Its been a long while since I’ve touched the blog and it feels very appropriate that my first one back in business is to highlight the newest work of Santa Fe painter, Joan Watts.
An exhibition of Watts’ latest series of paintings, bodhi is up for another week or so at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art, in the Railyard (through June 26). This group of 20 paintings has a special place in my heart. I was honored to be invited up (Joan’s house and studio is up the hill from our apartment – I can see the edge of her house from my porch) to visit Joan and see the first three of the series almost two years ago. Joan and I talked, with the idea of me writing up an essay about her work and particularly its connection to Buddhism. As happens with me, I procrastinated and the article didn’t get written. In the end, though, this was fortuitous, as Joan invited me back up again to see the completed 20 paintings in the fall of 2017. She had named the series bodhi, and it turned out that this series, to my mind, is a perfect expression and encapsulation both of Joan’s skill and depth as an artist, but of the ways in which Buddhism and meditation infuse her work.
I wrote the essay and as it turns out, local art book publisher, Radius Books, accepted a proposal to create a special book featuring Joan’s work and my essay. The book will be coming out at the end of August and having seen the proofs I can say it will be beautiful. This is the kind of book that is a work of art in and of itself. (Here’s a sneak peak, here: https://www.amazon.com/Joan-Watts-bodhi-Michaela-Kahn/dp/1942185472/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1529256380&sr=8-1&keywords=bodhi+joan+watts; and here: https://radiusbooks.org/books/joan-watts-bodhi/).
Walking through the gallery on the night of the opening, I was struck again by the power of these paintings. They are mostly white – only the faintest bit of color is anchored at the bottom of each piece, which rises and fades into pure white as it goes up. You can see the artist’s hand at work in the painterly waves across the surface.
These are minimalist works and demand time, patience, and attention. They require that the person looking at them gives something of themselves to the viewing. Each piece held me for a while. As I stood there I could have sworn that I was on the precipice of understanding some strange unknown language speaking through them.
To give you a bit of a taste of bodhi and of my essay – I am including the press release I wrote for the show, which includes some excerpts from the essay. As we get closer to the book release date, I will circle back round with some more of the essay. And in the meantime I think a few articles about art, minimalist art, and maybe even how I came to write about it, may be in the offing.
Enjoy the images and if you’re in Santa Fe – go see Joan Watts’ bodhi in person!
From the press release:
Each painting is a breath.
Have you ever really felt a breath? Inhale. Slowly. Feel the texture of the air, cool through the nose, the slow expansion of belly, chest, throat. You are a three-dimensional being. You are connected to this invisible matrix that binds the world together. The world is inside you. Exhale, slowly. Chest falling, muscles letting go, the air leaving you, warmer now having taken a bit of your heat. You are falling outside yourself, released, part of the world. This is only the beginning of where the twenty paintings of the series, bodhi, by Joan Watts, are leading you.
After two and a half years when physical limitations prohibited Joan Watts from painting as she was used to, Watts discovered a new mode of working which has allowed her to create a new series. No longer able to spend whole days in her studio, Watts required a reduction of the elements and variables used in her process. Brushes had to go. Her use of saw-horses had to change. Drawing inspiration from the meditative practice of Japanese calligraphy – where a practitioner will create a complex character in a single elegant movement - calling on years of both artistic and meditative practice, Watts was able to adapt her method of working into a heightened state of concentrated effort.
In reducing her artistic process down to the bare essentials, Watts is, in effect, re-creating the experience of meditation on her canvases and panels. What is sitting meditation itself but a trimming down to essentials? Cut out the distractions, the extraneous noise. In the beginning, as meditation is often taught, the novice is told to merely follow her breath. In. Out. It is much harder than it sounds. Almost immediately thoughts, memories, emotions rise up. In meditation you are taught to recognize these thoughts and emotions and then let them go.
The paintings of bodhi strip away distractions. A single color, a square format, gentle textural waves, a subtle fade into white. These paintings enact and guide us toward a meditative possibility. With their rising and expansive movement, they have an ability (if we are willing to give ourselves over to it) to lead us back into our own body, our breath. Color on the canvas pools, rises and fades, like a thought or an emotion inside us: roiling in, shading our mind, and then, with our exhalation, the thought too disappears into white.
Watts’ work in bodhi is a gift of space and solitude, a small piece brought back from beyond and made tangible to lure us, to perhaps help show us how to make the journey for ourselves.
[[Credit for the photos goes to Charlotte Jackson Fine Art]]