Cultivating Connections Between Self and Other
On the floor of Siegfried Hall, six monk-artists from the Drepung Gomang Monastery were kneeled on pillows and working on a “Medicine Buddha Mandala for Healing,” a painting made from sand and soulfulness. “Teach me, teach me,” exclaimed Harry, an artist from Passion Works. A few minutes later, Tenzin, a bi-lingual resident artist of Drepung, translated an invitation from the Monks for Harry and David to participate in the craft of sand art. “See what happens, Harry, when you ask to learn something — magic,” exclaimed Patty Mitchell, Art Director of Passion Works. Patty along with Carol and Cressie (staff of ATCO) quickly set up a table accessible by Harry and David Dewey in their wheelchairs.
Tenzin brought over materials needed for sand art including rubber mats, colored sand, and chakpurs of various sizes. Chakpurs are metal tools cylindrical in shape, hollow and ridged. Tenzin put sand inside Chakpurs for both Harry and David, and patiently helped each artist figure out how to hold and use the instruments.”Would you like a pillow for under your arm?” “Is that comfortable?” “What would you like to draw next?” prompted Tenzin as David wrote his name with artistic flair and Harry declared that he wanted to create a portrait of Tenzin. “That’s ambitious, Harry, but ok,”
exclaimed Tenzin. Fifteen minutes later, in the midst of rhythmic motions of Chakpur rubbing against Chakpur, Tenzin declared “Harry and David,
you are naturals. You are sand painters!” “Awesome!” added Patty. In the spirit of creating and blessing community, the monks presented the Passion Works artists and staff with sacred silk scarves. Likewise, on behalf of Passion Works, Harry presented the monks with Yak silver lapel pins, chosen because of the sacredness of Yaks–peaceful animals often found surrounded by water and grass in the Monks’ artwork. The gift-giving ceremony cemented the memories of the artistic collaborations that had taken place over the past seven days–and symbolized a hopeful vision of how to cultivate connections between self and other.
Passion Works inspires and liberates the human spirit through collaborative art. The artists of Drepung and Passion Works reside in different cultures and speak different languages, practice spirituality in diverse ways, usually are separated across time and space, and yet are united with one another by aesthetic impulses. Herein rests the power of collaborative art: cultivating connections between self and other, acknowledging and honoring similarity and difference, fostering creativity and imagination.
Collaboration is at once a philosophy and set of practices that takes many forms and serves many functions. First and foremost, collaboration represents a way of living and being with others. Through collaboration, individuals are physically and cognitively involved in cooperatively exploring the unique talents of self and other. A spirit of reciprocity and generosity characterizes the culture of the studio. Second, participants engage in a dance of structure and surrender as staff orchestrate an environment in which participants engage in improvisation and let chaos work. Accommodations, quality materials, space, and artistic insights are provided by staff in order for participants to struggle through the mystery and challenge of the artistic process and communicate with others. Whether the staff elevate a table to accommodate artists’ wheelchairs, suggest shades of colors for use in foreground images, engage in conversations about the medium a client artist would like to work with, or place markers or paintbrushes in clients’ hands, they do so in the spirit of collaboration
and with the intent to allow the clients to merge mind and body through art. Sometimes client and staff artists collaborate on a piece of fine art, and sometimes production artists collaborate to translate fine art into products for the gallery (e.g., jewelry, greeting cards). Visiting artists engage in residencies in which they often introduce a new artistic medium into the studio (e.g., sand art), and community members participate in the art-making process through volunteering. Passion Works also collaborates with other community organizations like Civitan whose mission is to raise awareness about disability-related issues. Finally, collaborations like the ones between the monks of Drepung and the clients of Passion Works are being fostered as civic leaders realize the power of art as a form of expression for traditionally silenced populations.
Passion Works serves as a model of how to organize economic and aesthetic opportunities for people otherwise excluded from community life. Tsultrim Sherab wrote:
Watching the monks interact with the [Passion Works] artists was incredible, mainly because I could see so many similarities in their situations. For the monks, living as refugees in exile, in a land not
their own, they feel as if they have no ability to change their situation, no power as one person speaking against the tyranny of many….this gives them a voice, gives them the chance to tell the world outside what is happening in their country and in their lives in the monasteries…And that was one of the things that impressed me most about your project of Passion Works, giving the artists a voice, a medium through which to express themselves.
Societal practices typically position people with disabilities as outsiders, disconnecting them from larger networks of reciprocity in community life. In the case of artists with mental retardation or developmental disabilities who have not mastered spoken language, and others (e.g., Tibetan monks) whose identities are marked by years of exclusion and lack of voice, art represents a venue for self-discovery and expression and a way to connect with others.
At Passion Works, art emerges as a way of living in association with others, a means for cultivating and celebrating community. Throughout the duration of the Monks’ visit, Passion Works artists explored new subjects and genres of artwork and learned about cultural similarities (e.g., role of detail in artwork) and differences (e.g., Buddhism, Christianity, and spirituality).
Likewise, the Monks have been transformed through the presence and energies of Passion Works’ artists. “Though we didn’t understand each others’ language, painting and art was language enough to become friends,” stressed Tsultrim Sherab. This sentiment was embodied in the creation of prayer flags, as described below.
Jonathon, Alexis, and Cardon (client artists of Passion Works) were creating prayer flags using pillowcases as canvasses. The artistic expressions were as diverse as the flags’ previous uses: Jonathon drew birds, Cardin constructed houses, Marsha proudly created a flower, and Alexis narrated a drawing of two kissing yaks saying I do. “Take out the papers and the trash.Or you don’t get no spending cash. If you don’t sweep that kitchen floor. You ain’t going to rock and roll no more,” wrote Alexis, “Yakety, yak, yakety, yak. Don’t talk back.” Patty Mitchell invited two visiting monks, Sopa and Tsultrim, and Tenzin to join in the collaborative process. The two monks sat down at the table, and Sopa curved Tibetan words in an arc around the birds drawn by Jonathon. Tenzin translated the meanings, “For all beings to have the freedom for peace in their hearts,” “For success and purification,” “A lifelong blessing for Passion Works.” Pillow cases were passed around so each artist could contribute a different layer to the art, and the energy in the room was felt by all. Tsultrim drew a wind horse and Tenzin revealed its symbolism: a prayer for purification. Ultimately, the flags will be hung so that prayers can be carried by the wind.
Collaboration at Passion Works is a shifting work in progress, as fluid as (1) the situated needs of individuals and (2) opportunities that arise when diverse people come together. In cooperation with others, artists claim and exercise their rights of citizenship, including the rights of expression and participation in community life, and move away from historical patterns of isolation. We invite you to join the collaborative process in ways that enrich yourself and others.
Lynn M. Harter, Stephanie Norander, and Stephanie Young
Dr. Lynn M .Harter is an Assistant Professor and Stephanie Norander and Stephanie Young are doctoral students in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University. All correspondence concerning this article can be directed to Dr. Harter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 740-593-4830.