I fell in love with the bones, the rafters, the beams and the sky in-between.
Once a month I meet with a very special group of creative entrepreneurs to critique art in progress, celebrate completed projects and share spectacular food. Over the 14 years we have been meeting two of our members have moved out of Seattle to the Kitsap Peninsula, and so twice a year we caravan on a ferry to meet at their studios.
Last month we met in Bremerton, at the tile studio of Paula Gill. Paula works surrounded by a rambling country garden exploding with vegetables and bouquets. Everywhere you look there is something to make you smile. It was a beautiful day in an environment designed to nourish the spirit. [Read more…]
I have been looking for an opportunity to interview Tracy Simpson about her extraordinary potato print “calendars” for quite a while. As a member of the six-person print arts salon Painters Under Pressure, I have watched her work grow and evolve over the course of a decade. Just after opening our current salon exhibit at Phinney Gallery we had the time to sit down at length and talk about her process. What follows is a combination of conversation and correspondence.
From the beginning I have seen connections between your work and that of John Cage. Cage’s work evolved to be the product and process of impersonal systems of chance. This is one way in which he expressed his own sense of spirituality or “zen”: as a path of divorcing his work from the normal sense of self and identification of self with personal preference and personal history. Did this lead to automatism? Coldness? Abstraction only? Hard to say. His music can be aggressively difficult to listen to. But what always comes through to me in his writing, his visual art and his persona is not the automatic or the “no-self,” but a sense of empathy and embrace. There is a kindness in letting go of the personal identification with making art. It can be liberating.
Also, Cage’s work in music is all about time, and not-time, noise and not-noise. In marking time with the structure of a calendar you are indirectly noting its absence and its impending endings. Every month ends on a note, so to speak. The grid structure is not unlike a musical structure, a grid/signature/score with notation. The calendar is scoring the month, even as you physically score the paper. I am interested in how you have chosen a very impersonal structure, the eternal unchanging numbers and grid of the calendar and made it your system. Can you talk about that, about what is impersonal and what is not?
You are right that time is about as impersonal as it gets; time stops for no one, it’s inexorable. And while we may individually have the sense now and again that time is standing still or speeds up for a bit, we know both are illusions or tricks of attention. You are also right that the way time is traditionally organized in terms of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, and so on, is impersonal. We really don’t get to say hey, I think I’ll step out of time in general or, I’m tired of how we collectively organize time and, really, my way is better so I’ll do that for awhile. For the most part, to exist in the world along with everyone else, we have to surrender to how our particular culture relates to time. So yes, in our culture there is a very set, impersonal structure that developed a long time ago that is partly related to the sun rising and setting and how the moon travels around the planet and partly related to what the collective consciously or unconsciously decided works.
I do like thinking about all that, stepping back and considering what is “natural” in terms of how we as humans relate to time and what we have constructed or imposed for convenience. And what I find even more interesting is how we interact with time. Not only is time the context in which everything happens for us as individuals and for us collectively, but I think there is nothing more personal than how we confront the inevitability of time passing whether it is during a given day or over the uncertain length of a lifetime. What has evolved for me with my art is an ongoing conversation about how I relate to time, its passage, anniversaries, the future, its apparent infinity and my obvious finiteness, how a moment in the morning may color another moment in the afternoon, how a moment in the evening may color my memory of a moment in the morning.
I visited the raku studio of artist and zen teacher Anita Feng in late August at the height of Indian summer. The trees had not yet caught fire, but the air held an expectant shimmer. Within a few weeks the leaves would deepen and turn, and that abalone glaze particular to this latitude would paint the city in subtle iridescence. If there is a season for raku, it is Autumn. This ceramic art form relies upon the drastic extremes of water and fire. It epitomizes the dynamic of change and working skillfully with change, and in this way it is the perfect parable for Zen practice.
I had met Anita earlier in the year, after seeing her Buddha sculptures in various galleries and visiting the Blue Heron Zen Center, where I very much enjoyed her clear-eyed Dharma talks. I was intrigued by her complex background as a poet, a potter and a 30- year practitioner of Zen in the Korean tradition. As a poet she has won many prestigious awards, including an NEA grant and the Pablo Neruda Prize and published two books of poetry. Much of her pottery background has been devoted to the making of ocarinas, the diminutive bird-shaped flutes of ancient times. I was very curious to know how she wove the threads of these different paths into her current focus as “The Buddha Maker.” As well, how she reconciles the traditions of devotional practice with a modern audience. I caught up with Anita as she took a break from preparations for Art in the Garden, an annual art and sculpture event held at Bellevue Botanical Gardens. We talked for many hours, and this interview is a combination of notes, memory, and email.
IJ) The power of Buddha images traditionally lies in their impersonality. The faces are based on years and years of archetypes, repeated and refined over centuries. In devotional statues the emotional element of mirroring, of liking what looks like us, is complicated by the idea of holiness or aspiration. In fact, we don’t really want the Buddha to be just like us. In contrast to the requirements for presidential candidates, we don’t judge the Buddha’s success by whether he would be a great guy to have a beer with. That not-having-a-beer-with characteristic is part of the deal. The statue is clearly not us. It is an idealized extreme. If we are from Northern European stock or African or Hispanic the Asian/Indian character of the features is not ours. This can be alienating. Alternatively we can experience it as restful–the burden of being personal is lifted, and we can surrender to something outside of ourselves.
