A thought on Zazen and painting

Silent movement
Passing through the stillness
And empty form.

This wee haiku is a thought on zazen and experience. After my recent studio shift, zazen and considering the looser paintings I’ve been doing, I think it’s good not to bring too much, or any at all although this can be impossible, of the bias, discrimination and ‘knowledge’ into the present as these kill the fullness of action and experience. As our teacher at the Glasgow Zen Group says, it is about leaping…


Hill-walking up through frozen moon snow, Ben Vrackie Scotland

moon snow
guided by the rolling moon
heated by the february sun

Moon Snow

Glinting and sunbeams – obscured horizons
Above animal tracks, boot prints,
Mountain hare prints in blue-white snow –
Towards the half-moon rolling down Ben Vrackie’s
White hill edge topped by south pointing ice
Snow fingers from monstrous frozen rust structure,
Rising from the summit’s ocean floor of coral crystals,
Plunging to dark red black land below brightening moon.

Fragmented scultpure and installation

Over the last few months I’ve been continuing to build up new ideas about 3D work in my practice, using various techniques, props, lighting and digital photography to explore presentation and atmosphere…

Studio Sculpture MD11
studio sculpture 2

It’s great fun building installations and working from these in sketchbooks, such as my dynamics studies, below left, (some tighter work and looser too, all on the spot from life) using various studio and other fairly lightweight materials. Some of my students made the installation below right, making some interesting negative spaces.


Of course there are a lot of inspiring artists out there exploring various media, some that have influenced me with land art, installation, experimental sculpture – all fluid categories where boundaries are really quite free and blurred – such as Ai Weiwei’s ‘Forever’ installation or Chinese doors piece that spontaneously collapsed mid exhibition, Richard Long’s eloquently photographed sculpture during remote walks, Hamish Fulton’s poetic artist’s books and installations of text, and of course Anselm Kiefer’s various experments.

Anselm Kiefer
Richard Long – Walking the Line
Ai Weiwei: Works Beijing 1993-2003
The Uncarved Block

Sketchbook wordograph experiments

Here are some excerpts of word art drawings and notation, plus ink studies, reflections on last year’s trips to the Outer Hebrides…


splintered half-covered green-grass wild-flowers sheep-shit tide-in tide-out rustless pink-steel-alloy sloping-hillside


visitors at a distance cloudy morning passing boats skull shaped sculpture spacecraft zigzag trickle of fresh black water on grey brown rock wave splash


Recent work and studies

Recent studies using mixed media on card, paper and sketchbooks have been leading to much more free and abstracted pieces that is the way I’m trying to push forward into more poetic, less pictorially restricted territory… ‘Flowing Through Space’ (top-left) was a bit of a breakthrough. Many of these pieces are moving fluidly through city and landscape waymarks working from sketches, memory, sometimes photos or other distorted images, a mix of these or from other pieces, essentially distilling the process. Nevertheless I’m trying to keep it real! by not overworking and not too flat. So it can be pretty hit and miss!

Okamoto Taro (mid to late 20thC Japan), whose spirit and passion for art I really admire, said ‘Art is Magic.’ Although I don’t go for all his work his sculpture and D&P was often free and playful and he never wanted anything to get in the way of experiencing his work, such as any artistic compromise or even just framing with glass which apparently particularly upset him. Picasso was also perfectly on the ball when he said ‘Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.’

A fresh perspective on the north room studio door

A very talented and enthusiastic student of mine blogged her visit to my studio with the photo and creative writing below, which I really like, and kindly allowed me to re-post here. It is great to be able to see the studio through fresh eyes…

“Monday 23 January 2012: What’s through the door this week?
Just back from my first art class of 2012.

I adore my art class despite, or maybe because, I experience the whole gamut of emotions in two short hours.

1st – excited – what will we do this week?
2nd – joyous – my first marks on the paper are really promising. I like them!
3rd – fear – what will happen if I draw that line there. Shall I do it? Shall I not?
4th – anger – knew I shouldn’t have done it!
5th – hope – hey, if I keep at it it might just turn out okay
6th – gratitude – the art tutor just said he likes that bit I did in the far left corner of the paper
7th – suspicion – does that mean he doesn’t like the rest of it?
8th – determination – I won’t give up god damn it!
9th – satisfaction – it did turn out okay after all
10th – contentment – I get to drive home listening to Dolly Parton at full volume singing at the top of my voice
11th – excitement – what will we do next week?”

