East and West: A Spiritual Quest Through Art

By Bill Roberts

Bill Roberts has been working on pottery at the Canyon Art Studio where Coeleen Kiebert holds her private classes. These past three years, Coeleen, the 1985 Oomoto seminar alumnus, has been bringing her groups to Oomoto, and Bill joined her with all of her journeys to Japan.

East and West: A Spiritual Quest Through Art

Delivered by Bill Roberts, April 14, 2001 to the people of Oomoto
I would like to dedicate this speech to the memory of my father and my brother.

I want to thank the Oomoto Foundation for inviting me to speak today. I hope what I have to say will sound less like a lecture and more like a fireside chat. I also want to thank you for hosting Coeleen Kiebert and her students for a third time. I am fortunate to have participated in each of these three trips with Coeleen. And I am especially grateful to Tanaka-san for his tireless effort to make these trips possible.

When I was asked to speak, my first thought was to explain how the Seattle Mariners might win the World Series now that they have Ichiro and Sasaki–two of Japan’s greatest baseball players. Then I realized that most of you may not share the same passion for baseball that Hiromi and I do. So let me just say that I look forward to seeing Ichiro and Sasaki when they come to play the Oakland Athletics. From my home I can travel to the Athletics’ ballpark in about 60 minutes and tickets are usually available.

I would like to tell you how my experiences in Japan have helped me build a bridge between East and West in my own life. I would like to share with you some of the important experiences on this personal journey, and talk about a few of the artists –Japanese and American–kindred spirits who have influenced my own artistic and spiritual path.

Japan is a poem, a song, a dream. It is also a contradiction. On my first trip two years ago, all I saw was the poetry: a kaleidoscope of cherry blossoms, temples, ceramics, Noh dancing, koto music and tea ceremony. On my second trip, I experienced the poetry but I also saw homeless people, drunks on trains and power lines entangling every mountain. The Japan that has deeply affected me is the poetic Japan. It is the Japan manifested by the people of Oomoto and your understanding of art and spirit. The other Japan will be even poorer in spirit if it ever loses you.

In recent years I have come to see that art and spirit are one and the same. I probably always knew this subconsciously but my recent experiences have brought this into conscious understanding. I don’t believe most Americans understand the link between art and spirit the way you and I do. In our commercial world, art is prized for its financial, esthetic or utilitarian value. Sometimes all three. I have nothing against financial, esthetic or utilitarian value. I just happen to prize art for its spiritual value, and most Americans do not. I think this is a key difference between Americans and Japanese, certainly the Japanese at Oomoto.

I want to tell you about an experience I had last year in Japan, which illustrates the spiritual value of art for me. Here is the scene:

A half dozen travel companions watch as I hold a calligraphy brush as big as a tennis racket. Spread below me on a table is a big piece of rice paper. Next to the paper is a large bowl of sumi ink. In a moment I will dip the brush into the ink and get it wet. Then I will use the brush to make the three strokes of the Kanji character for “mountain.” They are the same three strokes Sawada-sensi taught me two years ago. I have practiced them many times but always with a much smaller brush.

The character for mountain is an appropriate choice. We are staying in a 350-year-old farmhouse on a mountainside in the Iya Valley on Shikoku. Iya is an ethereal land of mountains and trees, rocks and streams. It reminds me a little of the rugged coastal mountains of Big Sur, California. I had many adventures there in my youth, hiking through canyons filled with redwood trees and scrambling to the top of rugged peaks. I understood the spiritual value of nature long before I understood the spiritual value of art. Of course they are all the same. Nature is just God’s great canvas.

As I stand there with the big brush I am nervous because I volunteered to go first after our teacher gave us a demonstration. I am worried about looking good. Then, in a meditative moment just before I dip the brush in the ink, I recall the Japanese saying our teacher taught us: “Ichi go, ichi ei” –each moment is unique. To me it means: Anything that ends up on the paper is fine; just enjoy the moment. So I plunge the wet brush onto the paper and in three quick strokes I make the character for mountain. My colleagues applaud. But did I enjoy that moment?

I did. The ability to enjoy each moment as a unique event is a spiritual lesson I am learning through art. It is a lesson I wish I could apply more consistently in my life in Silicon Valley where I work as a freelance magazine writer. In Silicon Valley, some people work on the next great technology. Others build businesses to sell those technologies. A few people, like me, write stories about all the people, the technologies and the businesses. It doesn’t matter what your role is in the Silicon Valley saga, the rat race there is full of moments that are not very spiritual. These moments become one long blur of email, cell phones, meetings and late-night work sessions. They are anything but unique. I’m sure we would all be better off in Silicon Valley if once a week we took time off to experience the harmonious moment of the tea ceremony.

