An interview with Padma about her life as an artist, and in more detail, painting on Japanese screens covered in silver or gold leaf.
Long before coming to Osho I had a rather extensive art life. It began when I was a teenager. I painted my first mural at the age of 15 in a cafe in the town where I grew up. My art has been exhibited and been in the public eye since the early 1960s. In 1969 I won a Volkswagen Bug [Beetle] in a national art contest sponsored by the Canada Dry Corporation and VW. Before going to India, I was an art director at two underground newspapers, Boston After Dark and later the Boston Phoenix. I worked as an advertising illustrator for the Environmental Graphics Group in Harvard Square, painted posters for clubs, murals, exhibitions and illustrations for magazines… and a lot of anti-war posters.
When I went to India I believed that my art career would be continuing and thought that it would be important to share my skills with the Master. So, after taking sannyas and returning to the States to close my studio in New York City, I packed up several works, about 25-30 pieces. However, on the flight back to India my portfolio was lost by Swissair (after changing planes in Zurich and landing in Bombay). My professional art career had evaporated like smoke. I tried in vain to retrieve that portfolio, but it was impossible and the let-go was gut-wrenching.
Now, in retrospect, I respect that loss as quite fortuitous. During my early years with the Master (1975-1981) I never painted. I sewed clothes, created fashion shows, designed theatre costumes, samurai uniforms and got involved in all sorts of activities, but I did not lift a paint brush, not even once!
That was a meaningful break from being completely wrapped up and identified with my career. When I finally did return to painting – Osho invited me to paint in many of the buildings at the Ranch. My love affair with the brush came back and was experienced as completely fresh. It was a wonderful rediscovery of a natural capacity that had been at rest. It all came back in a great flood. Painting murals or artwork for the living room in Jesus Grove, upstairs in the Mall, the Mirdad Welcome Centre, the Hotel reception, window displays for the bookshop. It was all a great joy.
His commune became my canvas.
During Pune 2, I sent in a small Buddha painting that he liked very much. It was used on the back cover of the book Glimpses of a Golden Childhood and Osho suggested that I go deeply into the image of the Buddha, but to not get caught up in traditions, just to let them come. Later he said that I should create the art for the Osho Zen Tarot cards. That project kept me busy for over four years and, as you can imagine, it was an extraordinary opportunity – received directly from Osho. I began creating the 64 paintings for the Tao Oracle shortly afterwards. At that time I was also preparing to leave India and enter the unknown – see how I illustrated Trust for the Zen Tarot deck, and you’ll get the idea…
An artist in the world
After leaving India at the end of 1997, I had to start from scratch. In the commune nobody was busy creating a name for themselves, being the person who had created this or that. We were there to undo all our identifications, not enhance them. So, to suddenly begin setting myself up in the world as an artist of any worth was a huge challenge and felt really weird; hoping that somehow, someway, somebody would say, “Oh, yeah. I’ll show your work.”
Ashika, my lover whom I had met in India, invited me to visit him in Australia – I was living in New Zealand at the time while writing the text for the Tao Oracle deck. Ashika was showing his stone sculptures in Melbourne at Kazari, a Japanese art and antiques emporium owned by Yashu (Jo Maindonald) who was a sannyasin and her partner Robert Joyce. Kazari was well known in Melbourne and Ashika’s stone pieces fit perfectly there.
After viewing my work they agreed to show me as well. That opportunity helped me learn about the marketplace, the world of competition and creating art to the absolute best of my ability. Often it felt like leaping over Niagara Falls into a demanding world of deadlines and high expectations. Every new piece had to meet criteria…
The demands of the art market and expectations of gallerists were daunting, as there was little room for art that addressed meditation – unless of course it was an antique. Buyers seemed to want visual excitement, social commentary and flashy techniques, all of which were a far cry from my serene full moons or depictions of Quan Yin… Instead of bowing to the trends of the time I focused on creating contemplative art that harkened back to my experience of living in the presence of a modern-day Buddha… I did so by painting on canvas, folding screens, silk, art board, interior and exterior walls.
Initially I had to borrow funds because any paintings to be exhibited had to be framed and every frame was custom-made, not pre-fabricated. My early shows would open with me already several thousand dollars in debt and no clue if anyone would be interested in purchasing my work.
There were a few unpainted second-hand screens stored in the back of the gallery and I asked if it would be OK to try painting on them. I certainly had no previous experience painting on gold- or silver-leafed surfaces. I had never done anything like it before. It was immensely challenging; I couldn’t get the paint to stick and had to figure out all kinds of ways to do that. I experimented until I finally hit stride – and soon they began to sell! (Several screens are included in the online retrospective ; you will recognise them from the vertical lines. They were very large works – you can get a sense of their size from the photographs with me working on them.)
And the screens, already being so precious, were initially experienced as scary… “Oh, no. I am going to screw this beautiful thing up.” I essentially owned each screen before painting it, having agreed to reimburse the gallery for the bare screen, which could be as much as $2,000 to come out of my percentage. Too bad if I wrecked it because I’d own it!
