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  • Writer's pictureMatt Powell

Find your own expression

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

Authentic karate in an Instagram world

The other day I finished working in my dojo and came back into the house. The kids were chilling out and Karyn was cooking. It was that lovely time of day when to me the next most important thing is ‘what’s for dinner?’

As I walked through the family room a drawing caught my eye on the dining table.

My Son is a typical boy. When it comes to schoolwork or academia, he wants to get the work done as quickly as possible so that he can play. Sometimes I find this frustrating as I want him to enjoy the craft and not rush. Then I remember he is only eight years old!

The drawing on the table was a simple one colour pen and ink sketch on a sheet of A4 paper the kids had raided from my printer. It grabbed my attention and I instantly loved it. But why?

The picture has minimal content, yet it is just enough. It features our evil Cat (Millhouse) in the foreground and Oscar himself in the distance stood next to our computer. What immediately captured me was the expression on both characters faces. They are quite simply brilliant. The Cat is shocked, confused and somehow captured in the moment. Oscar is mischievous and happy with himself; he has clearly just done something. But what?

I absolutely love the picture. With the utmost simplicity Oscar has illustrated a moment that is open to interpretation. You can imagine your own context and consume it. It has perspective and depth of field and most importantly it has personality and style. I have been sketching my whole life and have a Design degree and I cannot think of any of my images that come close to what I see in that drawing.

A few years ago, I watched a documentary and I am ashamed to say I cannot remember if the subject was Quentin Blake or Tony Ross. I equally love the work of both illustrators so perhaps it is unimportant, but what prevailed in my mind was how long the artist would work to achieve genuine expression on a character’s face. The creator’s goal was minimal pen strokes to achieve expression. As Leonardo Davinci once said,

‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’.

I admire the image for another reason. It was created directly in Marker Pen. Ink is immediately permanent; you must commit to the stroke. Once you start there is no going back.

For me there are many metaphors in this image that I can relate to karate and life. Therefore, it must be a work of art. It inspires me, I enjoy it and most importantly it makes me think. All from a boy who just wants to play.

In karate we ALL can become Martial Artists. The nature of art is that you create and express yourself. Some people consume karate and simply do-it. Others embrace it, study and perform it. There is a massive difference!

As a young Adult I was not a Martial Artist. I did not know how to express myself consciously. I just did my best to mimic the performances of those I wanted to emulate. I was copying others and trying to be them.

At some point in my thirties (please don’t be shocked I know I only look 24) I stopped trying to fight like others in the absolute and instead worked on repertoire. Similarly, later in my late 30’s while teaching, I stopped trying to perform kata exactly like my kata hero Simon Staples and realised that I needed to be myself. I would never have achieved Simon’s kata as I am not Simon. Authentic performance is an expression of one’s own true style.

I am not a musician, but I assume this is like when a drummer is ‘feeling the groove?’

I love watching John Bonham from Led Zeppelin groove. Imagine what a shame it would have been if instead of expressing himself in his short life, John had been fixated on performing exactly like Ginger Baker!

I wonder how many karate-ka we have not seen authentically perform as they are simply trying to hard to emulate someone else? I absolutely love that a quick sketch produced by a child makes me want to train. What a gift it is to be able to inspire.

In Oscars drawing I found the inspiration to train and improve my teaching online. We live in an Instagram world where people present their lives through a filter. Karate teaching and practice allows us all an opportunity to be authentic.

I am human and I make mistakes. Presently I am teaching online via Zoom and it is a vastly different experience. I have taught katas and missed a move. I have emphasized a point and then next class debated my previous point of view. I am just being honest and authentic, living in the moment and doing my best to express myself.

I urge all instructors to seek simplistic expression while many are trying to be clever. Does everyone need to understand complex biomechanics to deliver a punch or should we just seek to ‘feel’ our way to improvement through effort and repetition? I will take the latter.

My message to my students (especially the kids and teenagers) is this.

Authenticity is not easy. Conformity is. Don’t use filters on your life or in karate. Just be yourself. The receptive audience will appreciate who you are and enjoy your expression. Be brave and commit to your art (whatever that may be) and don’t try to make it too complicated.

Be like Oscars drawing and keep it simple, express yourself and capture the moment.

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