole. What amazed me at the time, and now again, was the location of the hole in exactly the only place where it would not be noticed. It had been there for a long time and so had this one. How do they figure that out? Do they scout and draw maps, have a meeting? Honestly, it is a mystery because there were not any  failed attempts in evidence, attempts from which they might have learned. I plastered up the hole.

          One more snake story and this is a special one. Last year not far from our house, where the huge Hyatt Hotel is being renovated on extensive grounds, a security guard was killed by a python early in the morning. That area has a lot of open land, open jungle would be a good description since you can walk through most of it, but there is plenty of habitat, hiding places. Snakes need a place to hide and something to eat. That is all. A snake big enough to kill a security guard is not eating mice. But there are uncountable street dogs having puppies all the time and also cats and kittens. I expect that accounts for a major portion of a big snake’s diet.

           They claimed the snake was about eighteen feet, but a ten foot python could kill a man. He tried to catch the snake; it had been seen before. People were around but didn’t know what to do, were scared. I learned as a young herpetologist that the key is the tail. It is the anchor and if you dislodge that the rest will follow. Nobody knew that. Few people do. Constrictors kill in an efficient way. When you exhale they tighten the grip until you can’t inhale any more. That can take a few iterations but not many. What they do is quite spectacular actually. Here is a link to the story which was covered worldwide. The snake escaped unharmed.

Another fabulous and unexpected reptile in the neighborhood defying all expectation is this:

water monitor

It’s a water monitor and they are a very serious lizard. We were driving home down our little street in mid afternoon when we saw one crossing in front of us. He went into the neighbors’ dooryard as if he were going to borrow a cup of sugar or a basket of rats. That would be more accurate. He was about two feet long, big enough but not like the one we saw swimming in a canal at Serangan Island near where we live, a place that is mostly undeveloped. When I saw that one I just saw the head and it was about the size of a beaver. I wasn’t sure what it was but we followed along in the car and then he decided to evade and clambered up the bank and into the underbrush making powerful striding movements, his big claws digging in. That animal was all of five feet long, maybe more. They kill anything they can overpower, a living dinosaur and very impressive.

          Dogs are everywhere in Bali. The Hindu Balinese love dogs but don’t take care of them. It is a generalization to say that, but it is mostly true. They let them roam without any control and after a while they are out in the world fending for themselves. Or they keep them in a cage all day not minding that they bark incessantly and are miserable. They have puppies and they dump the females in another neighborhood and keep the males. That is how we got our special dog- a real winner. She and her sister were abandoned that way and a man was about to throw them against a wall to kill them when our kind-hearted neighbor, Haney, rescued them. I think he and his wife now have about seven dogs at their house next door. Street dogs do quite well actually. Some are very impressive. The DNA is high test for the simple reason that if they are not smart and resourceful and tough too, they die.

          I took the picture below. The black one on the right is totally free, a man of the street. He is very impressive, strong, well-proportioned, and resourceful. He and his friends roam  late at night and go through the garbage making a big mess.

street dog

          Because of rabies, some years ago, thousands of dogs were eliminated by the government here in Bali. In Java it is not a problem. There are few dogs and no loose ones. Muslims don’t like dogs. There is something in the Koran about that. They like to eat them in some regions though, buying them in markets. This year there have already been ten human deaths from rabies and over a hundred dogs diagnosed, including puppies, and two diagnosed by our veterinarian who is my age and specializes in disease passed from animals to people. Another culprit is the fruit bat, probably because people eat them too. They fly overhead in the evening looking like a B52 bomber or a black kite that escaped.

Fruit Bat

          This fruit bat or “flying fox” is one of the coolest things you could ever see. I love them but they are blamed for being “reservoirs” for a number of diseases fatal to humans including Ebola, Hendra, Marburg and others.  The big ones, and  again there are numerous species of them, can have a wing span of five and a half feet and weigh three and a half pounds. Seeing one in flight at night is unforgettable.

