The Karate Kid and Balance

I was born in 1975, and when I was a kid, Star Wars was huge. The other B-movie kind of saga which had a big impact on me in the eighties was the original Karate Kid trilogy. I started doing Seido Karate when I was about eight, and made my way to yellow belt, but I stopped there, because it really wasn’t providing me with that something sacred which I hoped it might.

All of these years later, I think of when I was diagnosed with Sjogrens Syndrome as the chaotic factor in my life which was out of balance in a big way. Then, one day, a friend told me about a Chigong master who was coming to town and doing individual healings. He advised me that Zhineng Chigong was what I needed, and so I committed to learning it. My teacher told me that Chigong was the original martial art, because healing and consciousness precede the need to learn to fight. The blissful feelings it brought about, along with the positive culture, and techniques I could incorporate into my daily life were providing the disciplined sacred space that I needed.

Fear, worry and self-doubt are all part and parcel of being diagnosed with any disease (especially when Western medicine tells you there is no known cure!). Michio Kushi, in his Macrobiotic theory, talks of there being a background and a foreground, and that usually our preoccupation is with the foreground, which is occupied by our fears, vices, and perceived flaws. The background is the positive things which are going on in our lives, often brought about by our efforts to remedy the negative.

So I don’t think my aim is to become a Pollyanna, brimming with positivity  no matter what, but to develop something like dialectic reasoning, as Mr Miyagi does effectively in this scene where Daniel is focusing on the foreground of the Karate tournament (the object of his fear). Mr Miyagi reminds Daniel of the lesson about balance, and shows him the photo of Ali (the object of his love and happiness).

I like to think of the Cobra Kai as being the disease, as its credo seems to be ‘No Mercy”.

That little master is the wise centre in us all.

 

Revisiting Neo-Expressionism, and Looking Closer to Home

As I mentioned previously, I had realised that the formalist approach was limiting, in that it’s not an approach designed for expressionism. I wanted to work in a way which was more intuitive, and could express my feelings in a simple way which could appeal to a wide range of people. Of course, I was still wanting to use non-toxic mediums, but I hadn’t really experimented with watercolour and acrylic.

So I purchased some hardboard and gum tape with the intention of building up grounds with blending and blotching techniques. The resulting textures I could then gaze at for a while and anthropomorphise whatever figures and forms I see. I was getting into various conspiracy theories at the time, and these kind of became source material for the works, which were devoid of colour, for the dual purpose of making the process simpler, and expressing feelings of despair which were associated with working a lowly part time job and needing some welfare to supplement my income.

The meek shall inherit the debt     Austerity Measures

 

I continued exploring the same themes while beginning to bring in colour, especially by way of water soluble crayons and acrylic.

Treadmill    triangle circle square

 

I was enjoying these much more, but still felt like they were a means to an end. They are imitations, especially of Jean Michel Basquiat, from whom I was definitely learning helpful things, but whose style i also wanted to divorce myself from a bit.

I decided to look a little closer to home for inspiration for how to move forward. I took the time to watch a few documentaries on New Zealand artist Ralph Hotere, whose ingenuity gave me some good ideas. He uses words in his work, and he manages to merge minimalist style with expressionism. I’ve also been lucky to have been exposed to the paper assemblages of James Robinson, who really exploits paper in ways which allow for the element of surprise akin to that of how I imagine the alchemists of old went about their work.

He’s also a fellow chigong student, and introduced me to Yuan Gong, a simpler style of chigong invented by Yuan Tze, which I have since begun to learn and practise.

These two artists, along with Shane Cotton, have managed to continue along the same line as Colin McCahon, in the way that they explore the sacred and the sublime aspects of New Zealand life without resorting to obvious and over-used “Kiwiana”, as so many here are like to do.

During this period I picked up another part time job, so another challenge these days is managing my time so that I can continue to be productive with both poetry and painting.

This almost brings us up to present day, where I find myself trying to find the best way for me to do all of the things I want to in painting, and to make it cost effective.

