Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sun, Sun, Sun, here it comes...

In which I go to the Wudang Mountains*, via Tokyo and Beijing, break my collarbone, find a yoga teacher, end up on the beach at Olowalu, and make woodblock prints from the experience.
* The pictures of the Wudang Mountains in this post are from my 2004 trip not the 2008 trip I describe.
Sun scrolls on mulberry paper back lit in the early morning

       In the early summer of 2008, right after my thesis exhibition, I visited China for the third time. My friend Galen and I met up in Tokyo for a raucous night together with my fellow grad student Mitsuhiro, then spend two days exploring the 798 art district in Beijing before joining our taiji group around Master Dong Zeng-chen. 
The author doing taiji push hands with Master Dong on the hotel terrace. Wudang 

One stop on the trip was the Wudang Mountains, considered the cradle of Daoism, a Unesco world heritage cultural site. The martial arts movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is based on the Daoist mythology of the Wudang Mountains. There are 60 temples, some more than a thousand years old. Our hotel was located right between the Purple Cloud Temple the Wudang Wushu Academy, where 12-18 year old Chinese youth live and practice taiji, meditation and gong-fu eight hours per day. They get to visit their parents once a year. An English speaking young woman acted as our liaison and gave us a qigong lesson one early morning. She impressed me with her incredible grace, natural kindness and style, which were partly expressed, through her posture and the ease with which she carried herself. 
One of the 60 temples at Wudang
 The Wudang Mountain historic site does not allow private cars inside the area. It has become more and more touristy, but there is still a living Daoist culture and I saw an old Daoist monk at the Purple Cloud Temple who had an amazing clarity in his eyes. He was one of the most realized human being I have encountered or recognized so far in this life.

I had just witnessed these young Daoist nuns practice their sword, but came to late to take pictures. There was also a Daoist orchestra playing that day, all at the Purple Cloud Temple, which is the center of the whole area.
Young Daoist nuns hanging out at the Purple Cloud Temple after sword practice.
     The kids practice amazingly hard and their focus, the way they carry themselves is inspiring.
      It is a different experience than the Las Vegas like Shaolin traveling troupes we get to see.


The young women and men equally impressed

and landing. This demonstration was especially put on for our taiji group.

       My posture was always been terrible, even though it had improved over 30 years of practicing taiji. During my time back in school my daily practice had slipped and two month before my thesis I had been so stressed out that I decided to stop drinking completely until my thesis was done, and to meditate again every morning. Now, with school almost done, I still had to write my thesis paper, I wanted to get my meditation practice to another level and inspired by the Wudang Mountain woman to improve my posture. I understood that meditation, good posture and the way I feel are all connected. Then, in August I broke my collarbone bodysurfing and in the fall I wrote my paper that included an initial struggle with the first draft. My doctor had said that with surgery or not, the chance of healing my shoulder well was 50/50. The decision was easy, since I don’t have insurance. Every month I would go to the doctor to get x-rays, but a small gap always remained between the bones. Grad school had brought up a lot of anger and writing the paper I was again drinking 2-3 glasses of wine per day and occasionally more. I suppose this didn’t help my shoulder to heal. 
  By the end of December my taiji friend Geri told me that her yoga teacher Myra Lewin was coming to Oahu from Maui for a one-day meditation workshop. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I went to the workshop and consequently signed up for the 7-day silent meditation retreat starting in early January at Olowalu on Maui. We meditated mornings and evenings, learned pranayama, did asanas for a couple of hours and had integrated breathing sessions every afternoon, during which we could touch on issues buried in the unconscious. We ate vegetarian Auyrvedic food, designed to clear your system and palate.  


Back home I started practicing as much as I could retain.
        The December x-ray still hadn’t shown any improvement of my collarbone. I could still see the separation. The week after the yoga retreat I got my next x-ray. My doctor dropped his jaw and pointed out that the bone had healed perfectly. Since January 2009 I practice every day, have participated in seven more silent retreats, did my own yoga teacher training in 2010, cooked for several other yoga teacher trainings and retreats, and now teach Ayurvedic cooking workshops and yoga. I will write more about yoga in upcoming posts.
       The meditation finishes by imagining a big, golden sun over my head.  Into this sun I can put whatever I like to manifest in my life, kindness, love, creativity, freedom, etc.  Then l let this energy pour into every part of my body, every cell even the space between the cells. This practice inspired me to work on a series of woodblock prints, which I call the sun prints.
     These prints evolved from 12” to 24” all the way up to a 48” plate and a 9” block. I printed them on paper, fabric, in single prints or long scrolls, and on clothes They have appeared in various exhibitions and hang in yoga studios and private homes.
24" sun. 2 layers of background color, 2 layers of sun, glitter.
3 24" scrolls at Compress, Arts at Marks, 10/2009