          In the arthropod group , and finding their way into our bathrooms via the drains, are millipedes and centipedes. They are not dangerous but are  hard, tough, and a little scary. Centipedes can bite.

centipede millepede

          There is another character, my favorite of all, like the Chickadee for me in the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire, an animal that peps up your life and is a companion somehow. That is the gecko. Geckos come in all shapes and sizes. Around our neighborhood they are small, from tiny to about four or five inches. In the “country” I have seen them at  ten inches and weighing in at over a pound. I think I remember there are about one hundred species. They are in the house and especially in action outside when the garage light is on attracting flying insects. That is how they get most of their meals. They can walk the walls and the ceilings, everywhere. Scientists are studying how their feet and toes grip so well.  They look almost like people, some of them little homunculi, eyes, a head, little feet, hands. It is a pleasure to have them in your life.


          There is a lot more but I don’t want to go on indefinitely. What is so interesting to me is how much wildlife there is right in a densely populated city. This is important to me as my nature friends know. I am not deprived. And in Surabaya, where we have our new house, things will get even more interesting because of a lot of reasons. The one to mention now is that in Surabaya there is an extensive system of canals draining the giant flat plane of the city, moving water to the big river, the Mas, and into the sea at the port of Surabaya. Those canals, called kali, are prime habitat for a lot of life and are within walking distance of the house. 

Manyar House_web

Above, our new house- 2000 square feet of house inside plus garden,  3 bedrooms, 11 foot ceilings, and big painting studio…. We may have finally made it into the middle class due only to the power of prayer and the power of the almighty US dollar…..

Below, Lengkeng, or Longan. I have one started from seed doing well. Also, I have an artichoke growing. Lengkeng is candy on a tree…


Bougainvillea, the heart of the tropics, is everywhere and in every color imaginable and not imaginable..


The evenings in the tropics are special… rw

Sanur Beach_web

Drawing and Wabi Sabi

bangla view

Laotzu’s verse says: “Be like an uncarved stone.”

Everyone can draw. It is in the genome. Drawing is one of the earliest things we know about human beings. We admire work they did on cave walls twenty five thousand years ago. Some of it is graceful and refined. Some of it is crude, raw, and expressive. I began drawing at age thirty. Before that, I didn’t think I could draw and I never got the permission or encouragement to try. But I knew about it because of artists in my family and also because of New York City, the center of our cultural life.

I got drawn into the world of drawing and painting as a teenager in a surprising way. I was learning to play folk music on the guitar in the 1960’s and Tom Paxton took my sister on a date to the Museum of Modern Art. Since he was a hero of mine, I wanted to see what it was all about. Over the next many years I spent untold hours looking at the paintings there.

Later, when I started to become serious about photography, an art director from an advertising agency, someone a good bit older than I, suggested that the way to become a good photographer was to study paintings for composition, light, and all the rest of the elements and principles of visual art. I took it to heart. It was another encouragement to study painting. At that point I still had no sense that I might do it myself. In those days painting seemed to be for the girls, at least where I grew up, but photography was ok, kind of macho.

I became a very good black and white photographer and from photography I learned about composition, contrast and the gray scale. When I was thirty I went to graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design and spent three important years there. I was admitted because of my professional background in photography. In those days the curriculum was open, so beyond the required courses in photography, I was free to choose what I wanted to do.

On the first day of school, in the registration line, I was already talking about jumping ship from total concentration in photography. I wanted to paint, to draw. Next to me in line was an impressive-looking, tall classmate, Jenny Holzer, who was just another person at that time and not the major art star she became in the 1980’s. I talked to her about my secret desires while we waited on line to register for classes and she said basically, “If you want to paint, paint!” It was all the permission I needed.

The next day, having no experience whatsoever, I walked into a life drawing class and was welcomed by the teacher H. Lane Smith. “Yes, sure, come in. You are welcome here.” He became a close friend over the next three years and until his death.

I studied the French painters I already knew but now with a different eye because I was actually drawing and painting myself. Matisse, Dufy, and so many others including the Japanese and Chinese ink artists were important to me. But the point I want to make is that those influences did not change me. They did not change me for the simple fact that my crude approach and lack of conventional skill didn’t allow for much of their work to get into my work. My gift was, ironically, that I had no experience or skill in drawing at all. I was totally on my own except for the encouragement of a great teacher and with the unusual hyper-focus, energy, and discipline I have always had.