I don’t know about others who live in Silicon Valley, but I must get away periodically to reconnect with my own spirit, to remember that life is just one unique moment after another. And to remember there is spiritual value in each moment. Sometimes I can do this through 20 minutes of meditation. Other times through ceramics or sumi painting or the fiction and poetry I write. Still other times by visiting the mountains or the seashore not too far from where I live. Sometimes I am really lucky and I actually have spiritual moments even when I am doing my work, my magazine writing.

I want to tell you about one special unique moment in my journey. It took place before I was born, more than fifty years ago. My parents met in Japan after World War II. My father was a career Army officer and my mother was a civilian secretary for the Army. They met in Tokyo in 1946 and were married there in 1947. They both worked in the occupation government’s natural resources division whose mission was to help rebuild agriculture, fisheries, forests and other natural resources. My father was the supply officer. My mother was the chief clerk for the agriculture department. When I see Japan’s mountains, streams, forests and farmlands I like to think my parents played a tiny part in helping to replenish those natural treasures after the devastation of war.

My parents loved Japan. They climbed Mount Fuji. They took the boat trip down the Hozugawa. They visited Kyoto and had many other wonderful experiences they would talk about the rest of their lives. I was the first of two children, born in the United States in January 1950. However, I was conceived in April 1949 about three months before my parents left Japan. So my first trip to Japan, in April 1999, took place exactly fifty years after I was conceived here.

On that trip to Japan in 1999, there was one especially spiritual moment worth noting. We were visiting Nara on April 8, the Buddha’s birthday. I had seen the great Buddha and was walking alone up a hillside. As I walked over a carpet of lush green grass under a canopy of cherry trees in blossom I had an epiphany. I suddenly understood how easy it was for my parents to fall in love in this beautiful and enchanted country during a time of hope and expectation. At that moment I felt blessed to be in Japan and to have been here fifty years ago, too, as my parents’ seed.

My father contributed in another way to my experiences in Japan. When he died three and a half years ago, I fell into a moderate depression, which lasted for months. One night I was talking about my malaise with two friends who had taken art courses from Coeleen Kiebert, whom I had never met. They described her as an artist and teacher who used art to explore spirit. They said if I took one of her courses I was bound to feel better. I only half believed them, but I was so depressed I was willing to try anything.

Several weeks later I took my first weekend workshop with Coeleen, who used collage, drawing and clay to help us discover the visual images we were attracted to and understand their meaning to us. I don’t know if it cured my depression, but I fell in love with clay. That was three years ago and I have worked in clay ever since.

I like clay because it reminds me of playing in the mud when I was a child. I also like clay because it is an art form that involves the five elements of earth, water, air, fire and spirit. Clay is earth and water. The kiln brings air and fire. The artist provides the spirit. I especially like to make pots but I do not work on a wheel. I build pots by hand. I have so many pots in my cottage there is barely room for my cat and I. One of America’s greatest living ceramic artists is Toshiko Takaezu, a Japanese American from Hawaii. She says: I don’t need any more pots, but I need what pots teach me. I agree with her. I don’t need any more pots, but when I make a pot I learn something about myself or about the clay or both.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the ancient Jomon pots at the Kyoto Museum. I was moved to think that some unknown artist made these pots 10,000 years ago. He never considered whether they would sit in a great museum someday. Yet, they are great works of art, the spirit of the artist is still there. Now, whenever I come to Kyoto, I must see the Jomon pots. It is a pilgrimage. Whenever I start to build a pot, I like to remember that I am continuing a 10,000-year-old tradition. I don’t ever want to forget this.

In that first workshop three years ago, Coeleen said something that stuck with me. Often, she said, the death of the same sex parent will unblock the adult child’s artistic energy. For me it was both the death of my father and the untimely death of my brother that unlocked my artistic energy.

My brother Max was 2 1/2 years younger than I and was my only sibling. At an early age, he showed extraordinary talent for drawing and painting. A few years later he proved to be a musical prodigy. My parents declared him to be the “the artist in the family.” They called me “the serious and responsible one.” My warped young mind learned two lessons: That art is not serious or responsible and that I could not be an artist because my brother was. Of course, both these lessons proved to be entirely wrong.

Max spent his entire life in the arts. He painted and sketched. He played piano and wrote music and songs for the movies. He designed costumes and stage sets for plays, movies and television. He wrote and directed musical plays. He helped create an award-winning TV show for children. He also designed commercial toys, including many Snoopy dolls. Some of his toy designs were once included in an exhibit at the Louvre in Paris.