48" sun scroll

24" sun on red printed paper
24" sun with Love, Love, Love

24" yellow sun with red text (text carved on wood block)

Charlie Wagner with text dress
Sunscrolls in my Studio. Hand printed on Mulberry Paper.
All is Well - Anything is Possible


Sunday, May 19, 2013

14 Stations of the Cross

Contemplating the installation with Father David

  After my thesis I had the great opportunity to create the 14 Stations of the Cross for the Church of the Epiphany in Honolulu, thanks to Donald Mtsumori, who has collected my work for many years and has commissioned several portraits and landscapes from me. He is the organist for the church and wanted to create a gift of the stations. The plan was to create black and white wood block prints in order not to compete with the colorful stained glass windows of the church. I carved several blocks and did a lot of test prints, struggling, especially with incorporating the biblical quotations.
I had to put the project aside in order to create work for the Koa Gallery show (see post below. Caution*Righteous*Thirst). In the painting groove, I thought I should try a couple of the stations as paintings. My friend and teacher Stephen Niles had pointed me towards the plywood rounds you can buy at the hardware store. Eventually I ended up stretching linen over the rounds. The project was finished in the fall of 2011 and in December we had a blessing in the church led by Father David Jackson, during which I had the opportunity to talk about the paintings and answer questions.
Below an excerpt from the booklet I put together for the blessing of the stations.

Donald Matsumori and me before the blessing
Thoughts on the Paintings of the 14 Stations

     First of all I like to give thanks to Donald Matsumori, who gave me the opportunity to create these paintings. I also like to thank Father David Jackson and Donald for the trust and patience they had with me during the long process.
     The history of the Stations of the Cross began with pilgrimages to Jerusalem to visit the places of Christ’s life. The desire to follow Christ’s passion at home gave rise to the recreation of the passion as early as the 5th century in Bologna. The word station originates with the English pilgrim William Wey, who visited the holy land in the 15th century. The Franciscans began building out door shrines during the 15th and 16th centuries, which numbered between eleven and thirty. These developed into the ‘traditional’ 14 stations, some of which had no references in the bible.
     On Good Friday 1991 Pope John Paul II introduced a new set of stations, which he called the Scriptural Way of the Cross. He consequently celebrated this form many times.  Pope Benedict XVI approved this set of stations for meditation and public celebration.
They follow this sequence:
 1.   Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, 2.   Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested, 3.   Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin, 4.   Jesus is denied by Peter, 5.   Jesus is judged by Pilate, 6.   Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns, 7.   Jesus takes up His cross, 8.   Jesus is helped by Simon to carry His cross, 9.   Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem, 10. Jesus is crucified, 11. Jesus promises His kingdom to the repentant thief, 12. Jesus entrusts Mary and John to each other, 13. Jesus dies on the cross, 14. Jesus is laid in the tomb.

     These paintings of the ‘14 stations’ aim to be contemporary, representing my own sensibility and the desire to speak also to the aesthetics of a younger audience. They are cinematic, as they must be, since they tell a story and are inspired by the movie ‘The Passion of the Christ’. The compositions and rendering are my own. When we study the long history of Christian art we discover that the art work is always of its time, yet my hope is that these painting show my respect and debt to all the artist who came before me and are my inspiration. The more than two years of working on this project allowed me to question and reflect on my own spirituality, especially the concepts of self will and surrender 
     The following comments describe my personal relation to these paintings and their story. They do not represent the view of the church and I don’t know if they support or contradict it. My hope is that these thoughts help you to appreciate my work and inspire you on your own spiritual journey.

At night, all is blue, Jesus prays to his father; he sweats and struggles with what is to come. His humanness shows when he asks his father to ‘take this cup away’, yet once he said this, he surrenders with ‘thy will be done’. Jesus tells me to chip away at my ego as well and to surrender to the divine. The stripes remind me of prison-clothing. It also sets up what is to come, which is dark as well as light.
 Later the same night Judas reaches up to kiss Jesus in order to identify him to the Roman guards. He has sold his soul, but not everything is as clear-cut as it seems. Judas plays the role of putting the passion into motion. The very moment of this picture can be seen as a hesitation. Is the hand going to reach all the way or is it going to pull back? Do we easily condemn Judas or can we also identify with him in our own doubts and struggles?

     Kaiphas, the high priest of the Sanhedrin interrogates Jesus. Again, Jesus is shown with the back to us. Kaiphas is another character for us to recognize ourselves in. Jesus’ actions threaten the Jewish religious aristocracy as well as the beliefs of many people in his time.

