28 December 2012

Art Knows No Borders

Showing me photos of his recent trip to Vietnam, Ajahn Pei tells me that the Vietnamese artists he encountered don't like to have their work compared to Chinese art. Though there is an obvious sharing of artistic sensibility, tools, style and technique between the two countries.

He also points out that in the international workshops hosted in Thailand, Chinese and Japanese artists often don't speak to each other. They will also refuse to use tools and materials made in each other's countries.

In fact, since people have been migrating across the region from the beginning of history, I would guess that art and culture predate current the political boundaries that circumscribe "national identities". So it's only natural that people in adjoining countries would have a lot in common. This goes for art, as well as language, cuisine, dress, etc.

So the question is why does this divisive perspective prevail? Why don't we enjoy these connections rather than deny them?

My first guess is that it's a legacy of war.

My second guess is that it's like sibling rivalry. We are prone to dislike those who are a bit too similar to us.
They threaten our sense of uniqueness, our pride. But why?

This leads me to appreciate the work of my first teacher, Zen artist Kazuaki Tanahashi, who leads many projects to improve relations between China and Japan in the wake of the WWII atrocities in Nanjing.

If artists, who have license to think and work beyond conventional boundaries are not able to transcend them, then what hope do we have for the rest of the world?

I've experienced this divisiveness first-hand. Perhaps it is something that can only be resolved by working with children, who can shift the paradigm for the future.

But I believe that there is a power in art to move even the crustiest minds. It would be something to tackle in AKSHA's future programs--to create opportunities for people to rediscover their common humanity, and the joy of brotherhood on this small planet.

26 December 2012

The Path Before You is the Path to Your Dreams

On Christmas day 2011, one year ago, I found myself on a beach in Galle, Sri Lanka, at a meeting with the heads of several international NGOs. They asked me to draft a proposal for a program that could develop and support the livelihood of Buddhist artists throughout the South and Southeast Asian region. This was my dream job, so I got to work.

One month later, I had drafted a proposal for a hybrid program that included a future inter-cultural center for the study and practice of art and meditation. Two months later, we had a name: AKSHA.

Flash forward 10 months to yesterday, Christmas day 2012. AKSHA is now a real project on Kickstarter.com--raising almost 50% of its goal in less that 2 weeks.

It has a series of prototype products--jewelry--to help fund its first exhibition program. Meanwhile, I received a Fulbright Fellowship, and have been doing research on Buddhist art in contemporary life in Thailand for 3 months.

Ajahn Ouan
Similarly, on this Christmas day, I found myself at a meeting with luminaries, this time in Bangkok, at the Pohchang Academy of Art, one of the most famous art schools in Thailand. It is with the Director, department heads, respected professors and a visionary patron of the arts. I walked in late to the morning meeting and was promptly informed that I have been assigned the role of international spokesperson for the school. They have bestowed me with the responsibility of speaking for the local artists to the world at large.

You have to understand, Pohchang is not a pretty place. And I love Pohchang.

The Academy was founded by King Rama VI in 1913 to propagate the traditional arts during a period of increasing European influence. Being an old school--it is firmly established in tradition. A large percentage of Thailand's National Artists were trained within its halls. Yet, it remains unpretentious, a dusty, cluttered campus full of artifacts and refuse from generations of prolific art students. There has simply been no way for housekeeping to keep up.
Ajahn Pei
At Art Kaffee, a cool, funky coffeeshop next door run by the alumni association, we discussed the possibility of creating a program for foreigners wishing to spend time studying art and meditation in Thailand.

Ajahn Chu
Now, in my mind, a center for art and meditation is something in the distant future. A dream. But the meeting yesterday seemed to point to it as a distint possibility. If we are successful with launching AKSHA's wheel this year, there may be no limit to how far we can go.

18 December 2012

True Nobility

True nobility doesn't just come from how we adorn our bodies. It emanates from what is going on within.

That is why we have the emphasis on creating artful objects that are supports to meditation--to cultivating and nourishing our inner health.

Ultimately, our external reality, the quality of our life is affected by the openness of our hearts and the clarity of our minds.

Consumption is part of our world. Can it also be part of our practice to become better, happier, healthier human beings?

30 November 2012

Welcome to Pohchang

This October, I began a Fulbright Fellowship to study Buddhist Art in Thailand for a year. It's such an honor and an amazing opportunity. So 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 is still quite elementary, 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. 

28 October 2012

Prayer Beads

Our line contemporary prayer beads are almost finished! Its been a process of back and forth, between the first concept sketches to the first prototypes. 

A contemporary take on prayer beads in many traditions-- Catholic rosaries, Buddhist malas, Muslim Tesbih...   The designers and I were working off the themes of life/death, light/darkness in paintings (see below). We wanted to give meditators a visceral reminder of these dualities (and non dualities) by creating pieces that varied texture and hue. These are all silver-plated, and the number will be a factor of nine. 