Nearly 11 years ago he died two weeks before his 38th birthday. In his last two years of life, when he knew he was dying, he experienced a spiritual transformation. He focused his energy on three things: First, on learning to live with his disease before he died from it, and second, on writing songs that expressed his joy at life and his grief at dying. Third, he put those songs into a one-man show, which he performed several times before he died.

That was the first time I witnessed the spiritual power of art. My brother used art to explore important matters of spirit in preparation for the next life. This was inspiring to watch. The most inspirational part was that he knew he might not complete or ever get a chance to perform the songs he was writing. In the end, he did get to perform them, but he didn’t know that would happen. And it didn’t matter. The act of creating the songs was the most important part. Soon after Max’s death, I began to write poetry, which I had given up twenty years earlier. A few years later, I began to write short fiction, which I had also abandoned earlier.

Then when I attended that first workshop with Coeleen I felt as if I was rocketed into a new dimension. I began to tailor my life so I would have time and energy to spend on poetry, fiction and the visual arts. I was also inspired by Japanese ceramic artists, people like Kameoka’s Hideki Nishijima, who are able to integrate home and workshop and life and art into a harmonious whole.

After many years as a newspaper and magazine executive I left the executive track to become a freelance writer. This gives me the flexibility to spend time on artistic pursuits. I got rid of an expensive house and began to live more modestly so I would need less money. This was an exciting spiritual change in myself. If my father had not died when he did, I might not have attended that first workshop or discovered clay or taken any of these trips with Coeleen to Oomoto.

Coeleen had a huge impact on my understanding of art and spirit. And she is a bridge between East and West. It is no coincidence that her ceramic lineage can be traced to Japan. Coeleen can tell this story better than I, but let me try. Her first ceramics teacher was Warren MacKenzie at the University of Minnesota. MacKenzie studied ceramics with Bernard Leach, an Englishman who worked with Japanese ceramic artists in the early 20th century. Leach struck up a friendship with the great Japanese potter, Shoji Hamada. Hamada and other Japanese potters influenced Leach and he influenced them. Leach taught MacKenzie. MacKenzie taught Coeleen. This is how the Japanese influence came to Coeleen’s sphere in Santa Cruz.

I did not know any of this when I signed up for that first workshop with Coeleen. Nor did I expect something else that would happen. A month before we departed on the first trip to Oomoto the group met at Coeleen’s home for an orientation. As we waited to begin, I noticed a book on her coffee table. The cover was a water color painting of a scene I know in Yosemite Valley. I had never seen this specific painting or this style of painting. I picked up the book and discovered many more delightful reproductions of water colors, sumi paintings and Japanese-style woodblock prints –all of Yosemite scenes.

You may have seen pictures of Yosemite. Perhaps some of you have been there. Yosemite Valley was created by glaciers millions of years ago. When the ice receded, it left behind sheer granite cliffs which rise 1,000 meters straight up from the floor of a lush valley. Yosemite is an awe-inspiring reminder that God is truly the greatest artist. And Yosemite is a special place for me. I spent a lot of time rock climbing and hiking there in my youth. I thought I knew it well, but the pictures in this book showed me Yosemite through different eyes.

They were the eyes of Chiura Obata, a Japanese artist who immigrated to San Francisco in the first decade of the 20th century. His plan was to earn enough money by painting in California to continue onto Paris to study art. Obata never made it to Paris. Instead, he found a lifetime of artistic material in the mountains and streams, rocks and coastline of California. Obata was in San Francisco during the earthquake of 1906. He used his skills as a sketch artist to record the scenes of destruction for the world.

Obata had much artistic success in his lifetime and became an art teacher at the University of California where his sumi classes were popular. When World War II began, Obata was in his late fifties. He and his family were among the one million Japanese Americans forced to move to internment camps. Rather than fall into despair over his fate, Obata set up an art school for his fellow inmates. And just as he had used his art skills to record the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, he now applied them to recording life in the camp. After the war, Obata returned to the University of California. He died in 1975 nearly 90 years old. His work was the subject of a retrospective exhibit in San Francisco last year.

Obata bridged East and West. And he has had a significant impact on my personal artistic vision. He and I share a love of Yosemite. I’d like to read you something he wrote after his first trip there in the late 1920s.

“Nature gives us endless rhythm and harmony in any circumstance. Not only when we are on a joyous path, but even in the depth of despair we will see beauty of strength, beauty of patience, and beauty of sacrifice. Everybody must feel a deep appreciation toward Mother Earth. If we keep appreciation in the depth of our hearts, not only our senses will develop more energetically but our feeling will become as clear as full moonlight.”

