Zen palette: Jim McDermott unwinds with ink and jazz.
As a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Washington State Representative Jim McDermott focuses on the big-picture problems facing the nation. But when the congressman needs to escape the pressures of Capitol Hill, he turns his attention to mastering the details of smaller, more artistic tableaux.
Since the late ’60s, McDermott has been an avid practitioner of sumi-e (pronounced “soo-mee-EH”). This simple and elegant style of monochromatic ink-wash painting developed in China during the Tang and Song Dynasties, later becoming popularized in Japan and Korea. Black ink is diluted to create shades of gray—no colors are used—and oftentimes finished works showcase more blank space on a sheet of rice paper or silk than ink. In sumi-e the idea is not to present a subject literally, or even realistically, but rather to capture its essence. This can be difficult. “Sometimes I’m absolutely magic, but most of the time I miss it,” admits McDermott. “It’s all about becoming one with the brush.”
Sumi on Sundays
For years, he would practice sumi-e at his Seattle home on Sunday mornings in a backyard studio he called the “Zen shack.” Today when he paints, either on the West Coast or in DC, McDermott plays jazz records—classic tracks by Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Ray Charles, and Miles Davis provide his meditative soundtrack.
For McDermott, there’s a philosophical connection between the freestyle improvisation of jazz and the art of sumi-e. “When you blow a note or make a stroke, you can’t change it,” he explains. “You’re in the moment.”
A Gentleman's Touch
Bamboo is his favorite motif, and is also one of the four core subjects of traditional sumi-e, along with orchids, plum blossoms, and chrysanthemums (together they are called the “Four Gentlemen”).“[Bamboo] is the perfect gentleman,” says the artist. “It bends in the wind, but never breaks.”
Art in Congress
For the most part McDermott doesn’t display his creative efforts publicly, though his paintings have been sold at numerous charity fundraisers and were a part of the Women’s National Democratic Club’s 2010 exhibit “Art in Congress.” Those who visit his DC office in the Longworth House Office Building can get to know his artistic side; one of his paintings hangs in his workspace. “At first I didn’t know if people only liked them because ‘Congressman Jim McDermott’ did them,” he says. “But I’ve been told that they’re good by people who didn’t know that I painted them and whose artistic opinion I trust, so I must be on to something.”