Thursday, December 13, 2012

Path of No Path

I am a seeker of logic.
I am a teaser of knots. I like to take puzzles and figure them out.
And, deep down, I also believe in the possibility--no, dare I say, the imperative of perfection. The world ought to be a harmonious place. Food should be delicious. People should be good. I should be... blah blah blah (substitute synonym for "perfect"). Everything I say, my excuses, my assertions, are based on the premise of perfection.

Even if I know it's not possible, I feel compelled to strive for it anyway.

Yet these ideals are all my traps. They are the torture chambers of my mind.
Because I believe in perfection, I am constantly looking for the right path, a map to clarity, the road to the life I want. As if it were all a chemical equation, we tend to think, if only I had all the right ingredients, I would be happy. I would get closer to what I want.

But what if one day we realize, there is no road. Actually. And because there is no road, we cannot be lost.

The goal is not on any one road. And no matter which way we choose, we will end up where we are going.

What then?
How would I live my life differently?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Welcome to Pohchang: Studying Buddhist Sculpture in Thailand

September 2006, North India. The moment still rings clearly in my mind. I was at a large dinner party at the new residence of Orgyen Topgyal Rinpoche. Several large sculptures by Bhutanese artists stood awaiting finishing touches in the corner. In the middle of the meal, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche calls across the room to me and says, "Minette, you should study sculpture."

Six years later I'm honored to receive a Fulbright Fellowship to study Buddhist Art in Thailand for a year. It's an amazing opportunity. So for the last three months, I've been working with the Sculpture Department at the Pohchang Academy of Art, which is part of the Rajamangala University of Technology in Bangkok. At the moment, I am the only foreigner at the school. My Thai was virtually non-existent before I came, and only a few people feel comfortable with English. 
Ajahn Pei speaking to a class

Still, the first two weeks there were nothing short of amazing. My mentor, Ajahn Somyot Kumsang--we call him Ajahn Pei, first asked me to create a relief of a seated Buddha in clay. It was a revelation. 

I've seen hundreds of Buddha images and statues, but nothing compares to the experience of forming one yourself. 

They even brought me lunch. Fried rice from the cafeteria with fish sauce and chili. 

When I finished my rough rendition, he challenged me to create a seated figure without any instruction. Needless to say, I had a million questions. How do I form the eyes? What proportions do I use? Ajahn Pei would only speak on philosophical terms. 

I ask him how to use the tools. He says, "No tools. These, these are your best tools." Pointing to his fingers and hands. Like a beginner, I think I need to use all these beautiful tools to make my work beautiful. (Some of these tools are custom made by the professors themselves.)

But after working for some time I realize that my hands can do quite a bit more than I originally thought. And I began to abandon the tools for my fingers, because they were indeed more sensitive and precise. 

Still, there was the question of what this statue should look like. So, like any liberated woman, I decided to make it in the imagine of my self. 

Of course, having no classical training in portraiture, I didn't know how to do that either. In pity, one of the other teachers, Ajahn Tamin, called his friend and  professor from the Contemporary Sculpture, Ajahn Komsan department to demonstrate. 

He made a life-sized bust of my head in the hour and a half he had before lunch. I was flabbergasted. 

Then Ajahn Tamin created a plaster cast from the clay original, and several students helped him cast the bust in fiberglass for posterity.

Nothing like seeing yourself in pieces...Removing the clay from the mold. 
  Apparently it would cost about US$ 3,000 to have my own head cast in bronze. Since I'm a bit of a nomad at the moment, I figured fiberglass may be a bit lighter to carry. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Following in the Footsteps of Surfers. . .

I remember the day I discovered and bought my first Patagonia jacket. It was a moss green fuzzy made from recycled plastic bottles. I was amazed by the transformation involved and proudly wore it for about 8 years--until my mother fell in love with it too.

In light of what we're building with AKSHA, a friend sent me this link to an interview with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. His ideals of sustainability and fun have built an influential company that thrives regardless of the economy. I was so inspired by his humility and simplicity in crafting the Patagonia that I feel compelled to share it here.

Chouinard writes of how he did it all in the memoir, Let My People Go Surfing.

Monday, July 30, 2012


I have many passions and, to make matters worse, my mind likes to tackle multiple projects at one time. Once stimulated, my brain works like a computer running multiple applications, each designated to a particular problem or interest. So while reading a novel about surgery, I might suddenly come up with a design for safer fire escapes in skyscrapers.

For some reason, I have a tendency to think of my interests as a pattern of parallel lines that don't meet. Perhaps because they are all essentially a series of thought experiments, until I manifest them as an art project.*

All this is my attempt to explain why I recently launched a separate blog for my new project: AKSHA.

AKSHA is a rebirth of sorts. My most ambitious project to date. And perhaps, its my hope that one day AKSHA will live on independent of me and my far-flung ideas.

At present it is art as an experiment in social enterprise. Over the years I've encountered many artists who've asked me for help. They either ask me a.) how to become an artist, b.) how to reach a broader audience, or c.) how to break out of the cycle of vulnerability that the fickle art market puts artists through.

Each time, I felt puzzled. I wasn't particularly famous or wealthy. I didn't follow a conventional path to an art career (ie. art school + residencies/ exhibitions/ awards + gallery rep = success ...I skipped art school.) Compared to some artists, I take a slow research-intensive approach to making art. I've been more interested in crafting one-off art projects to tell untold stories over the course of years, than in finding a winning formula for making artifacts that generate hype and sell well. (On average, my art projects take 3 years to go from conception to fruition.)