A Shake Up and Change of Direction

First came the September 2010 earthquake, which for someone with no previous earthquake experience was really frightening, but didn’t cause any damage to me or my abode.

Then came the February 2011 quake, which hit hardest where I just happened to be that day: the central business district. This was huge. Fortunately I was fine, and my flat was still okay. I could still work away at my painting, and was playing around with ways of expressing the feeling around me at the time:

Aftermath #6    aftermath 2

cleanup2    cleanup3

cleanup6     cleanup8

mask 1 2011 for web   purple collage in prog

SOE final 1

One thing that soon became obvious, was that the options for public galleries for me to show this kind of work in, were no longer available, having been deemed to be hazardous.

On the positive, I was learning the third method of Zhineng Chigong, and felt like I wanted to try to have another go at the post-impressionist style I had enjoyed prior to the onset of arthritis, but this time, I didn’t want to have to put up with oil paintings taking a few weeks to dry, so opted to give both acrylics and fast drying oils a try:

hag tree and path 2011 for web

hagley landscape 5 - path 2011 for web

Rhodadendrons 2011 for web     winding path 2011 for web

Each of these was painted from photos I took in Hagley Gardens that Autumn. I was pleased with the results, and continued to develop the technique of using acrylics for the ground, and fast drying oils to layer up from there:

Blue House Final 2012

Green House final 2012

House and Garage final 2012

Suburbian House 2 2012

 

Part of what I was trying to also do, along with achieving an harmonious composition of shapes, tones and colour, was to express a mood which can prevail on those grey Christchurch periods of three or four days which I feel is under-represented in local painting:

Desolation  5 final

Desolation 1 for web

Desolation 3

Desolation 4

I was glad to have found a way of tackling the kinds of subject matter which I had avoided in my pre-arthritis days, but I was still feeling like I wanted to be more expressionistic, but couldn’t allow myself to be, as I was clinging to a formalist aesthetic style.  I was spending just a few hours a day on each, and doing 2-3 hours of chigong every day also, which was keeping my hands in quite good condition.

It was as if I was trying to prove something to myself by revisiting this style, but the method was slow, and lacking in the intuitive aspect of decision making which is what I love about oils (these last works were all in acrylic).

The urge for self expression, especially by bringing words into the fold, was about to knock down my door again.

Continuing Along with Painting and Chigong

Zhineng Chigong was working well for me, so the following year I learnt the second method, otherwise known as “Body/Mind Form”. It involves a lot more stretching and opening up of the meridian channels than the first method. I was devoting two to three hours of every day to chigong. I was taking steps to change my diet, as I had read a graphic novel called “Epileptic” in which the author writes about his being brought up with a brother who had severe epilepsy, and his parents’ struggle to try to find an alternative treatment for him. Their journey at one point lead them to stay at a Macrobiotic commune, where the author’s brother enjoyed quite a lengthy period without seizures, until the commune had to move off the land, and so was fractured, leaving him and his family having to search for another solution.

I just happened to be looking on a clearance table in a bookstore one day, when I came across “The Macrobiotic Way” by Michio Kushi. I think it was marked down to ten dollars; what a bargain for such a great little book! I had been struggling with my diet, as taking Tegretol had made be somewhat irregular, and a diet based on whole grains just seemed to make perfect sense to me. I had decreased my tegretol dosage a little by now, and was taking 100mg fast release in the morning, and 400mg slow release in the evening (as I have nocturnal epilepsy).

I had taken it upon myself to seek out a part time job, which I knew would be tough, considering the arthritis, the need to wear shades to prevent my eyes both from bright light and from dryness, and the fatigue. I got in touch with a local agency set up to help those with disabilities find jobs, and long story short, I got a permanent part time position with a market research company, which allowed me to work from home. The idea of “cold calling” and the thought of having to deal with disgruntled respondents didn’t bother me, as I saw the opportunity to put into practice some of those Toltec and Chigong principles and techniques I had been learning, in order to stay calm and focused in tense situations.