In class we practiced drawing from the model, and I did more drawing at home, still life, and landscape out on the rocky shores of Narragansett Bay. My teacher, Lane Smith, showed me how to make reed pens from the phragmites growing in the salty marshes. He was a fine painter, a great draftsman, and an excellent calligrapher in the Roman Hand.

My drawings were original and very good right from the beginning. Photography had something to do with that but actually it seemed like a miracle. No matter how awkward my hand was and still is, people could always identify what I was drawing. That is called characterization and I had it in spades and very much in my own unique way. That is what was so interesting, so cool really. I had the energy and the ability to try. Simply put, that was all it took.

The result was almost always exciting in one way or another and not just to me but to my teachers and to many of the students, but not all the students. My art school, RISD, was packed full with kids from all over the world who could draw anything and make it look like a photograph. Some of those students resented the attention I got for my primitive or naïve drawings as they would view them. I could sympathize with them but it didn’t make me doubt what I had. I have never doubted it despite a good deal of destructive criticism in the early years.

My approach to drawing respects the individuality of every human being. In the same way that everyone’s handwriting is different, so should their drawing be different and personal. That is how I think about it. I believe in a person’s sincere attempt to process the world “out there” and I believe that the honesty of that effort will be rewarded in a valuable and interesting result. This is a form of belief but one that is easily verified in the highly prized works of art history from Rembrandt to Dubuffet, from Matisse to Jackson Pollock, from Ingres to Cy Twombly.

Over the course of my teaching career I taught about a thousand students. The ones who were most awkward and seemingly the most hopeless were the ones who progressed much more than those others who were proud and sometimes smug about their conventional drawing skill, which was competent but often boring.

Drawing is totally natural for me. I don’t have to think about it and worry about it the way I do with painting. Painting and poems are both gifts as I see them, something that gets handed to you by your Muse after you struggle, ponder, and experiment with different ideas. The good ones happen mysteriously like that. But drawing is different. For me it is like taking a drink from the well of creativity, touching base with that mysterious power. It is the basic thing, the reliable thing. And the awkward aspect, the unrefined aspect, the mistakes, are all-important. That is a beautiful irony.

Recently, I learned about Wabi-sabi, an aspect of Zen Buddhism in Japan. Wabi-sabi considers imperfection an element of beauty, something to be revealed, not concealed. It suggests that true beauty is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. Thinking about Wabi-sabi made me remember a very significant experience I had at a school near Seattle where I was teaching. A gallery owner asked if a famous potter from Japan could use our new ceramics studio for a week to produce a great deal of work. They would pay for all expenses and make a monetary contribution as well. The students could watch. It was a good deal.

I don’t remember his name, the master potter. He was a national treasure and not old either, perhaps early middle age at that time. This was in about 1999. He got busy and over the course of that week, produced countless objects of all kinds, all hand built, nothing from the wheel as I remember. He just made things one after another and they were all considered important because, of course, he was a national treasure, but also because they all had the mark of his personality. That quality was embedded in each piece no matter how humble the object itself might seem to be.

I think about my drawing in this way; that it was a gift right from the start, a gift that I treasured and nurtured. I have gotten better at some things and can sustain my concentration longer but what was good at the beginning is still good. I know if I sit down and look out on creation and respond with ink and pen and brush, if I embrace the fear that always accompanies the first strokes, I will produce something good just like that Japanese artist. It is an ecstatic sense of artistic liberation to reach this point and worth the suffering endured along the way before that liberation is understood and accepted.

It would please me to think that these ideas might help an aspiring artist somewhere.

Ricker Winsor
Bali, Indonesia
March 2, 2015

About Ricker Winsor

Ricker Winsor studied American and Russian Literature at Brown University and Painting and Drawing at Rhode Island School of Design where he received an MFA. His new book, The Painting of My Life, was just released by Mud Flat Press; his first book is Pakuwon City, Letters from the East. Both are available on Amazon. His essays and short fiction have been published at “Reflets du Temps” in France and at Empty Mirror Books. Ricker is an artist and writer living in Bali, Indonesia. Visit him at, on Facebook and Twitter.