Our Process
I gave jewelers Nine and Don five paintings as potential basis for design. Each painting reflected different aspects of meditation practice. 
For overall style, they selected my ink paintings as inspiration. In particular, they were moved by the story, Runaway Moon.  

In the book, the little horse thinks she is being chased by the moon. The entire story happens in one night. 

In designing the beads, we were interested in creating contrast that can be both seen and felt--mirroring dualities of light and darkness, life and death, that exist in all of us. 

Prayer Beads, a Historical Survey

I think it would be great to provide people of many faiths simple, elegant pieces they can wear that would serve as reminders and inspiration for their spiritual practice. 
"Beads are among the earliest human ornaments and ostrich shell beads in Africa date to 10,000 BC.[1] Over the centuries various cultures have made beads from a variety of materials from stone and shells to clay.[1]
The English word bead derives from the Old English noun bede which means a prayer.[2][3][4][5] The exact origins of prayer beads remain uncertain, but their earliest use probably traces to Hindu prayers in India.[1][3][6] Buddhismprobably borrowed the concept from Hinduism.[1][3] The statue of a holy Hindu man with beads dates to the 3rd century BC.[3][6]
[In Buddhism and Hinduism, prayer beads are often referred to as mala.] Mala (Sanskrit:माला;mālā) means "garland" or "wreath".[18]"
Excerpted from "Prayer Beads" in Wikipedia

13 August 2012

Why we love (and hate) things

Here's a trio of TED talks that can be applied to both increasing joy in our lives and developing products for social enterprise. The first is by Paul Bloom on "The origins of pleasure." Bloom talks about why origin stories matter in the valuing of art. He really points to how human beings value labor and the creative process. 

Here's a talk by Simon Sinek on "How great leaders inspire action." It should really be titled, "Why we buy what we buy--and how to get people to work for you for free." 
"People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it," he says.

Sinek touts a WHY-HOW-WHAT mandala of attraction citing Apple, the Wright Brothers, and Martin Luther King as examples of how people are drawn to the beauty of a cause more than practical functionality. His theory may seem simplistic in this short talk, but he presents a useful tool for injecting purpose into the language we use everyday to describe what we do.

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak talks about why people love social media, why we trust each other and what makes us generous. He prescribes at least 8 hugs a day as a formula for happiness.

02 August 2012

Kill the Clichés

My first mock-ups of potential AKSHA products from March. Featuring artwork by Phra Pol Kuwiangwei (left), myself (center), and Somyot Kumsang (right). 

Ok. I've been cogitating on the question, "What is innovative design based on meditation and spiritual practice?"   ...What does it look like?  What elements are important?

I'm not interested in plastering the face of a meditating monk unto clothes and calling it cool. There are things about traditional institutions like churches and monasteries that are useful. They provide community and structure. They give people a place to enter into another gear. They remind us to pray, reflect and meditate.

But I also believe that what's important about the spiritual path is found in our ordinary everyday life. The difference is the lens that we use to recognize the beauty--the deity--in everything.

Artwork by Ang Tserin Sherpa.
"That's the thing. I am dharma. Don't know if you're aware of it, but you can be too. It's about the quality of who you are: being logical, compassionate, cool, chill. Anyone can do it—not just Buddhists."
That's 23-year-old incarnate Tibetan master and hip-hop rapper Gomo Tulku, recently quoted in Details.com. Joseph Hooper's article on maverick young tulku's struck a chord with me. The piece is called, "LEAVING OM: BUDDHISM'S LOST LAMAS"But contrary to what his title would suggest, I don't think these guys are lost at all. I think they are being incredibly honest, simply real

Like millions of people, I (mostly) live in the concrete and traffic, glamour and gutters of cities. Somehow, amidst the melee of advertising and noise, in demands and stresses of modern life, I need to find spaciousness, equanimity, love.

My next few posts are going to focus on this topic, How do we design the spiritual path into contemporary form? I'll call this crafting AKSHA's Liberation Aesthetic. 

The challenge is to design pieces that are supports to practice, where meaning is built into both form and function. I want pieces that won't just transport me to some other fantasy world. I want pieces that will transform my present one--wherever I am, be it Bangkok--New York City--Hong Kong--Delhi... Furthermore, I don't just want the same images printed on existing products. I want to own things that wake me up!

"Graffiti Bodhisattva" by Felicia Megginson.
In the coming weeks I'll see the first prototypes for contemporary prayer beads that I've been working on with designers, Nine and Don of Good After Nine. Its a project all three of us find challenging and fulfilling--a departure from commercial design that demands we go deep while innovating on convention. Don was a monk in the Thai Theravadin tradition who became a rapper while studying architecture and metal fabrication. They met at the university where Nine studied jewelry design. 