The extra money I was earning allowed me to fund my own solo exhibition in an underground gallery which had just started up in the central city at the time, called simply “The Room”:

birthlossdeath 2010      crush on worry 2010

feet in a line1 cropped      housefly 2010      love is being

my job 2010      Seizure 2010

mathematical shane 2010      Rimbaud socrates 2010

The show was called “Swallow Or Be Swallowed”, a quote I had taken from Joseph Campbell whose books i was reading at the time which seemed to sum up the attitude one needs on the healing and artistic journey.

Basquiat, Dubuffet, and Cy Twombly were heavily influencing my stylistic and technical approach at the time. I had found in Neo-Expressionism a way to release my anxiety, and to create large paintings (A1 or A2 size) which could communicate in a very graphic way thought feelings and ideas as they arose.

I was still dissatisfied with the lack of consistency of style and theme.

I was hoping to find a way of resolving this issue, and to have another show at The Room in maybe 6 to 8 months. Little did I know, however, what was in store for Christchurch City…

 

Getting Back into Painting after Arthritis

Now that my physical and psychological states were on the improve, I decided to return to the painting, but knew I would need a new style and technique. Having a love of words, I had been wanting to try to incorporate them into my visual art for quite some time, but just didn’t know how, or in what way.

I had seen the film “Basquiat” on the life and art of 1980s New York painter Jean Michel Basquiat, which opened my eyes up to styles like Neo-Expressionism, Art Brut, and even childrens’ art. I was also looking more at NZ artists Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere, Phiip Trusttum, and James Robinson, who all had different ways of using words in their paintings.

I set out to imitate ways they were doing this, but had the idea to also bring in some mathematics and references to science.

Here are some of my first steps into that unfamiliar realm:

science 2008 resize       shadow 2008 resize

music is... for email      thankyou 2009 copy

to critic 2009 copy

aum 2009 copy

 

So, as you can see, two things are obvious: my intention to get away from detailed rendering, and the way that they all look quite different, and so I was having trouble thematically, technically, and stylistically.

I also had the urge to want to communicate my journey into Chigong:

wall squat 2010 copy     TIME IS AN USHER 2010 copy

stretching qi 2010 copy

 

These works were A2 size, and done with a big fat calligraphy brush, and the only thing that remotely links them to the other works was the addition of my own words, which were sometimes in the form of poetry.

A friend and I applied for and received a creative communities grant through the Christchurch city council to have a joint show, at Gallery O in the Arts Centre, which we called “Cultivation”. I didn’t sell any work, but the fact that it was a public gallery meant we manned it ourselves, and it was interesting talking to people about their perceptions of different works. There was enough encouragement to make me want to continue along this path, I was just foggy on how to go about it.

Picking Up the Pieces

Having been diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, and having researched into all of the horrible things it can do to a person, I sunk into a depression which probably lasted for two to three months. I remember the song going around and around in my head at the time, with its catchy line “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone?”. Yep, this is the one:

When you’re down, everything about the world looks stupid, empty, horrible, unfair, and oppressive.

I was fortunate at the time to be reading Carlos Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan, which gave me a fresh perspective on things. The Toltec concept of the Warrior is that a warrior thrives on challenges, and is an “artist of spirit” who is concerned primarily with the pursuit and preservation of energy.  They believe that I warrior firstly must accept his/her fate (which is ultimately death), And once that fate has been accepted, then the warrior can commit the ultimate audacity of attempting to change it.

I now had a different song lyric going around and around in my head. It was “I know the pieces fit, ’cause I watched them fall away.”:

I forgot to mention that I had just been through a break up only months prior to getting the diagnosis, and Schism seems to be division both between male and female, but also a kind of divorce from the spirit.

In Toltec terms, spirit, and god mean the same thing as “intent”, and shamanic healing requires the mastery of intent to gather and direct “energy”.