I especially like the first line: “Nature gives us endless rhythm and harmony in any circumstance.” Obata’s work has a natural rhythm and harmony. It is in constant motion, an endless dance between line and color. The spirit of his art leaps from the page. He was a classically trained painter who invigorated the Japanese style with the free-flowing feeling of the West.

From Obata I learned a different way of looking at the peaks and granite cliffs I love. The lines of his art work were freer than the actual lines of nature itself. When I first began to build large clay pots by hand, I tried hard to make them symmetrical and failed miserably. Instead, my pots wanted to have the free form lines and shapes of mountains, rocks and streams. When I discovered Obata, he validated my own artistic vocabulary and style. He inspires me to remain true to my own evolving style.

One of Obata’s students at the University of California was a young man named Gary Snyder. Now 71, Snyder is one of our greatest living poets. He, too, bridges East and West in his art and life. In recent years his poetry has had an enormous impact on my own work. Although Snyder’s primary art form is poetry, he credits Obata with helping him to see the spirit in mountains and streams.

I have known Snyder’s work for many years, but only began to study his work five years ago when he published his epic poem, “Mountains and Rivers Without End.” It is a series of related poems, about 40,000 words in all, composed over a forty year period. “Mountains and Rivers” is a symphony of words honoring mountains and streams, all things natural and wild, and all things artistic and spiritual.

Snyder spent most of the 1960s studying Zen Buddhism in Kyoto, first at Shokoku-ji and later at Daitoku-ji. Snyder credits these experiences with influencing his masterpiece, “Mountains and Rivers.” He also credits the influence of Asian painters and poets, especially landscape painters. In fact, the title, “Mountains and Rivers Without End,” is taken from the title of a Chinese scroll painting.

Like Obata, Snyder gives me new ways to understand mountains and streams. He also inspires me in one other way. As I said, he spent forty years writing “Mountains and Rivers.” He started working on it as a young man. He would work on it, then set it aside, and later return to it from time to time. He finally finished it when he was in his sixties. When I was in my twenties I began to write several short stories I never finished. With Snyder as my example I returned to these stories in recent years and have completed several of them. It is an amazing experience to pick up short stories that I began to write as a young man and to resume working on them with the knowledge and understanding of a middle-aged man. Stories that were pretty good tales thirty years ago now have taken on spiritual themes the younger man was not capable of writing.

There is one other artist I must mention. Isamu Noguchi, a man who understood rocks and the spirit that produces them. Last year we visited his sculpture garden in Mure. I fell in love with his great stone sculptures. He had the ability to look at stone, see its spirit and set it free.

Noguchi was a unique blend of East and West. His story is well known. His father was Japanese; his mother American. He was born in the United States but spent his early years in Japan. At 13 he was sent back to the U.S. to complete his high school and college education. He spent about equal time working in New York and Japan. His entire life was a bridge between East and West. Even his ashes are split: half lie in Mure and the other half at his sculpture garden on Long Island, New York.

At mid life, Noguchi became obsessed with large boulders of basalt, granite and other hard stone. One day he split one open, worked with it and found a new and personal artistic direction. He wrote of this experience:

“These are private sculptures, a dialogue between myself and the primary matter of the universe. A meditation, if you will, that carries me on one step after another. Most of these have been carved of individual boulders…Each comes from a complex reaction of the moment and is not reproducible.”

I would like to think that like Noguchi’s boulder sculptures, my irregularly shaped pots are a dialogue between me and the primary matter of the universe–earth and water. Each is a unique meditation, the result of a complex reaction of the moment between me and the clay, never again reproducible. From Noguchi I learned to see the clay in my hand as a unique event. All of these artists teach me to see each creative act as a unique event, a spiritual moment.

As I look back over my fifty years I can now see that the right people, the right artists and the right experiences have always come into my life at just the right time. Each unique moment has been exactly what I needed when I needed it. On this, my third trip to Oomoto, I am sure I am having the experiences I need at this moment. And I am certain they will give me new insights and new perceptions to inspire the next stage of my journey through art and spirit.

I would like to close with a request. Did you know that when Americans look at the full moon we see a man in the moon. I recently learned that Japanese see a rabbit. When I heard this, I could hardly wait for the next full moon. I searched and searched. Finally, I saw the rabbit, but only after I was ready to let go of my man-in-the-moon perception.

So here is my request: The next time you see a full moon, let go of your perception of what you think you should see. If you have always seen the rabbit, try to find the man in the moon. And to my American colleagues here today, try to see the rabbit. If you search and search and still can’t find the man or the rabbit, don’t worry. It is the seeking that is important, not the finding. The seeking is the spiritual moment. –end–

Visitor’s Reviews