The Scent of Incense

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Last fall I was asked by the UK publication Glass Review Magazine to submit an article that was loosely themed around the notion of meditative art – durational or minimal – art that gives the viewer space to move and ‘be’. The topic gave me the opportunity to reflect on making kinetic sculpture and glass that sometimes evoking solace and other times danger. I’m glad you can join this 20 year investigation of glass as a reflective and transmissive canvas. 

Meditative Art

I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, studying fine art and biology there at Emmanuel College. I often retreated to the college chapel to quiet the anxiety of fears about flunking Comparative Vertebrae and Microbiology. The chapel’s beautiful stained glass windows told the stories of the lives of women saints (it was then a women’s college).  As the movement of light through the glass changed continuously, so did the subtle relationships of the window’s colors, and I relaxed.

The solace and delight of transmitted light through glass prompted me to spend my junior year abroad in London. There, I studied painting, art history and the history of stained glass, doing research at the Victoria & Albert Museum library and hitchhiking to medieval cathedrals throughout the UK.  Once back in Boston, I studied glass sculpture at Massachusetts College of Art, curious to find my own way of infusing the solace of light into my own work.

After college I landed in an artist community on the West Coast, not far from the San Francisco Bay. The question that was always in my mind was how we find our way through the confusion in our lives. I began to work with navigational imagery as a metaphor for this process, having been a Sea Scout in high school. I loved the concept that enormously heavy forms could be buoyant, and the symbolic language of the nautical charts that we use to navigate.

Throughout this time, I also studied meditation—choosing a practice that focused on awareness of the breath as a way to concentrate. We would sit quietly and focus on the sensation of the breath in the body.  By bringing attention to the expansion and contraction of the lungs and stomach, this type of meditation practice can calm the mind.

Breathing Lesson: Ellipse

When a dance company invited me to collaborate with them in 1996, I built rocking buoy sculptures up to twelve feet tall that were moved by the dancers. As I was learning in my meditation practice, we need the gravity of our bodies to relate to our minds. I was amazed to observe that the audience was rocking with the sculptures as well.  That was the moment that I realized that that I was able to make a connection to viewers in a powerful way with the kinetic properties of my sculptures.

I was not trying to make meditative art works, per se. I wanted to replicate the slow rising and falling of waves as a kinetic extension of navigational themes.  The habit of the daily meditation practice permeated my art practice, like the way the scent of incense seeps into ones clothes. I began my first kinetic series, collectively titled Breathing Lessons, collaborating with an engineer. I used plate glass because I wanted the material to be very clear in contrast to the nautical imagery that I created by slumping the pieces into molds, such as ellipses and the outlines of nautical charts. I would then fire it again to curve it.  Behind the glass there is a motor mounted with an arm on it that pushes and then releases the fabric scrim between the piece and the wall. The pattern created by slumping casts a shadow onto the scrim as it moves towards and away from the glass.  The shadows expand and contract in the same way that our chests rise and fall as we breathe.  In addition, the continual rotation of the motor references the cyclical nature of everything that exists.

Cam Shaft Gingko

Four of the Breathing Lessons sculptures were included in a show at the MIT Museum in Boston, MA in 1997 called “Glass: Linking Art and Science.”  Their unusual combination of glass, steel, motors, and fabric gave me the language to connect science, the natural world and contemplative practice. Later, in the Cam Shaft series, I began using paint brushes as the cams or arms; the brush itself pushes and releases directly against the back side of the glass. This was a reference to painting, since from the viewer’s perspective it appeared as though the ‘canvas’ was receiving the ‘paint’ as the brush splayed out against the etched interior surface of the glass and then released.  The bristles of the brush are only visible as they press against the glass. Similarly, in meditation practice, when we are aware of the breath or a sound or sensation, we are truly present to our direct experience, like that of the brush against the glass. As soon as thoughts come into our mind, we’re distracted. Immediate sensation disappears, like the brush pulling away from the glass.

Thin Green Line

In a series called Horizon Lines, light shines through, slowly spinning, clear textured glass, mounted horizontally casting a topographical/landscape-like shadow. Mirrored areas of the glass reflected light, casting atmospheric light patterns that cycle across the exhibition space towards the viewer and return to their source, disappearing in a thin line.

Vajra Nocturne

James MacNeill Whistler’s Nocturne Blue and Silver at Battersea Reach (1875) is one of my favorite paintings. Whistler described his pictures of the fog-bound Thames River as being “like breath on the surface of a pane of glass.”  In my own Nocturnes series of sculptures, light is projected through glass onto slowly moving scrims, casting shadows that expand and contract. The slow repetitive movements of planes of muted color, shifting shadows and reflections in these sculptures are a contemporary restatement of the poetic atmosphere of Whistler’s paintings of the elusive moment of dusk over water.

Reflective and Transmissive Canvas

In Lawrence Wechsler’s biography of Robert Irwin, Wechsler quotes the artist’s assertion that in order to fully experience something you need to forget the conceptualization of it.  “This is why I want to minimalize the narrative. A picture is finished when all trace of the means used to bring about the end has disappeared.” If the first response someone has to my work is to ask how it was made, I know that I have not succeeded in achieving my intention. I think of my work with glass as an alternately reflective and transmissive canvas. I hope that the exquisitely slow cycle of movement of glass, light and shadow can connect the viewer to the sensation of expansion and contraction in their own heartbeat and breath.

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March 8, 2017

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