One of the most difficult things to do in sculpture is to create a face that is universal, that does not create a subjective reactive “I don’t/do like you” response in the viewer. When a human being sees a face, whether on a real person or in a work of art, an immediate relationship arises. What guides you as you create the faces of your sculptures, and does your process or state of mind change as you work on the body?
AF) There is a way in which iconography, indeed in which history, prettifies or re-invents the past to teach and/or inspire (or divert!) the following generations. As Zen students, as students of our own particular moment world, we have the responsibility to sort out inventions and embellishments from the root teacher/teaching.
For me, in sculpting a face, I am looking for a meeting place of the particular with the universal. There is, in all iconography, an ideal that is presented. (ie.- calm, equanimity, peace, centeredness). But from the teachings and enlightened experiential wisdom that has been passed down over the generations, the only way these qualities can arise and be authentic is in the present world/moment experience. So I create faces that reflect our/my world, but it should be said, this is a world that contains all the references of the past as well. We are, as creative creatures, a composite of past, present and future, all together.
In the physical act of working the clay I reflect these two essential components (moment world, infinite time and space) in this way: the fleeting, sometimes ragged and torn movement suggested in the body/robes…. paired with the enduring, infinite stillness within the calm face. These faces may be sad, happy, or in between — but all mean to suggest a still equanimity. There is something wonderful and necessary about having an idealized image that inspires us to think that equanimity is possible. What is dangerous is when we start to believe “equanimity looks like this.”
IJ) Where and how do you draw your line between tradition and innovation? I have noticed that you have discarded many of the familiar aspects such as the stylized hair and dome-like stupa on the top. The robes can be completely wild.
AF) I don’t know if I draw any real lines between tradition and innovation. I do feel it’s important to reach back and honor aspects of the tradition where it seems to fit and serve. If the figure becomes too abstracted from the archetype people don’t have an anchor. I have chosen to keep the stylized ears, because it is an easily recognizable feature of a Buddha, but also because it points to a very real person, a privileged wealthy youth who became Buddha –with his ears elongated from the weight of heavy earrings.
The Ears [Read more…]
This week I am launching a new series of occasional interviews with artists working in the contemplative/devotional traditions. Many of these artists work within the rich iconography of Buddhism, and specifically with the image of the Buddha. Historically the Buddha is represented as a figure of serene composure, elegance and grace. The eyes look inward, closed or downward cast, the shoulders curve gently into hands held in perfect mudra. A careful ritualized mathematics guides the distance between folds in the Buddha’s robes and the size and placement of snails on his head. The surface is stone-hard or wood, impenetrable.
This is a statue, not a man–and certainly not a woman, although Greek influence gives his robes a lyrical sweep and his body is not the emaciated one of early more ascetic representations. Not just the province of practicing “Buddhists,” the Buddha image lives ubiquitously in the contemporary marketplace of imagery and ideas. The popular shorthand for “Buddhism” is the relinquishment of desire and a state of serene acceptance, exemplified by the immobile statue. The statue is an ideal. What happens when society fills its spiritual landscape with an image of an ideal rather than a real?
It sets up a struggle, a dichotomy, hazardous and blessed in equal measure. The essence of devotional art is an image and an ideal larger than the human capacity to realize. It is aspirational. And in aspiration is a keen and particular form of suffering: you never get there, you are always leaning towards, but never reaching. Modern life, at least as practiced in America, is about getting there: and it is about getting. There is grasping and a kind of avarice in that. As well, a valuable practical truth and wisdom. The democratic revolutions tumbled the monarchies: we can all consider ourselves kings, queens, or at least the head of our local precinct caucus. Darwin, driving a nail into holy hierarchies, established that we might be on a less than mystical trajectory from birth to death and nowhere does he tell us if the soul is an acquired or inherited trait. Given the melting ice caps we don’t know if we or the sutras will be here in 2020. It is only logical to say: why not now? Why not me? Why can’t I understand in my own terms, and right now, — quickly?
The membrane between the modern urgency to leap efficiently from aspiration to getting and a deeper, timeless and more thoughtful understanding is being explored by the artists, writers and other creators reinventing religious iconography on their own terms. Some of them continue in the lineage of traditional forms, repositioning them in modern environments. Others take the sly point of view, working in illustration and advertising, and others work from the ground up re-inventing the very iconographic forms, with their own personal and aesthetic mathematics. Irony is rare, and to me this is a welcome blessing. These artists are not afraid to wear their aspiration on their sleeve. They may risk condescension and accusations of blasphemy from the spiritual establishments, and incomprehension from the secular consumer, and yet they continue on.
As someone who has followed the Buddhist path– with some detours– for most of my adult life, I want to talk to these people. The Buddha image in particular has huge resonance for me. I have done and continue to do visual art, or what I think of more properly as contemplative practice, that incorporates the image of the Buddha. This practice has led me towards viewing my own art making, regardless of the subject, as an extension of contemplation, primarily motivated by a desire for insight, beauty and emotional ballast, and secondarily as an object in the marketplace. I look forward to visiting the studios and work of artists with a similar perspective, and to seeing the varieties of ways in which their practice takes form.
Please check back from time to see the latest artists interviewed in the category of “The Mystic Muse“, or subscribe to receive this blog in your mailbox.
My companion in travels, the plug-in-‘88 Toyota-cigarette-lighter-laughing-while-driving-Buddha. Factory made in a high-stress environment by card-carrying atheists, no doubt.