There were no shamans around little old Christchurch, but a friend had told me about his learning Chigong, the ancient Chinese healing art, and told me of the Master who taught him, Yuan Tze, and that this man was coming to town and doing individual healings. I went along and spent about 30 minutes explaining my health problem to him, as he sat across from me, gazing attentively but dispassionately.

He told me that if I learn and practise Zhineng Chigong, then my symptoms would gradually ease over time, until ceasing altogether. He then got me to stand and close my eyes as he did some healing chigong on me. I remember the feeling of my body warming up as he was doing it. I then signed up for a six session tutorial on how to do the first method of Zhineng Chigong, known as “Lift Chi Up, Pour Chi Down”, as well as “wall squats” and “stretching chi”. Within a month I had noticed improvement, so I kept on attending weekly lessons and practises, and was amazed at how many challenging little techniques there were to learn.

Aside from that I was slowly learning how to deal with my symptoms, by breaking them down and dealing with them one at a time. I hadn’t heard this song back then, but it sums up the process very well:

Developing My Skills

From when I left off in my previous post until I was diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, I didn’t have the burden of arthritis to hold me back, and it was a great journey in learning oil painting.  Having no teachers, and not being able to afford any even if I wanted lessons, I used to go to the public library a lot and look at Cezanne, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Modigliani to try to figure out their processes, and aesthetic theories. Here are some of my efforts:

white cup laying 2006

2 apples 2005       vermeer copy 2002

 

I also took the time to experiment a bit:

bar code boy 2005

bust of woman on blue 2005

rough idea 2000 for web      dancer 2004

 

I was just showing these works at local cafes. I was living in the inner city then, in a bedsit for a while, and then in a very grungy flat on Peterborough Street, apparently only a few houses away from where Phillip Clairmont once lived.

Being unemployed, I used to try to save money by turning the hot water cylinder off (which meant cold showers in winter), never using heating, hardly ever cooking,and skipping breakfast.

My daily routine consisted of going to a cafe, ordering a latte bowl, reading and writing poetry, and once I had the caffeine hit, I would go to the library, look at paintings, and then return home to paint for the rest of the afternoon. At this time in Christchurch, if you were an unemployed artist, you could get what was called the “Artist Wage”, which was overseen by the charitable trust known as “Creation”. If you were on it you had to be actively engaged in artistic projects and meet each week with organisers and fellow artists to discuss your progress.

My projects weren’t about the painting though, they were about self publishing books of poetry, and I managed to turn out three books while on the artist wage. Not that I’m very proud of that poetry now, but going through that process was indeed educational.

I should mention here that the epileptic seizures I was having were really starting to take their toll, so much so that I tried my first medication for it, Epilim, which seemed to be working, but what it was doing was delaying the seizures, so that I would have one every two months, and even more fierce than before.

I was put on what was known then as the sickness benefit, and I stopped taking the Epilim. Feeling pretty disillusioned with the options for epilepsy meds, I decided to again go without, but the art development continued:

collage #1 2008_resize    3 apples in a bowl 2008 resize

5 roses 2008 resize cup and green pot 2006 resize     woman with vase of flowers 2008 resize

2 circles 2008 resize

b&w sunset 2008_resize

 

It wasn’t long before a seizure would give me a back injury, which would see me bed-ridden for a few months, and having about 6 months of physio, where I learnt some basic Pilates to strengthen the core muscles to where they needed to be.

I opted again to try epilepsy medication, this time 600mg of Tegretol, which thankfully stopped the seizures, but also saw the introduction of fatigue and dryness. I had already been experiencing rheumatism previously, which was the result of taking Roaccutane, a medication which was prescribed for me to clear up acne, which I would get on my neck and back quite a lot. Before taking Roaccutane I had a blood test, which showed an antibody which meant that I could get a form of Lupus around the age of 40. They told me that taking Roaccutane could bring this on sooner, but I wasn’t bothered, and opted to take it anyway.

The memory of this was what helped the doctors know what to test for when I was getting the symptoms of dryness, fatigue, and arthritis. It wasn’t Lupus, but another member of the auto-immune family, Sjogren’s Syndrome.

