Michelle Seigei Spark, senior lay student in the Mountains and Rivers Order, spoke recently with Mountain Record about creative process, resilience and joy.
Seigei has been a practitioner since the 1990s, is a painter, collage artist and a retired art therapist, and helps coordinate the National Buddhist Prison Sangha correspondence program. Scroll down to see a slide show of Seigei’s work.
Mountain Record: As a young child you started having serious vision problems, so how did that lead to a lifelong love of art making?
Seigei: I had a very rare autoimmune disease which occurred in my eyes at the age of five and half, and I had just started first grade and was learning to read with everybody else. My father was a physician and picked up that there was something wrong—my eyes were very red—and while there was no pain it was a signal. While being evaluated they dilated my eyes, so back at school I got out of reading and instead I was given a huge bulletin board—I mean must’ve been 4 x 6 feet, huge by my standards—and I was told to just draw and paint for the week. I was, like, yes! I went to town, connecting with what was there for me, and I loved it. So while this was happening to my eyes, I was permitted to use my sight in this way. Very healing, an empowerment really. I was invited to do something by my teacher, who was pretty wise, and right away I took to it.
A few years later I developed cataracts as part of my condition, and from the age of 10 through 22 I began to go blind. I could feel my sight changing. I would look at a white wall but by my perception it was iridescent colors with no edges. I saw things intermingling all the time. It seemed natural for me to use my body and my connection to that to make sight very intimate through making art, using my visual experience of what was beautiful.
I had an amazing art teacher in high school who ran class like an adult artist studio, so if you knew what you wanted to do you were set free. She was there to help, offer advice and criticism and technical stuff, but you could do what you wanted. So I would go in there and just paint. After cataract surgery I eventually studied art in college, getting an MA in art therapy and painting.
MR: Resilience seems to be the ability to navigate the real world and to heal oneself simultaneously. Was that your experience?
Seigei: Well why does one even think about being resilient? You’re not in a good place to start with. If you have to come back from something, you can’t always reach for things are that positive. You are comparing this and that, and looking at the sobering reality can bring up afflictive emotions and reactivity, feelings like anger, betrayal, disappointment, and blaming. All these emotions come up when people feel vulnerable. And life is like that—you don’t go through life without things coming up—everyone has things. Experiencing the vulnerable, the permeable, the preciousness of life, I learned how to do this through my Buddhist practice.
The threat of my loss of vision was ever present, always. Most people actually do go blind from this illness, I was just extremely fortunate and lucky in the care I had. The threat of loss was like a fire under my butt. I think that’s what drew me to practice, because I had lost sight completely by my twenties due to the cataracts. Then after cataract surgery, all of a sudden, I could see everything! It was way too much! I saw the painting I had made for the first time. I’d made these paintings—I don’t know how I made them—I look back on how that happened, and I just don’t know.
The threat of that potential loss just drove home, “Don’t believe this is going to last! Don’t just sit back on your laurels!” So I’ve always been very driven towards making a world as I saw. I used to make cards for friends when they turned 16 when I was in high school. They were so awful I can’t tell you, but I loved making art. I just had fun you know and really, the secret pleasure with art materials, they’re just endlessly inviting.
MR: You were making paintings you couldn’t actually see, for years?
Seigei: It’s hard to describe my vision. Up until recently I’ve had good central vision so I could see by working closely with something, and I can make those fine lines. And even if cannot see, I say to myself “What the hell, make the fine line. Your hand, your eye and your mind are just one thing.” And even if it wasn’t exactly my intention, if I can a mark down and it speaks to me, that’s how I do it.
It’s a physical feeling, if you’re intimate with your materials. I’ve been using oil paint since I was 18 and I know what ultramarine does as opposed to Phalo blue as opposed to Prussian blue. I know how they interact, the internal chemistry. I know how they whether they are opaque whether they are transparent, whether they mix well with cadmium yellow or Indian yellow and what kind of green I’ll get. So even if I can’t see it, I sense it from my body’s experience.
MR: How did becoming an art therapist coincide with coming to Buddhist practice?
