ArtSEA: Summer reading with Bruce Lee

Plus, a powerful show of paintings in Georgetown and more bookish art around Puget Sound.

photo of the entrance to a museum exhibit with the image of a leaping man

“Be Water, My Friend,” a new exhibit at Wing Luke Museum, reveals martial artist Bruce Lee by way of his book collection. (Wing Luke Museum)

It’s the end of July — how’s your summer reading going? Are you revisiting the classics or tearing through page-turners? (Any progress on your Summer Book Bingo card?) Maybe it’s too darn hot to read… or maybe we can take literary inspiration from Seattle’s favorite martial arts star, Bruce Lee, whose 2,800-book library recently found a permanent home at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.

By the looks of the new exhibit Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee (which opened earlier this month and will be up for at least a year), Lee was not into beach reads. In fact, he didn’t read much fiction at all, choosing instead to pore over pages in pursuit of self improvement. The 300+ titles selected for display reveal the interior side of a man known for exterior feats of strength. 

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Viewers seeking memorabilia and movie posters may be disappointed — this is definitely a more cerebral look at Lee. (The title shares the name of his daughter Shannon Lee’s book about her father’s personal philosophy and its origins.) But I found it to be the most revealing of the Lee exhibits the Wing Luke has organized, because scanning the spines on personal bookshelves tells us so much about a reader. Perusing this particular collection takes you inside Lee’s mind, offering an embodied sense of a young man (who died at age 32) with an unyielding thirst for learning. 

Bruce Lee’s book collection, showcased in “Be Water, My Friend,” reveals his pursuit of authenticity in mind, body and spirit. (Wing Luke Museum)

Several stacks of Lee’s books are contained within a nifty cutout of his leaping form. Some reveal his relentless pursuit of physical fitness: books on jogging, weightlifting, judo, Tae Kwon Do, Chinese weapons, The Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing, yoga, wrestling, The Art of the Foil (a 1932 book on fencing) and a primer on the 1960s exercise craze Slimnastics. 

Other titles reveal his quest to focus his mind and elevate his spirit: books on Carl Jung and Hermann Hesse; the ancient Chinese text Tao Te Ching, central to Taoism; Kahlil Gibran’s Spirits Rebellious; The Key to Your Personality; and even How Showmanship Sells.

The exhibit text (written by Shannon Lee) tells us Bruce Lee — a movement artist and actor — considered himself an “artist of life.” He also read art books: The History of the Nude in Photography, Dance and Its Creators; Stanislavsky: The Art of the Stage; and several books of classic poetry. 

As a bibliophile, the insight his book collection provides is more fascinating to me than the high-tech room in which you can step on circular “launch pads” that activate screens featuring vintage photos combined with quotes he found meaningful. But that part is cool too, and emphasizes Lee’s interest in being authentic in mind, spirit and body. “To him, the goal of being ‘real’ was the highest personal achievement possible,” the exhibit text reads.

His pursuit of realness is also reflected in the books that are propped open for us to see what he underlined and annotated. Lee was an active reader — and his underlines are the straightest I’ve seen, achieved either with a ruler or a remarkably steady hand — writing his thoughts in neat cursive directly onto book pages. On one he writes a comment that seems tailored for the internet age: “We should devote ourselves to being self-sufficient, and must not depend upon the external rating by others for our happiness.”

“Where I Fit In” (left) and “Black to the Future,” two large-scale pieces in the debut solo show by Prinston Nnanna. (Koplin Del Rio Gallery)

A beautiful new show of paintings in Georgetown reveals another artist in pursuit of authenticity by way of physical, mental and spiritual touchstones. Prinston Nnanna, a Brooklyn-based artist originally from Houston, presents his first-ever solo show: The Way Back Home (through Sept. 3) at Koplin Del Rio gallery.

These large-scale works are washed in gold and coffee tones, and have a glow that feels almost mystical. This sense is augmented by the rich textures Nnanna creates with paint, as well as the symbolism and small insects (bees and butterflies) that hover around the subjects like talismans. But the people portrayed here are contemporary — and very real to the artist, who often pays homage to the women in his immediate circle. 

On Instagram, Nnanna recently wrote about how as a child he was inspired by the character JJ on the show Good Times — because JJ was a painter. “I was always fascinated by his paintings, saying to myself  ‘African American Artists do exist,’” he commented. Nnanna found deeper meaning in a character many people saw as mere comic relief. In other words: he read him differently. 

That sort of insight and interpretation is alive in these paintings, several of which feature books and holy texts to symbolize a search for knowledge and belonging. With their heads and hands literally ensconced in books, Nnanna’s subjects reflect the human desire to find ourselves in the pages.

A new collection of short stories by Jess Walter and a debut novel from Leyna Krow. (Brangien Davis/Crosscut)

If all this has you in a bookish mood, consider these options: 

The airy Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds is exhibiting a group show, The Art of Reading (through Nov. 20), featuring paintings by accomplished but lesser-known Northwest artists of the mid-century. The works, by Anne Kutka McCosh, Mabel Lisle Ducasse, Lauretta Sondag and others, feature books, people reading and the third leg of the trifecta: cats. 

Book-It Repertory Theatre is presenting a one-man show version of Beowulf (through Aug. 7), adapted by Julian Glover and performed by Seattle fave Brandon J. Simmons. The ancient and mythic tale of monsters is told in the thankfully air-conditioned Alhadeff Studio Theatre at the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center. 

Finally: actual books by local authors! In case you missed it, Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel wrote about Patricia Wants to Cuddle, a funny new take on Sasquatch from Seattle writer Samantha Allen. And I recently sang the praises of the Seattle-set tech dystopian novel The Immortal King Rao, by Vauhini Vara

This month I can heartily recommend a couple of new fiction titles, both from Spokane authors. Fire Season, by Leyna Krow, is a debut novel set in late 1800s Spokane Falls and surrounding three opportunists making their way in the wild western frontier. It’s historically insightful and darkly funny and also perfectly captures human delusion. And from Jess Walter (The Cold Millions) comes a collection of short stories, The Angel of Rome, in which he tells stories of transformation — from cancer to coming out — with his signature humor and touching insight. Go forth and get reading.

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