What if all paintings were unsigned, unattributed, and disappeared on a canvas within moments of their creation?
In such a situation from a seeming alternate universe, it’s valuable to question whether artists would continue painting at all. Society — notably traditional western society — is so inextricably bound with notions of individual entitlement, permanence through creation, and attachment to tangible objects that it seems likely they wouldn’t.
To break with tradition for an evening and view art-making as an exercise demonstrating creative forces at play universally — as opposed to an individual stamp generated with laborious precision — could change the perception of the artistic act.
Tonight, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the River Garden in downtown Brattleboro, Asian Cultural Center of Vermont presents a performance/demonstration called “Art in Motion / Art in Process.” Featuring ACCVT co-founder and abstract painter Cai Xi Silver and ACCVT trustee and kung fu master Damon Honeycutt, the event attempts to expose the harnessing of energy required to truly create, the importance of letting that energy move through us, and ultimately, letting it go. The event is free and open to the public.
Silver, born in the town of Chongqing in central China, is a tai chi master. She has integrated her art with the concept of “qi,” or “chi,” in the tai chi tradition for many years.
“Qi is the energy inside the earth, the sky, the water, yourself — any living thing or element,” she explained via telephone.
An official definition of the term, from taoism.com, states, “Qi is life-force — that which animates the forms of the world. It is the vibratory nature of phenomena — the flow and tremoring that is happening continuously at molecular, atomic and sub-atomic levels.”
The ancient Chinese martial art of tai chi teaches flowing body movements intended to move practitioners’ qi throughout their bodies. It has many health benefits, both physical and mental, and increases practitioners’ awareness of the connection of their internal energy to that of the outside world. It’s what Silver calls a “soft” martial art, as opposed to the “harsh” movement and pace of kung fu or others intended largely for defense.
“What I do in my art is take that energy as a flow into me, and flow it out the tip of my brush through movement,” Silver expanded.
Silver is the artist behind a series of paintings entitled “Wu Ji: Infinity Within.” The works garner their inspiration from Chinese calligraphy, but are abstract and do not contain any actual Chinese characters. Yet the kinesis of their lines and shapes starkly recall East Asian calligraphic styles.
Using a mop as a brush, she lays out large tablecloths onto the floor. Her ink is comprised of coffee and tea mixed with water, or Japanese sumi ink — ink prepared with rice water and charcoal. For colors, she mixes water with either chili powder (red) or tumeric (yellow).
After alternately dipping her mop or dripping pools of ink onto the “canvas,” Silver begins by standing still and concentrating her focus in a meditative state. She then moves, mop in hand, through tai chi postures. When she feels moved to make a mark on her canvas, through sudden jerky movement, she lashes paint onto or across the surface in sweeping motions.
“Everything around you is art,” Silver mused. “So I use a mop and tablecloth — everyday household items — to show people this. I use coffee as ink; people drink coffee every day. All of my materials are kitchen utensils. People should identify with that, just as they should identity with the energy that surrounds us and our processes. I want to make these processes clearer, and show that art is a continually moving process, a continual exchange of energy that is not outside of the everyday; it is always here and in motion.”
Damon Honeycutt, Silver’s partner in today’s demonstration, moved to Brattleboro a year and a half ago. After meeting Silver and her husband Adam, who co-founded ACCVT together, he found he shared much in common with the organization’s mission and activities.
Honeycutt began training in kung fu (called “wushu” or “gong fu” in China) at age 11. He trained in the Taoist tradition of Tai Shing Pek Kwar Mun, a specific form of kung fu, and earned the “shifu” title, meaning “master.” He is also an interdisciplinary artist working with the visual arts and dance, currently traveling with Connecticut-based Pilobolus Dance Theater.
For the performances, Honeycutt utilizes traditional kung fu movements around Silver’s tai chi flow. Rather than a mop on a floor canvas, Honeycutt utilizes a “spear brush” he created, painting marks onto a wall. Kung fu teaches several spear movements, which traditionally would employ a sword. Honeycutt’s spear brush takes the place of the weapon, a long wooden instrument with a soft brush tip.
When he is moved to make a mark, he lashes out in a similar fashion to Silver, only in a horizontal strike. In this way, he harnesses the energy that his practice and understanding of his martial art stirs within him, and executes that energy through his brush tip. What results are beautiful black and white paintings of elegance, simplicity and stark human emotion.
“Since he cannot paint directly onto the wall at River Garden,” explained Silver with a laugh, “he will use a special board called a Buddha board. An artist paints onto the board with water, no ink. When the water is wet, the marks appear as very dark black. But when the water dries, the marks disappear.
“The expression is completely gone then. The board is ready for the next artist; new people can try it. It is a very Zen process: You come make your expression, and then it is gone. You let it go. There’s nothing to hold.”
The performance is interactive; Silver and Honeycutt invite audience members to try both styles after an initial demonstration. “Artists are always creating in a studio behind closed doors,” said Silver. “This brings studio art to the public and opens the process. It becomes a living open studio.”
ACCVT hosts events and exhibits throughout the year. Contact: (802) 257-7898, option 1.
Clara Rose Thornton is a freelance cultural critic and arts journalist originally hailing from Chicago who now lives in an artists’ colony in Bellows Falls. She can be reached at clara[at]inkblotcomplex.com, or through her website, clararosethornton.com. Follow her on Twitter. Download a pdf of Clara Rose’s article, text only, the online version 8.5×11, or, with the photo, the print version of the article, legal size.