Seigei: I worked as an art therapist in a locked psychiatric ward for teenagers, so I worked with tremendous amounts of suffering. I think there is nothing like suffering in the mind, and to bring someone to find their own pleasure with art materials, I’m sharing my joy. And they were a captive audience because nobody said “I came here into a locked ward because I want to do art therapy!” But to recognize the suffering in people from their karma, family, the way their mind is working or not working and so forth, that pleasure is what I could share.
In some funny way, I was re-creating my art teacher Mrs. Harris’s studio all over again, an oasis of calm and quiet. People didn’t have to talk, which for some who are psychotic or disturbed is very difficult. For kids I worked with who couldn’t express themselves well with words, to use the art materials to express themselves and to create a safe, nourishing environment was a really wonderful feeling. And that certainly did make me start to look at my own work in a different way.
Making art is my joy. And that depends how its entered, and how deeply one can enter. There can even be an element of suffering in the act of creation, because you have to actually destroy along the way, and it’s very hard for people to do that. You have to be able to be alone and that’s hard. And you have to not know anything, you have to let go, and you have to take chances.
When I started practicing, honestly what I was deeply attracted to was the zazen because it mimicked what seemed to be a very similar state of mind to when I painted. A kind of steadiness, a kind of concentration and losing myself and losing track of it all. A space opened up that was freeing and non-constricting. It felt very familiar to me. I thought “Oh this is wonderful, this is like painting or swimming!”
MR: You said that it’s hard to be alone and it’s hard to destroy and take chances. But that’s also where a kind of trust and stability happens.
Seigei: Daido Roshi always said “trust yourself.” When you’re in the painting studio, you are alone—and you don’t know. It’s not that you won’t feel anxious or fearful, doubting or worried, or hesitant. It’s not that you don’t feel all those things, but you allow yourself to recognize them and don’t let them hold you back, because you have some deep trust or prior experience of pleasure of entering.
Allowing things to be crap and allowing things to fail—and they have to fail—because you can’t know what to do next unless you make a mistake. Say to yourself, “oh really? That doesn’t look right.” Or, “That was terrible, why did I do that? Fine.” Then you have an example, an experience of “oh, okay, I can move on from there, I can take a step, and maybe that’ll offer me something else. I don’t know but I’ll try it.”
Like with beginning to do zazen, it’s just a way of going on forward in the discovery. It is learning how to allow yourself to be in those moments of discouragement and hesitancy and not let them freeze you. They’re part of it. You have to feel, listen, and respond.
To make art that is genuine, to practice in a way that is genuine, you need to feel those things, they are very, very important. Then you can move through and feel a sense of satisfaction and completeness. You can say to yourself well, I actually stumbled into this and something came out of it, and it is speaking to me.
That happen to me yesterday. I’ve been doing paper collage for the last eight months because of vision difficulties. Yesterday I picked up a painted canvas which was a disaster and I decided I’m just going obliterate what’s there because it wasn’t working. I’m thinking maybe I can reuse this canvas, so I started to paint over it and boom some image popped out. I didn’t intend to do anything, honestly. I was thinking that I had nothing in me to do, but it was all there in the painting! Now this is something I should know already—you just pick up the brush—you can’t think it, you have to live it. This image popped out that was so powerful. It was really wonderful.
As an art therapist I have methods to get people started that I use on myself, and they work. Get beyond your thinking, conceptualizing brain, which stops you at every turn. It’s your body and your mind—your eyes and your hand—that’s what is creative.
When I guide NBPS inmates in their practice I talk about working alone, so I think about that a lot. I have a lot more latitude than they do and so I think about what would help somebody the most in establishing a practice by themselves based completely on what they read. For me this is very much about resilience because you always are starting again. You have to be willing to start again and not to judge that. And you may not enter this so-called ‘blissful state’ that you may get into in sesshin, that may not be part of your home practice. But every effort is an intention that brings fruitfulness. In starting again it’s always fresh, always new.
I have heard from inmates who say “I touched that space that one time and I really want to get back to it!” This is always wonderful because it is motivating. There’s a desire for escape in all of us all the time, so it’s a combination of allowing that desire that’s motivating as the carrot that leads you on. Being in that alone space, solitary in meditation, that’s like creative work in that space of the calm stability in the midst of the turmoil and failure. That must be faced and received just like joy and equanimity. Then your practice is your own.
Slideshow of paintings and collage by Michelle Seigei Spark