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.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.Comments
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
This summer, for the first time, an original painting by Pablo Picasso was exhibited in the West Bank city of Ramallah. What’s the big deal, right? Museums and galleries loan each other works of art all the time. But in Israel and the West Bank, where politics, borders, and security concerns rule the day, organizing a public exhibition of Picasso’s $7.1 million "Buste de Femme" turned out to be no easy feat. Who would insure the painting? How could its physical security be guaranteed? How would it be transported across military checkpoints?
For the last two years, Khaled Hourani has been doggedly figuring out answers to those questions together with the Van Abbemuseum in Holland. Hourani is arts director at the International Academy of Art Palestine (IAAP) in Ramallah where the “Buste de Femme” was on display. The Van Abbemuseum holds Picasso’s painting in its collection. Theirs is a story of a cross-cultural team triumphing over bureaucratic hurdles.
The Van Abbemuseum sent us over one hundred pictures documenting the painting’s careful voyage from Holland to Ramallah. The photographs tell their own story with the “Buste de Femme” as a silent, cipher-like protagonist. The painting is a magnet for attention and inspection and yet it also seems a little lonely and plaintive as it winds its way through customs and checkpoints into the IAAP’s exhibition room.
We reached out to Hourani to learn why he wanted to exhibit a single Picasso painting in Ramallah, and how the experience of working on this project affected him personally. Here’s his answers to my questions via email:
There are several reasons for this choice. The students of the Art Academy were at the center of the selection process from its early stages. The students voted in full consensus for Picasso as an artist and for the chosen painting in particular.
The Academy conducted a thorough research in Palestine about “who is the most popular international artist in our region?” The answer was Picasso. I recall asking my mother about the most well-known artist or painting she favored. Her answer was Picasso as an artist, and “Mona Lisa” as her favorite painting.
I had other personal reasons for selecting Picasso. His name was carved in the memory of my childhood in the early stages of my upbringing. When I was a child and used to paint, my teachers nicknamed me “Picasso.” Later in my life, when I started working, the name Picasso accompanied me. In our culture it is very popular to give a nickname to someone after a well-known figure; and, for me, Picasso became my nickname.Comments
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Ernie Barnes used his canvas to celebrate black American life in elongated, vibrant strokes. “The Graduate” (shown above) is one of the professional football player-turned-artist’s best-known paintings, which is part of a body of work Barnes called “The Beauty of the Ghetto.” Barnes passed away in 2009.
According to his long-time assistant Luz Rodriguez, “The Graduate” is rooted in Ernie Barnes’ experiences growing up in segregated Durham, North Carolina during the 1940’s and 50’s:
"Because it was rare at that time for a member of the family to graduate from high school, it was commonplace and an honor for the new graduate to walk home from campus still dressed in their cap and gown. As the new graduate walked home, people on their front porches stood and clapped, which instilled a sense of pride in the graduate as well as the community. This image always remained in Barnes’ psyche."
The creative inspiration for “The Graduate” came many years later while Barnes was in his car, parked at a stop light. Peering out the window, he noticed a young man striding across the street. “He expressed the attitude and confidence that Barnes captured for the mannerism in ‘The Graduate,’” says Rodriguez.
Even though “The Graduate” depicts a solitary figure, it tells a story of collective pride and accomplishment. For Barnes, who attended North Carolina College on an athletic scholarship and graduated with an art degree, the graduate’s achievement buoys a family and a community. One person’s success may inspire a succession of possibilities.
Valedictorian Lawyna Taylor, one of 11 students displaced by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, celebrates after commencement was held in Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in the Ninth Ward. (photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)Comments
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This afternoon we received the following email from Ben Depp, a photographer whose sister Martha, an artist and art teacher, was diagnosed with an advanced form of ovarian cancer:
"I put together a six-minute film on her art, life, and cancer. I think this is a good fit for your blog because of her spiritual journey through her cancer process, and it’s very interesting because of how she illustrated the process with painting and drawing. Her blog has touched thousands including many with terminal cancer.”
I don’t know why, but I started watching Ben’s quietly touching video, half expecting an against all odds type of story. It wasn’t to be.
Martha died this past Thursday at the age of 33. May she rest in peace with that brand new body she was awaiting:
"Physically, healing hasn’t happened. I mean, obviously, I still have cancer, and I’m obviously going to die from it. And it’s all over my body. But I’m kind of happy about that because I get to go to heaven sooner and be healed and get a new body and be from pain and suffering, and tears. No more tears."
by Sharon Kingston, guest contributor
Japan has been on all our minds and in all our hearts. There doesn’t seem to be enough capacity in the human soul to witness nature unleash its force on man in this way. Helplessness still sits with us even after the contributing of funds to relief efforts.
The magnitude of the disaster and continuing saga has made us all feel vulnerable to the uncertainty of life. We can’t fathom how recovery can possibly follow such devastation.
