In SPIRITUAL ARTISANS by William JohnsonLeave a Comment

In 1981, I went back to school and entered UW’s South Asian Studies MA program (areas of expertise: Tibet and India) with the eventual intention of getting a doctorate in art history and specializing in Tibetan sacred art, but one year of academia made me realize that what I really wanted was to make art and not merely pontificate on it. So, in 1984, I switched over to UW’s School of Art (Painting + Drawing program) and graduated two and a half years later with a BFA degree.

Immediately thereafter, I and a small handful of others entered into a one year shamatha retreat (single-pointed meditation) at Cloud Mountain in Washington State under the guidance of my teacher, Gen Lamrimpa (B. Alan Wallace translator). Hands down, it was indisputably the most rewarding and challenging thing I’d done to date. A profound experience. When I came out, I quickly reconnected with my art and all of it, not surprisingly, was intimately connected in some way to my experiences in this retreat.

Clarity and Stability (the practice of shamatha)


Great Bliss


Most of the work I was doing at that time was large-scale charcoal drawings (4’ x 6’). Later, I also began to do much smaller pieces in pencil. These satisfied my desire to put more detail into the work, to go deeper into the work itself. Much of my work is not planned out beforehand; I prefer to rely on my intuition as a guide. I also don’t generally have specific ideas about the work and am not particularly interested in narrative or telling a story. I want my viewers to take their own journey and make their own discoveries, although I do provide titles to my pieces that are meant to be more suggestive than literal. Ideally, I’d like my pieces to silence the mind of the viewer, if only for a few moments, and give them an experience of what that’s like. I would not really characterize my work as realism since these places depicted all originate from within my own mind. The realization that animates all of my work is this: the sacred-profane dichotomy is a false one; in point of fact, there is not the slightest bit of difference between them. All is one taste.



Eternal Indestructible Drop


About some of the visual elements in my work:
The plumb bob is used in construction to ensure that structures are vertical. I use it more as a symbol for finding the right balance in one’s meditation and life. Are we aligned, for example, with what is true? Are we in line with how phenomena and the mind actually exist versus how we think they exist?

The archeological marker is often a stand-in for mindfulness, a moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.

The cones (reminiscent of traffic cones) very specifically symbolize the mental faculty of introspection in meditation. While mindfulness attends, without forgetfulness, to the meditative object, introspection monitors the meditative process, repeatedly examining the state of the body and mind, and detecting the occurrence of either excitation or laxity.

The cracks, chips, holes, and smudges, etc. on the walls and surfaces are all meant to reference the fact of impermanence but also my love of what is old, antiquated and worn down by time.



The Six Perfections


My use of Tibetan, either in the form of small prayers, meditation concepts, and/or mantra, is suggestive of my commitment to this path, of choosing and walking this path. Having studied written (and spoken) Tibetan over the years, I’ve fallen in love with it’s calligraphic form and also enjoy writing it.

Sometimes I’ll place a small table in my pieces meant to suggest a kind of altar. The three spheres are always a stand-in for the Three Jewels in Buddhism: the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

And finally, perhaps most importantly, the star-filled night sky is meant to reference the primordial state, our own true nature. It is also a reference to the experience or realization of emptiness. The whole of samsara and nirvana is nothing other than space itself. The manifestation of space is called the primordial consciousness of awareness. This is what’s behind my night skies. The fact that they are small openings means to imply that these are glimpses (or recognitions) into what is referred to as the absolute space of phenomena. This primordial consciousness is the all-pervasive, radiant, clear infinity of space, free of contamination.



The Six Yogas of Naropa


About the Author

William Johnson


A Buddhist practitioner (since 1976) and visual artist who makes his home in the Pacific Northwest, he was one of a small group of Westerners back in 1988 to complete a one year shamatha retreat under the guidance of his teacher Gen Lamrimpa (Alan Wallace translator). A truly seminal experience, all of the work since has come out of his ongoing meditation practice and has been about finding contemporary, non-traditional ways of expressing the sacred in art. He can be contacted through his FB page.

Featured image:Setting in Equipoise. Photos supplied by the author.

Share this Post

Leave a Comment