The Vanishing Ego in Painting: An Interview with Painter Joan Watts
by Kim Russo, guest contributor
On a gloriously sunny Memorial Day in 2008, I arrived at the Santa Fe studio of painter Joan Watts. I was there to interview her for a review in a local newspaper. She led me into her impressive studio where her newest paintings, in cool gradations of blue, purple, and gray, lined the warm, white walls. As we talked, a friendship based on our mutual experiences in the studio and on the meditation cushion began.
When she moved to Santa Fe from New York in 1986, the New Mexico landscape became the influence critics and curators referenced when discussing her reductive paintings. Writers used words like “ephemeral” to describe the luminosity of her paint, or “meditative” to describe her subtle formal choices — all outcomes, they suggested, of her examination of the southwestern landscape. I wondered if, instead, the New Mexico landscape gave Watts — a practitioner of Zen since 1989 — the vehicle for relating the spiritual experiences she had on the meditation cushion and in her daily life.
So which is it Joan? Are these landscape paintings that are about meditation, or meditative paintings that are about the landscape?
(laughing) Well, the light of New Mexico has certainly been a penetrating vehicle enveloping my spiritual path, but it is also true that my spiritual path propels me to somehow discover the means to evoke light and space through painting. It’s true that after beginning my Zen meditation practice the process of making a painting also became a form of meditation for me.
Can you describe that?
Now when I begin a painting, I get started in the process and then let go. The painting takes over, and I disappear. But the moment before the ego drops is pure fear. It is the same experience in sitting meditation, when the ego drops away.
Do you think your paintings describe that experience of the ego disappearing?
Can a painting embody or transmit Buddhist experience? I don’t know. Can you convey something of your experiential state to the audience? I don’t know. It depends on the viewer.
Transmission between (Buddhist) teacher and (Buddhist) student is about both of them, but both of them becoming one. With art we have an object. Is there anything embodied in that object through which some transmission happens for the viewer? I don’t know. But the same things get in the way of the transmission between viewer and art object as Buddhist teacher and student: ego, assumptions, intellectual understanding, education.
That reminds me of when I saw the Rothko Chapel for the first time. When I entered and saw the huge black canvases, I didn’t understand why anyone would present black paintings of nothing to represent a spiritual space. I grew up in a Presbyterian church full of stained glass and light. I didn’t understand Rothko’s chapel at all. I sat there for a long time really looking at the work. Then I saw it: the paintings weren’t black — they were purple, blue, green, red — and they slowly revealed themselves to me. It was an experience that changed as my position in the room changed. I thought: Wow, this is what spiritual realization is like: slow, changing, and constantly transforming. Spiritual life is an experience, not a concept. Rothko had created an experience for me rather than showing me a picture. That was life-changing for me.
I visited that chapel several times after my mastectomy and also had a powerful experience with the work. Seeing the Rothko Chapel was healing for me, and it was the beginning of my meditation practice, although I didn’t know it at the time. It is interesting how you entered the chapel with an attitude and you got very conceptual and mental — What is going on? Why black in a church? — all assumptions based on previous experiences, and then the present moment went CLUNK!
Do you have the same experience while you are painting?
Yes. I think in the creative process itself, when it goes really well, the artist is gone during the process — and later the artist can reflect. But the reflection is not the experience. It’s a memory, which is not the actual making.
So you are moving in and out of a kind of meditative state.
You can experience life as a coming into and out of the ego-self, or you can be only in the ego-self, which is like the Xerox copy — this is what I want and this is what I expect. The ego-self is conceptual. In-the-moment, non-conceptual experience can be scary. Non-conceptual experience is never a Xerox copy of anything else you have experienced.
I want to talk a little bit about how your meditation practice has changed how you function within the art market.
I don’t have to worry about supporting myself financially. But for me there was an interesting relationship with my ego because I felt I had to make a big presence in the art world. That is why I made a business plan, I set up exhibitions, and I made the monograph of my work, which took three years. But getting the work out in the world is ego-based. I can’t work in both places at once, the art world and the studio.
Is it possible, really, to completely detach from the ego? Or is it only possible to keep it in check?
Some day I’d like to get free of the business and just work — but there is an ego base that creeps back in. My mom played gorgeous piano every day by herself because she just enjoyed it, and she composed music. She didn’t try to put it in the world. When I was a kid, I thought that if I was in her shoes I’d get it out there in the world. Now I really admire what she did.
I had a conversation with the Santa Fe photographer Herb Lotz after his recent retrospective exhibition. I asked him if he thought it was successful. He said he was really glad he had the opportunity to do it and now he doesn’t ever have to do it again. I remember being blown away by his answer. It was filled with gratitude — and no attachment.
About the images: The paintings featured above are part of Joan Watts’ One series, 24 x 24 inches, oil on canvas, 2008. (photos: Herb Lotz)
Kim Russo is an artist, writer, and Head of Fine Arts at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. She has written for the Journal Santa Fe and Pasatiempo, and is currently working on a book, funded by the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation, about how Buddhist practice can help contemporary artists negotiate the ego-traps of the studio and the art market.
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