Then there’s me here in my studio just painting clouds and wondering how what I do could possibly matter. And then today I happened upon this Rilke poem after I finished the painting shown above. And the words could not be more profound and with them my painting feels right again.
Threshold of Spring
Harshness gone. All at once caring spread over
the naked gray of the meadows.
Tiny rivulets sing in different voices.
A softness, as if from everywhere,
is touching the earth.
Paths appear across the land and beckon.
Surprised once again you sense
its coming in the empty tree.
—from “A Year With Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke” (translated and edited by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows)
Sharon Kingston is an oil painter of invented and imagined spaces infused with metaphor and poetry. Her most recent paintings, the Reading Rilke series, have been inspired by the writings and poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. She lives in Bellingham, Washington.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.Comments
by Marsha Glazière, guest contributor
“Human Tapestry” is a three-dimensional painting running on and off the canvas that measures 6 feet high by 16 feet wide by 24 inches deep. The work is visual prospect for international peace and the continuation of life on our shared planet.
Eleven life-sized figures represent various countries and political ideologies. Each is draped in her own flag, her own nationalism, seemingly separate and distinct from that of any other country. While each flag is a symbol of a reciprocal system of language and customs of the people of an individual nation, it also serves to define geographic boundary lines on the earth.
The flag then becomes a symbol of separatism rather than alliance. Instead of recognizing our common human bonds and celebrating our universality, we see ourselves as isolated and often superior to one another.
Realizing that our human commonality far surpasses any subscription to a particular doctrine or desire to control the earth’s resources may allow us to reach within and beyond our borderlines, eventually eliminating catastrophic hostility and the perceived need for territorial and ideological dominance.
Marsha Glazière is a sculptor and painter currently living and working in Seattle, Washington. She is always in search of inspiration and human connection.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Shari Motro, guest contributor
Krista’s interview with Bill McKibben inspired me to write this, so I thought it would be fitting to post it on this blog.
Last spring, the Obamas planted a White House vegetable garden. This year, why not follow up by cutting the air conditioning and opening the windows? They might also set a temperature range for the White House within which neither artificial heating nor cooling is used — recognizing that for much of the spring and fall what nature provides simply cannot be improved.
I’m no fan of indoor refrigeration even in summer. I realize I’m in the minority. Nevertheless, year-round climate control is surely not what most people want. During these glorious weeks, I cannot believe the office and retail workers who crowd every outdoor café and park bench at lunchtime appreciate returning to their airtight posts. I cannot believe the guests of most major hotels prefer stale recycled air over an April breeze. I cannot believe the bedridden sick and elderly prefer the drone of forced air to the calls of nesting birds. Novelist Henry Miller called the United States the “air-conditioned nightmare.” He had a point.
The ubiquity of windows that do not open may cause some not to notice what they are missing. Sealed spaces divide, they alienate, they blind us to what is happening beyond our threshold. They rob us of the goose bumps you feel as the sun sets at the end of a balmy day, of the sounds of crickets and children, of the smell of freshly mown grass, honeysuckle, earth. A different kind of comfort emerges when we tune in rather than anesthetizing ourselves to our given reality, and with this comfort comes a different kind of compassion for ourselves and our surroundings.
In the end, of course, this isn’t only about us. Americans make up 4% of the world’s population and we produce a quarter of its carbon dioxide pollution. I don’t know where you draw the line between personal comfort and responsibility, but treating our air 12 months a year, 24/7 is on the wrong side of it. This isn’t comfort, it’s gratuitous waste.
Who stands to lose from an open-window revolution? The multibillion dollar HVAC industry. I’m okay with that.
It’s been a long winter — let the sun shine in.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Saw this over the weekend in the London Times and thought it was worth sharing for those of you who missed it.
Quite some time ago, we chose Marc Chagall's "La Crucifixion Blanche" (1938) as the lead image for our program, “The Jewish Roots of the Christian Story” with our guest, Joel Marcus. “White Crucifixion” is the first in a series of Chagall’s major crucifixion paintings in which he focused on the persecution of his fellow Jews by Hitler and the Nazis through depictions of Jesus dying on the cross and his essential Jewish nature. (Ziva Amishai-Maisels’ exploration of Chagall’s painting is a good starting point for better understanding the nuanced detail and subtle narrative devices used in “White Crucifixion.”)
A previously unknown 1945 gouache painted by the French-Russian artist while living in New York surfaced in a recent auction in Paris. Keeping it on the down-low, the London Jewish Museum of Art purchased “Apocalypse in Lilac, Capriccio” for the relatively paltry sum of 30,000 euros, about $43,000. The small museum kept it quiet so that major museums and other collectors wouldn’t bid up the price.
And, now, after all these years in hiding, the painting will be displayed in London this coming week. What a treasure for the public to behold.
(“White Crucifixion” courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago, a gift of Alfred S. Alschuler)Comments