In any case, I gradually began to be more comfortable with working on those antique surfaces and once my work started to sell, there was a sense of “Okay, I can do this.”
Meeting the clients
One of the things that was difficult was that I rarely had contact with the people who were buying my work, unless I met them at the opening.
And there was this wrenching feeling of “My God, these are like my children, and they are going out into the world, and I have no idea where they are going to wind up.”
Occasionally at an opening, a client would enquire and ask to meet the artist, and when we were introduced they sometimes looked at me in shock. “Oh, I thought you were a Japanese man.” They imagined a person skilled in the art of screen painting, not some small blond woman with an American accent!
I’d say, “No, I have never done it before and have never studied it. I am painting what moves me, what I feel is ready to be born on this very surface. These screens are an adventure for me.”
Many of these early screens were second-hand and some of them were actually antiques – they had been handled a lot. A few of them were ceremonial screens covered in gold leaf. When I began to work on these I decided, “Okay, wherever there is a finger mark, wherever there is a scratch, wherever there is a dent, that’s where I am going to put something, and I will let the screen tell me where it wants the brush to go.”
Some of those works with cascading blossoms, fields of flowers, waving grasses, started with me just responding to the history of the screen and working with its idiosyncrasies, celebrating them and turning them into something unique.
A few pieces took a great deal of time to develop. There are two on the fine art prints website that are good examples. One is called Ten Thousand Blossoms, and another one is Abundant Spring. They are just simply masses of cascading flowers and branches. They took a long time to complete and in a way it became… You know the Zen story about counting grains of rice and losing oneself in the repetition of the count without worrying about how far you have gone into the bucket; how many more are there yet to do?
You get into a flow of blossoms upon blossoms and they just continue to grow. I would return to the screen the next day and there would be many many more to come, and then I would leave it for a while and then come back, and eventually they became these gorgeous things that look like they are floating and flowing – but in fact they were exercises in meditation and perseverance, where you are simply present to the moment, watching something occur from moment to moment and relaxing while it is occurring.
Showing the work
After exhibiting and experiencing working with galleries – in the United States, in Australia, Singapore, Europe – I began to pull back from it all because it started to be exhausting. Gallerists tended to request a certain kind of work and were not interested in any other thing. These restrictions and demands for specific subjects felt contrary to my nature.
Being a bit of a rogue artist, I needed a lot of room, a lot of open sky and the space to keep exploring different ways of creating. What I was busy with one week would not necessarily be what I was moved to do on another occasion. And so I began to feel the need to withdraw from these boundaries and frustrations of having to explain myself to someone running a gallery. If for two years they had been happily selling poppy paintings and then suddenly I show up with canvases of reclining women, or collages, the response would be: “What are we going to do with that?” And I understood that while exiting from the gallery scene.
I just wasn’t happy with working in that way and eventually dropped trying to satisfy the hungry marketplace; it was the best choice I could have made, because the ground that I have covered in exploring my own being through creating art from my heart has been remarkable.
Ashika and I ran our own gallery for a couple of years. We opened it in Woodend, the little town where we lived after we left Melbourne and had the experience of selling work directly to the public.
For a few years there were gorgeous ads and articles in glossy magazines about our art. A following was created; people started to recognize our names so that when the Asian Art Society of Australia published an article on me, people who subscribed to that magazine sought me out. It went the same way with Ashika’s work, via the InDesign magazine which writes about landscape art and architecture.
My work exposed
Several years ago the National Gallery of Victoria had an exhibition, two of my three-meter long silver leaf Japanese screens were exhibited at the entrance. The show was titled Spring Flowers, Autumn Grasses: The Spirit of Nature in Asian Art. I smiled at the fact that a girl from Massachusetts was painting for the entrance to a strictly Asian art exhibition. The installation was sponsored by Kazari and the show was a big success.
The AustralAsia Centre sponsored a dinner honouring Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Australia in May 2002. One of my painted screens was chosen to appear on the invitations and inside the banquet hall. That chrysanthemum flower screen was selected because they felt that it perfectly bridged the Japanese aesthetic with original art from Australia.
For the Fo Guang Shan Temple and Museum in Yarraville, Victoria I created a four-meter high painted scroll for their entrance. It hangs above one of Ashika’s beautiful stone water pieces. And my Buddha torso with an empty bowl (which can be seen in the Tao Oracle deck) titled The Fullness of Emptiness resides in the Wollongong Nan Tien Temple & Art Gallery, NSW, Australia.
Keeping in touch
I mentioned earlier that it is a delight to meet people who live with my art. Very often the purchase of one piece would create the desire for another. The paintings seem to invoke a mental vacation, whenever people sit with the art – I am told that it helps them to relax. Some clients have bought ten paintings over the years. One woman who lives in Adelaide has 14 of my paintings displayed in her properties and continues to call in to see what is new.
I think it’s all thanks to the spirit that is infused in the work, through the longing that happens inside myself when the work is being created, when it touches that place of serenity and letting go, watching the magic transpire without much struggle and effort.
A good portion of my life is covered in the recently launched online retrospective gallery. Looking at it gives me much joy, satisfaction and a wee bit of wondering… what’s next?