But I am realizing, that perhaps what I lack in convention I make up for in curiosity, hard-headed perseverance, and a genuine interest other human beings.

So here goes. My intent and approach to my Brushsong blog will remain the same. It is my self-serving journal, where I get to wax philosophical, dark and poetic about my creative process as an artist.

As an experiment in cultivating an on-line platform, AKSHA will have a more outgoing approach. Taking a page from business innovators like Timothy Ferriss, Alexander Osterwalder, and Chris Anderson, I will create content that may interest other people--be they artists, entrepreneurs, consumers or all of the above.

My agenda will focus on generating a culture of mindful art and commerce. Weaving "Innovative design and gear inspired by meditation and spiritual practice" with the intent to support artists working within those traditions. Developing the company on a blog means that everything is public--the booboos and bravos. I hope that you will join me in the journey.

*Being an educator I can't help draw it back to childhood and think that the segmentation is because we were forced to place every subject in high school--Biology, History, English, Math--in a separate notebook/binder, as opposed to experiencing them a parts of one integrated understanding of the world. (How wonderful would it be to have students integrate their knowledge and skills from each subject into one project at the end of each year or semester? Hey, wait a minute--that sounds like Art!)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Cholamandal Artist Village

D. Venkatapathy
Upon the recommendation of friend and colleague, Virginia Jardim, while in India I visited a community of painters and sculptors who were at the forefront of the Indian Modernist Movement in the 1950's-80's. They live together just 25 minutes south of Chennai in a place called Cholamandal Artist Village. I arrived at their museum with a friend via a hired car, and was greeted by the manager, S.Nandagopal. Since we had exchanged emails before my visit, he was so kind as to insist on refunding our tickets (R20 each) and give us a guide who introduced us to four resident artists. 

This is D. Venkatapathy, a painter whose shock of while hair only serves to underscore his intensity. He told me about the beginning of the artist village, how they built everything from scratch with the help of some government funding and visiting artists and architects from India, Europe and North America. 

Then I walked down the dirt street to a house with a large outdoor workshop full of half-hewn bodies in stone.  Here, I chatted with Nupur Chatterjee and Rajasekaran Nair in their home studio, a cool, cozy brick abode that feels somewhat medieval with the brick cobwebs encircling their cast iron and granite sculptures adorning every nook and cranny.  


Nupur Chatterjee works with metal. Her work is small, taking inspiration from forest floors strewn with mushrooms, tree sprouts, and leaves. (She also has a fondness for drawing cats, and unfortunately I don't have a picture of them here.) She studied at the Shantiniketan Campus of Viswa-Bharati University, founded by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. She came to Chennai after graduation, upon hearing about what the artists were trying to establish here and has been here for over 7 years.


Her partner, Rakasekaran Nair, sculpts semi-figurative granite forms that are more monumental and stark in their polished black and rough grey surfaces. "The work is time-consuming and difficult," he tells me. "Granite is the hardest stone." His figures remind me of the soul, sinuous forms breaking free or emerging from the restrictions of stone. Like metaphors for the mind.  

This is the self-designed home of the painter P. Gopinath, who was also one of the first artists to settle at Cholamandal Village. Originally from Kerala, he came to study with the founder K.C.S. Paniker (1911-1977), and has since taken a leadership role in the community. His beautiful studio is filled with expansive windows to maximize airflow and light. 

His work is saturated by the colors of the earth here (which is often a gorgeous orange) and the spices and surroundings of his native Kerala. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Kenji Matsumoto: Japanese Sensibilities in Indian Wood

Photo c/o Kenji at

Two hours south of Chennai on the southeastern coast of India is a town called Auroville. In stunning contrast to the surrounding region, Auroville is thoughtfully planned, clean, and international. A number of buildings and street lights are solar powered. The town is run more like a collective than an oligarchy.

A view of the Matrimandir, an incredible structure at the center of the town that is wrapped in petals of glass tiles that enshrine real gold. It is an architectural marvel.  One can go on a tour and meditate in its white inner chamber lit by a ray of sunlight hitting a clear globe. I felt that I was in a space ship made by magical elves!   
Much of the food available is organic and delicious. They have outdoor exhibits featuring the far-off cultures like Khazakstan and Tibet, as well as advancements in green technology.   

The Auroville Visitor Center

It is here that Kenji Matsumoto moved from Japan with his wife, Ikebana teacher Valeria Raso, over 10 years ago. He began by using the large knarled roots of felled trees to create highly original stands for Valeria's ikebana arrangements. When the stands became popular, Kenji expanded into tables--creating one-of-a-kind furniture  pieces of exquisite beauty by hand. 

Photo c/o Kenji

Being June, I was visiting during the hot off-season when Kenji's studio happened to be on break. His apprentices were away and the shop had been quiet. Still, he generously opened it up to show me his tools and talk about his work. 

Kenji's process is intuitive. He looks at a raw piece of wood and designs from the existing patterns in its grain. Rather than shave off what others would consider irregularities, he brings them out as beautiful forms. He is a sculptor in collaboration with nature.  

I asked Kenji how his work is received in India. He said, like the Japanese, Indian people have a very close and spiritual relationship with nature. Thus, they have an appreciation for pieces that reflect nature's beauty and want such things in their home. The people who commission and purchase his work love that each piece is one-of-a-kind. Such furniture is not as common in India as it might be in Japan and other East Asian countries, where this aesthetic and craft has developed over hundreds of years.   

Photo c/o Kenji

All other photographs by B.A.M.