New Year Zen Retreat

Kagyu Samye Dzong kitchen
Kagyu Samye Dzong Glasgow
Kagyu Samye Dzong Glasgow
Kagyu Samye Dzong kitchen

Over the new year weekend I went to the inaugural Glasgow Zen Group retreat, or sesshin, at Kagyu Samye Dzong in Glasgow’s west end. Every morning up at half past five to start the day with one and a half hours zazen meditation before breakfast during the holiday may not be many people’s idea of fun, but as a zazen practitioner in it for the long run it was right up my street. A great way to start the day! It is so fortunate to have such a positive group and encouraging teacher John Fraser. To get away from the hussle and bussle of everyday routine for even a small number of days and meditate and study zen philosophy is very nourishing and revitalising for my general mindset and approach as an artist. Zazen meditation is not an escape, but actually means facing up to the world so zen practice for me is invaluable in being able to fully experience the world around me, so is a real gift artistically!

I enjoyed sharing in Tenzo responsibilities as chef preparing the main meal of the day at lunchtime. With much appreciated help we cooked chahan type rice dishes, miso soup ( a simple tasty one was with egg and onion) and sides such as tofu with grated ginger and spring onion or Japanese salads. Genmai (brown rice) worked really well in a chahan with wasabi and shoyu (soy sauce) sauce and various veg, and also with asparagus and sweet potato. Other handy ingredients for these dishes to have in your supply at home are mirin, brown rice vinegar, fish dashi stock, katsuobushi grated fish, miso, sake, sesame (to be grated), wakame and konbu seaweeds. There are quite a few bits and pieces but the cooking methods I’ve picked up from my partners family in Japan are generally pretty quick. For me cooking is a pleasure but also a kind of training, not entirely unlike the creative artistic process. One type of action has consequence on the next.

How to Cook Your Life – from the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment

I was kindly recommended Dogen’s Instructions for the Zen Cook (written in Spring 1237 at Kosho-ji, which I visited and made artwork from in 2002/03, ‘for followers of the way in succeeding generations’) with commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, ‘How to Cook Your Life – from the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment’, which has been really easy to read and enjoyable so far. Here are some exerpts:

Do not get carried away by the sounds of Spring, nor become heavy-hearted upon seeing the colours of fall. View the changes of the seasons as a whole, and weigh the relativeness of light and heavy from a broad perspective… If only we could step back to carefully reflect… our lives would naturally become one with our work. Doing so is the means whereby we turn things even while simultaneously we are being turned by them.

We studied Komyo (Brightness), and discussed various things including the freeness of Eastern space as opposed to how we imagine space as a ‘Newtonian container’. Light and space are interchangeable as are emptiness and space – and space has a texture, and as I would tell any drawing and painting students, it is not a catalogue of disconnected objects with voids or vacuums in between. When I left the retreat on Tuesday the 3rd January, the city was being hit by hurricane force winds, even the Kagyu Samye Dzong kitchen window and huge pots had been blown over!

Wakabayashi’s Zen Calligraphy


This is my sensei Wakabayashi’s Sho calligraphy of zen master Dogen’s poem coming to terms with reality ’empty-handed’ after returning from China – ‘The eyes are horizontal, and the nose is vertical.’

This prompted my partner to tell me the story she read of Ikkyu (Rinzai zen master, 1394-1481) who placed a curving, twisted bonsai tree on display outside with the note attached ‘If you can see this tree as straight, you will receive a reward’. Townspeople duly gathered up, squinting hard and mumbling ‘How can we see it straight?’


Towards sunset a passing traveller stopped and admired the tree saying ‘What a beautiful winding tree.’ When Ikkyu heard this he passed the traveller the small reward.

The traveller, like Dogen, had grasped reality as it was rather than being carried away by things. Wakabayashi is getting old now, in his nineties, but I am grateful for what I can learn from the wisdom of his markmaking, not unlike that of winding, curved branches and roots…

Wandering the cityscape spaces




I always find interest in the variety of cityscape spaces, especially at twilight or night when it is easier not to discriminate between shapes. Atmosphere! Winter in Glasgow is not so bad after all. The moon shot I snapped reminds me of Dogen, who often used it as a metaphor for our experience and glimpses of enlightenment…

Clouds are scattered in the autumn sky,
But you can see the moon in your mind;
I raise up my hossu and say, “Look!”

(Master Dogen, 1226)

From my lounge window I can see over the west and south of Glasgow, the old University tower and its dominating yet matter of fact modernist library.

Three geese above
Winter crescent moon
Glasgow skyline asleep in twilight shadow

Drifting Snows, Folded Forms

End of December 3 day trip to the Trossachs National Park

Central Scotland

8 and a half hours walk, crampons on at around 400m

Exhilarating but tough crunching through snow and ice

Carrying materials, limited time for sculpture

Drifting snow along the ridge from Ben Ledi to Ben Vane

Snowmelt, deer and headtorches for walk back through Glen Finglas