In this artist interview calligrapher Nadja Van Ghelue highlights the importance of regular meditation practice in the art of Japanese calligraphy and sumi painting.
The following artist statement was given to graphic designer and teacher Sheila Schumacher of the Transart Institute MFA for her Spring 2006 Study Plan and Research.
S.S. Do you consider yourself an artist who has a strong sense of spirit and/or faith, or a spiritual being who produces artwork from and because of that spirituality? (In simpler terms, which came first: your artwork or your spirituality?)
N.V.G. My artwork came first.
When I started to express myself through calligraphy I mainly used the Western calligraphy pen and sometimes the Arabic bamboo pen.
I created spontaneous writings, which were not bound by any kind of preliminary compositions or rules. I took the pen and started writing, creating my very own world through an infinite play of lines, forms and rhythms. New emotions and the discovery of unknown worlds in my life had triggered a strong communication within myself, which naturally expressed itself in this free writing. Like a child who takes a pencil and expresses itself out of a very innocent responsiveness.
At that time all kind of scripts inspired me, and as long as this inspiration was flowing I did not need any method.
After some time I started to have difficulties in the creative process. I wanted to create larger works and I got stuck. I couldn’t maintain the same degree of concentration throughout the work, I interfered too often, and lost the one spirit. Creation became fragmented and in some way unwholesome and forced.
Then I started to practice Zen calligraphy as it was done in the dojo of the late Zen master Omori Sogen. It allowed me to re-experience art directly, to be whole when creating and my artistic being opened itself to the spiritual dimension of art.
I studied and practised the method and techniques of shodo and became aware of the deep significance of the calligraphic heritage. In his book, The Chinese Art of Writing, François Billeter remarks that although many artists in the West have reached the highest levels of immediate expression, they have failed to pass this experience on to further generations. No methods are taught in Western art to educate and achieve a genuine creative state of mind. I discovered that this was not the case in the East. The calligraphers and painters of the East show a direct path to cultivate this creative state of mind. Their whole philosophy integrates life, spirituality and art, and art becomes a way of living.
S.S. Do you meditate and, if so, how specifically do you meditate?
N.V.G. I meditate on a regular base, every day when possible.
I do formal sitting meditation, shamatha and vipashyana.
Throughout the years I have practiced several meditation techniques to make my mind stable and one pointed, some of them are with outer or inner objects, or breathing techniques. But my basic meditation to calm the mind is focusing on the breath.
Through these meditations I experience more clarity and expansiveness of my mind, which results in a higher awareness and receptivity, indispensable tools for a good artist.
Informal meditation is the practice of Japanese calligraphy itself and walking meditation in nature.
Shodo itself when done properly is a wonderful meditation in action, the mind becomes clear and calm.
Walking meditation in nature is vital for my artistic and spiritual sanity.
To imbue my artwork with life I need mother earth, the source of life. Mountains and rivers are my external teachers.
S.S. Does meditation play an active role in the production of your art pieces? How did you learn to integrate the two?
N.V.G. My artwork is based on the practice of meditation. If I do not meditate my artistic expression becomes weak.
The quality standards I set for my art follow the spiritual art tradition of Zen and Taoism. The main quality of Japanese calligraphy and painting is the inner life of the brush stroke, the expression of our true being in it. The tremendous strength, freedom and beauty in the brush stroke, as seen in the works of the masters, is the result of this continuous exploring of our big mind, our universal being. Through meditation I can access this hidden being and my meditative experience of it flows naturally into my artwork.
The integration of meditation and art is gradual. It is a natural process, if you practice continuously. First they are separated because you do not know what is it all about.
As for Japanese calligraphy and painting I first learned to master the technique thoroughly. Then through practice I gained insight into the subtle aspects of body and mind integration in the creative process and I started to understand the effect of meditation on my mind and art. When all these experiences become an integral part of my being, they naturally flow together. Life, meditation and art are not longer separated.
S.S. Do you think you could produce the same art without a meditation practice? Why or why not?
N.V.G. My art would not be the same without meditation.
My brushwork would lack life, strength, luminosity and clarity, to mention only some of the qualities of good Japanese calligraphy and painting.
In Western art, the line is one out of many expressive tools, mainly used as preparation for painting. It has no special features. But in the East a brush stroke has a lot of qualities, which do not fit into the Western concept of art. One of the ensou paintings of the Zen master Hakuin, for example, embodies limitless love and compassion or the brushwork of the Japanese calligrapher Yamaoka Tesshu is life itself, limitless and vibrant. These artworks are more than outer form, they express universal values.
My artist soul searches after these universal and eternal qualities in art.
Without meditation I can not become aware of them and they could neither flow into my artwork.
S.S. How does the concept of judgment play into your artistic process? Do you judge the quality or success of your pieces and if so, by what measure?
N.V.G. The very nature of Japanese calligraphy and painting does not allow any correction during the creation itself, art is performed within a non-judgment mind frame.
But judgment plays an important role during the preparatory time of an artwork.
To express myself spontaneously in one act I have to attune myself properly and have to judge if all the necessary conditions to produce the artwork are fulfilled. I have to measure the degree of my technical skillfulness, the interiorization of the calligraphy or painting and my own state of mind. Only when these are correct can I produce the artwork.
I use two standards to judge my final artwork.
The first one is technical, the second one spiritual-artistic.
Some of the technical measure standards are:
- the quality of the four treasures
- the brush handling
- the composition of the characters or painting
- spatial distribution of the art work on the paper
- balance of form and emptiness
The spiritual-artistic standards include:
- lifeforce or ki in the brushstroke
- clarity and luminosity of the sumi
- the inner quality of the brushstroke; strength, warmth, love, freedom…
- the overall expression of the artwork, its expansion and depth
- the quality of makoto
- the communication with the spectator
S.S. What do you feel improves your work?
N.V.G. To look and study the artwork of genuine masters, to read their life stories, their philosophy and their artistic views guide me and help me improve my work.
Continuous practice is in general the way to improve my artwork and my view.
My artistic education is very much a process of letting go of pre-established concepts about art and to strive after makoto, genuineness, sincerity and loyalty to nature and to myself.
Makoto is often used to describe the quality of the haiku poet Bashou. Let’s say it is the very expression of the inner voice, the writing of the heart. These quality can only improve with time, like a fruit that ripens. In this unspoiled state of creation you forget about technique, your self and art and this is certainly the most difficult task to achieve.