Thursday, March 03, 2016

Chogyam Trungpa, Raymond Saunders, and Living the Ultimate Work of Art

"I want people to like you—not for what you make—but for WHO YOU ARE."

This is probably the last thing artist Raymond Saunders said to me as we walked away from an exhibition in California many years ago. It is a koan, which I have been chewing on ever since.

Raymond Saunders, Jack Johnson (RS15-019) mixed media on wood panel 30 x 24"
At first, I really didn’t understand what he meant. I thought in response, “But what I make is who I am.” As an artist, my life was about what I made. It was about what I put into the world, for people to see, experience, discuss. It was about what I said with my work.

As I thought about his words, I began to question the focus of my work, my methods and priorities. It reversed my orientation from outward to inward. From the object, to the human. 

I began to think about what it really meant, not just to make art, but to embody art.

In a letter published in True Perception, Chogyam Trungpa writes,

The basic problem in artistic endeavor is the tendency to split the artist from the audience and then try to send a message from one to the other. When this happens, art becomes exhibitionism. One person may get a tremendous flash of inspiration and rush to “put it down on paper” to impress or excite others, and a more deliberate artist may strategize each step of his work in order to produce certain effects on his viewers. But no matter how well-intentioned or technically accomplished such approaches may be, they inevitably become clumsy and aggressive towards others and toward oneself. 

Trungpa’s notion of aggression is a subtle form of projection. When we put something into the world as artists, we often embed a host of expectations in the work. It carries our ego. Which is why, when our work is critiqued, we feel personally attacked. When it is copied, we say something was stolen from us.
Chogyam Trungpa

For Trungpa, this approach to art is clumsy because it carries the anxieties of a child. It is aggressive because it holds us and our audience hostage. 

But what is the alternative? How can one make things free of this aggression? Perhaps, the answer lays somewhere in Raymond’s challenge. "I want people to like you—not for what you make—but for WHO YOU ARE."

What do we stand for? Which values do we embody?
Raymond’s koan has, in a way, been my undoing as an artist in the conventional sense. It has been nipping at the edges of my creative conscience for so long, that I have now come to a stage where I sometimes cringe at being called an artist. Being called an artist implies that there is a separation between something that is artist and that is not artist. There is a pretentiousness, a distancing, an arrogance or exotification that happens.  

I prefer Trungpa's definition of art.  

The way you dress yourself, the way you brush your hair, the way you brush your teeth, the way you take your shower...all of those basic activities are works of art in themselves. Art is life, rather than a gimmick. in this sense includes your total experience.

Synchronizing body and mind is always key. If we are artists, we have to live like artists. We have to treat our entire lives as our discipline. ...there is no boundary between when [artists] practice art and when they are not practicing art. 

Monday, February 09, 2015

A new recording of the profound Nalikae Tree lullaby, with a direct English translation by Prof. Peter Skilling. 

"Mapraw Nalikae"
A palm tree, a palm tree,
A solitary palm tree stands alone
In the middle of a sea of wax.
Rain does not touch it,
Nor does thunder reach it.
In the middle of a sea of wax.

The only ones who reach it
Are those who go beyond good and bad."

Recording by Chatupon Phechobun.
Image of "Ten Thousand Bridges" art installation by Minette Mangahas.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

On the Road: California

5/29/14 :

One of the things I love most about traveling, is that it gives you a lot of perspective. 

Bridge over the bay.
Everywhere you go, you encounter the narratives that people tell about who they are, what they do, and where they live. And for the most part, I've found that whether these stories are positive or negative has little to do with relative physical comfort, and more to do with emotional well being.

Dad in front of his home. He retired from engineering and went into medical massage.
He spends a lot of time in farmers markets. And he is so happy. 
To a certain extent, each and every one of us constructs our own personal hell and heaven. And we re-tell ourselves the story of this hell or heaven, everyday.

Berkeley: A man named Rivers, dressed in a flashy silver suit, offers me flowers and blessed yogurt from the Hare Krishna Temple. 
We chose to feel liberated by circumstances, or to be imprisoned by them. We chose hate or happiness. We chose to love or to run.

Flower offering
I can't help but feel that to have power over our lives, we must know that we have power over these narratives. We must recognize that we are the writers of the fictions in our head--and yes, they are fictions. Because almost any circumstance can be re-written to be understood and felt differently.

And these fictions we tell ourselves--they have power. They form the ground from which we make decisions about who and how to love, about what's possible for our future, and about whether we can be happy.

Patty's new hat.


Monday, March 17, 2014


Hello! And Happy Saint Patrick's Day!
As you may have noticed, I've neglected this personal blog since the end of 2012, when I launched into a long-term project called AKSHA.

Its been a large, life-changing experience which involved moving from Brooklyn to Bangkok, a year-long Fulbright Fellowship in sacred sculpture, a Kickstarter campaign, a new children's book, a new 150-meter art installation, and my first line of jewelry called LUMINOUS.

Its been amazing. And most of my journey has been documented on AKSHA's Blog and Facebook Page.

Since then, I've come to re-evaluate everything that I've done in my life. Everything, from the children's stories and piano compositions I made when I was 10 years old, my work as an artist in calligraphy and animation, to the work I did in grad school at NYU--All the work on my site and this blog in retrospect now seems to just have been preparation for what I am doing now. I understand it all differently, and am repackaging it all for relaunch on the new Brushsong site later this year.

So be patient with me! All systems go. If you'd like to stay in touch, please visit my Facebook page or send me a note. I'm coming back to my writing and music, and so will post essays and video/sound pieces on this site from time to time.

Much love,

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.