When the diagnosis came, I was told that it was incurable, which was very depressing when I tried to consider how I would be able to write and paint. But at least now I had some understanding of what was happening to me. I accepted that I needed the Tegretol to stop the seizures, but was more wary now than ever of harmful side effects of pharmaceuticals, so decided against taking meds for Sjogrens, hoping to find a better way.

The Slippery Slope: How I Fell for Painting and Poetry

For my first blog I thought it best to give some background on how I got into art.

I was brought up in the port town of Timaru in the 1980s which was devoid of any inspiration for a kid to become an artist of any kind. When I was about 6 years old I can remember at the end of class, on a friday, the teacher told us that on Monday we were all going to draw trees. I walked home looking at each tree on the way thinking “How could anyone draw that?”.

On the Sunday evening the anxiety which had been building up all weekend could no longer be contained and I burst into tears. I told my mother the reason, and she, knowing dad could draw a bit, got him to give me my first drawing lesson. Begin with the trunk, some branches from that, and smaller branches from those, and it’s done. I fet like something magical had happened. I could now create my own trees!

I went to school on Monday full of confidence, but to my disappointment, we just had to collect leaves and do rubbings of them in crayon.

It was around that time my interest in comics began to grow, especially in UK comics like Whizzer and Chips, Beano, and Whoopee. In learning how to copy their styles I was learning how to create my own people, and hence, my own worlds.

In High School art classes they taught us how to sketch and shade objects from life. I was a very timid drawer, with my whole focus being on accuracy, and not wanting to make a mistake.

They also tried to teach us to draw in a cubist with charcoal, which I hated. I also hated painting with the crappy brushes and poster paint acrylics they gave us.

I had been told enough times that you can’t make a living from art anyway, so I turned my attention to commercial art. I wanted to be like those illustrators I was seeing on movie posters etc at the time, and decided to apply for a three year diploma course in graphic design and illustration.

I had to move to Christchurch to attend the course, which was the proverbial cutting of the umbilical cord. It wasn’t long into the course that I started to realise that I enjoyed the creative problem solving process of graphic design more than illustration. We were also taught to use the standard software of the time, such as Pagemaker, Freehand, Illustrator, and Photoshop.

I used to love using photoshop to layer up textures from photos and photocopied stuff and play around with transparencies and filters. Dave McKean’s Sandman illustrations were very influencial then, as were David Carson’s experimental deconstructivist Raygun designs.

They also taught us a brief history of Modern art, and we had drawing tutors who were thriving local artists in their own right, such as Sandra Thompson, Dee Copland, Graham Bennett, and Cheryl Lucas. Drawing became something far more than sketching, and I realised my tendency to be so obsessed with accuracy and to make timid marks needed mending.

I became interested in oil painters of the past such as Cezanne, Turner, and Giacometti. I could see how oil painting allowed for a kind of layering up akin to what I was doing in Photoshop, except that it would be a stroke by stroke, intuitive method which produces a one off original work.

I was a bit disillusioned with the reality of being a graphic designer, and decided to teach myself oil painting by looking closely at those painters from the past that I suddenly had a great appreciation for.

Here are a few of my earliest efforts:

woman in red 2002 for web     self-portrait 2000 for web

I now also had time to begin reading and writing poetry, performing it at open mic nights, and self publishing books printed out on a deskjet printer.

The funny thing is that poetry was really my first love, and sales of paintings were really only intended to fund the self-publishing of poems.

It was while the diploma course that I began having tonic clonic seizures at night, and once the course was over I went and got the diagnosis that I was dreading, but resisted the doctor’s suggestion to go on medication for it, thinking that I would either live in spite of it, or just think of it as a natural part of me which shouldn’t be suppressed.

This meant that I couldn’t get a job, which meant I was poor, which to me, meant that I was on the right path to becoming a decent poet/artist in the bohemian mould, like these guys:

Arthur Rimbaud      Van Gogh self portrait