     In fear we do not act true to our selves. Peter is afraid; he doesn’t trust the unfolding of the events and denies Jesus. This, I consider the most ‘classical’ of my paintings of the stations. 

     Crucify him! The crowd actually condemns Jesus, not Pilate, who wants to let him go. Of course the Sanhedrin would like to punish him for questioning their authority, but just like the Rolling Stones sing in ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, “who killed the Kennedys? After all it was you and me.” How quick are we to condemn those who think or are different from us, who threaten us, by daring us to question our beliefs?

     Now, Jesus passion has begun. The Roman soldiers torture Jesus for being who he truly is. My aim is to pull in the viewer with the close-up composition and the details in the painting. 

     This is one of two paintings that I did first, about eight month before I started on the entire series. The other one, a close-up of a nail driven through Jesus’ hand, did not make it into the final selection. Both these paintings are rendered straight on wood. All the others are painted on linen stretched on wood. I struggled with applying the paint to the slick wood, even though I had applied three layers of acrylic gesso. The result is thicker paint and rougher brush strokes, a slightly looser approach, since I considered it a ‘test painting’. By the time the series developed to station number seven I decided to keep it. From the pain of the person behind Jesus, to Jesus’ own face, the rawness of his garment, the heaviness of the wooden cross and the bloody hands clinging to the cross, the brush strokes fit the energy of the moment. Finally, the white light on Jesus’ hands point to the potential of transformation.

     By the time Simon from Cyrene is pulled into the action involuntarily, Jesus is beaten up severely. In this painting Jesus does not appear heroic. It is Simon through his steady determination, who picks up Jesus and the cross, not just physically. Black, white and red dominate and the cross is blue.

     Jesus stops to talk to the women of Jerusalem to tell them not to cry for him and that things might even get worse for them in the future. In the painting Jesus talks to one woman standing for all. He holds her chin to make sure that she is completely with him and she is. What I understand here is that Jesus is ok with his lot, since he has completely surrendered his self will. Are we ready to do the same? Are we ready to surrender to the divine within ourselves?

     Jesus is crucified and my initial response to this passage was to paint a close-up of Jesus’ face, extremely damaged with one eye shut, and I did. I lived with these paintings having them hanging above the windows in my living room/studio where I could study them all the time. Something disturbed me besides the realistically rendered brutality of the painting, which was justified for this moment in the story. After contemplating this for a while and considering a different composition, maybe not quite as close, I came to the solution, after reading the bible passage again. The centurion is another character in the story to help us understand that not everything is always as clear-cut as we like it to be. Yes, the Romans brutalized and crucified Jesus, but this centurion has a revelation.

     I did not paint the good thief. This is the bad thief. After hurling insults he begs to be saved. Isn’t he close to many of us? I personally love this painting. I am not a great fan of heavy metal music, but I call this the heavy metal painting.

     The mood is blue, but actually I consider this moment as the beginning of the church, hence lots of white. Jesus creates a union between mother and disciple, the beginning of the community that eventually evolves into the church.

     Finally Jesus dies. The blurry abstraction invites us to move beyond the suffering of Christ. Death is transformation; the body is no longer the vehicle for our spiritual journey. Jesus last tear drops onto the rocks and explodes in all directions. We are catapulted as well, into the future. What do we take with us from Jesus’ passion?

     This painting shows the cloth Jesus was wrapped in when put to rest. I took the liberty to move the story one step ahead. Jesus has already risen and only the cloth is left in the cage, or is it a mountain rising from the desert? I invite the viewer to move beyond the story and the physical presence of Jesus.  The brushstrokes, the folds, ridges, valleys, what do you make of it? Can you fill it with your spiritual longing, can you surrender?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


overview with superimposed numbers

After finishing my thesis paper I recovered with a series of portraits, mostly of friends. They were all oil on canvas 8" x 10", except one (36" x 36"). They were shown in a group exhibition with Mark Maresca and Calvin Collins, all fellow UH graduate students, at the Koa Gallery in Honolulu (October-November 2010).
Invite with Tatum as Vampire

overview movie during installation

Meredith and me at the reception

Rock'n Roll Baby (Toren)


Toren playing drums

Actor Michael Greene with granddaughter

Yoga. Myra Lewin teaching Kelsey

Katie eating fries

Jessica as Vampire during spiritweek

Tatum as warrior

Vanessa at Lihue airport

guitarchords paintings

12 chords oil on canvas each 10" x 10"

While I paint I often have a few canvases on the side onto which I make quick, loose paintings with leftover paints, before I clean my palette. This is how the guitar chord paintings came into being.
"learn guitar by painting"