I can't tell you how excited I am to be working with them. We'll give you a peek into our process in the weeks to come. 

31 July 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.

19 July 2012

Gathering the Tribe: Platforms for Change

The thing I'm most grateful for is that AKSHA leads me to meet amazing people everyday. In my world, Art and Enterprise are really about generating community--its about LOVE. Collaboration, partnership, co-promotion, skill-sharing... the old competitive model is tired. With social enterprise, business is  going open-source. It is an interactive endeavor.

There are more opportunities for growth when you belong to a tribe. And when you're blazing the trail of a new idea, you need scouts, mentors who've been out ahead of you, as well as the cavalry of other entrepreneurs to share the journey and throw you powerbars when the going gets tough.

Here's are just a few of the inspiring people I caught up with this week: 

Justin Hakuta, co-founder of YogaStart. I met Justin in New York a few years ago while he was at Harvard Business School and I was at ITP. We're both part-Filipino and share a bent towards the arts, spirituality, social justice and as it happens--business. He's working on a platform that will serve as a hub for wellness in multiple forms, including the arts. Stay tuned...

Kaya Kaplancali, co-founder of Bioserie, makers of the world's only 100% certified bioplastic iPhone and iPod covers. I have two. They're beautiful. We're working on a series for AKSHA.

Amarit "Aim" Charoenphan, co-founder of HUBBA, Bangkok's first co-working space and a start-up incubator. He introduced me to TotalAwake, an iPhone/iPod App developed by one of their teams. Its "the ultimate app for people interested in mindfulness and meditation training".

Lawrence Axil Comras, founder of a new search platform called WhoElse. Before this, Axil founded Greenhome.com in 1999 and sold it to Jane Capital in 2010. We explored Wilpattu National Forest together in Sri Lanka last spring, and he bought a sketch I made for my last art project, In Search of Menander. 


Things they all have in common: Imagination, Courage, Integrity, Openness, and Warmth. In this endeavor, its like gathering members of a special tribe together. 

15 July 2012

The Axle

AKSHA is Sanskrit for “indestructible”. It is the wheel's "axle"-- which cannot be worn away. 

Just spent the last 3 days giving "test talks" on AKSHA at a Dale Carnegie Lab. At the end of it, the participants asked me for my card--and I realized its finally time to commit! Here's a graphic I'm working on...

Aksha in Sanskrit can also mean "that which is perceived". 
I like both uses of the word as a metaphor for ART and for the company. AKSHA is a central axis for artists, designers, and spiritual practitioners joined together in a wheel on the path to liberation. 

10 July 2012

World, welcome AKSHA.

This is a project that began when a group of people asked me to be their "hero."
I'm no hero. But I am an artist, and thus am FULL of crazy ideas. It also makes me familiar with the wonderful and painful process of making meaningful--and sometimes magical--things out of sheer imagination, sweat, comaraderie, and raw material. (To see a house-sized installation, a Zen-inspired story book, and a video shot through a microscope visit BrushSong.)

As it happens, that is something that artists and entrepreneurs have in common. My father, Rabel, is an entrepreneur-engineer. He is unconventional, to say the least. While in California, he won an award for designing a method of structurally "floating" entire buildings off their foundation to make them less prone to collapse in an earthquake. Then, he surprised everyone and became a certified massage therapist, starting a business in medical massage at the ripe age of 60. (And he's happier than ever.)

It must have rubbed off, because I attempted my first business endeavor at 13, getting all the kids on my block in Manila to "invest" pesos into a fund to start our own pet shop. My parents moved me from the Philippines back to the US before the pet shop was realized, but I never forgot it. In some way, this project, AKSHA, is my path to living out that youthful impulse.

So when I first heard the words "social enterprise" seven months ago at the INEB Conference in Bodhgaya, India, my ears perked up. Then when I was approached to envision an international program that would support artists of Buddhist traditions, I found the perfect opportunity to meld both.

This blog is about my journey on this wild experiment to see if it is possible. My goals are to generate the means for what the Buddha called "Right Livelihood" for myself and other artists. In particular, I aim to create a platform that will support artists from isolated communities who are engaged in preserving artistic forms of spiritual practice.

To this effect, I'll feature a different artist every 2 months. Look for:

  • photos of their work
  • videos of them talking about their process
  • and peak into the development of innovative products by emerging designers inspired by them.

This is huge and gorgeous piece by Somyot Kumsang. It is called "The Transformation" and I thought it would be appropriate as the first piece for this blog. 

It's made with charcoal on a large sheet of handmade paper (200cm x 100cm, 2011).

Like his students and friends, I call him Ajahn Pei. He doesn't have a website and doesn't speak perfect English (yet), but if you'd like more information I can put you in touch. 

Cheers, Minette