I grew up in a family where art was always present. My mother is a painter. When my five siblings and I were children, she illustrated children’s stories for Lithuanian diaspora children’s magazines. Working on detailed pen and ink illustrations with a gaggle of rowdy children was a challenge, so my mother solved it by bringing home roles of computer paper from my father’s machine shop and we would all sit around the kitchen table drawing onto the seemingly endless lengths of cheap computer paper. This set up also gave my mother the opportunity to sketch us as models for her drawings.
I received my first lesson in art from my mother.
When I started kindergarten, I came home and proudly showed my mother my first piece of “real” art, a cut-out pumpkin that I had made from a pattern. I asked her to hang my pumpkin on the wall. She told me she would not it hang up because it was not art. My mother explained that every child in my classroom had made the exact same cut-out pumpkin and therefore none of them were art. If I could create my own artwork, from my own imagination, she would hang it up.
My next art lesson came from Sunshine, a long-haired hippy who drove the big yellow schoolbus that took our neighborhood’s children to school.
He would tell us children to bring him beautiful drawings that he would hang them up on the concave roof of the school bus. Shyly handing Sunshine my drawing and seeing him smile taught me that art should bring joy to others, and not just me.
When I became a student at Rutgers University, I wavered between studying Fine Arts and Literature. My great-uncle, the American painter, Will Barnet, advised me to take courses in art that taught me technical skill, craft, how to draw the figure, and that introduced me to different areas of art. He also told me I should read art history and visit museums. However, he advised me not to pursue a degree in art, and not because he did not think I had talent as an artist. Will Barnet explained his reasoning to me. In the eighties, when I was a student, the predominant school of art in New York was abstract expressionism. Will felt that I would be wasting my time in Art School because abstract expressionism missed the point if students were taught to blindly follow abstraction without having arrived there themselves working through the process. I followed his advice and pursued a degree in English Literature and Education, but over the years took fine arts courses at School of Visual Arts, Hunter College, Rutgers, Columbia University, and the Arts Students’ League of New York.
Such have been my art lessons. I had two painting professors who inspired me to dare to be who I am as an artist. Both of them passed away this year after many decades of painting and teaching students. I will always be grateful to American painters Emma Amos and Emily Mason. Emma Amos taught me about mixing genres in painting, bringing in fabrics and not being afraid of bold compositional choices. Emily Mason taught me to work with a multitude of bright colors at once and to find joy in the creativity of painting.
I lived and taught Literature in China for four years of my life—two years in Hong Kong and two years in Beijing. During those years I spent countless hours visiting temples and shrines, closely looking at the work of Chinese artists, absorbing an Asian sense of being. I traveled to Bhutan and Myanmar to see Buddhist art and culture. I visited Lhasa, Tibet, and saw the Potola Palace. Twice I traveled with my students to Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, Gansu Province, a Tibetan region of China. My time in Tibet and Bhutan inspired me to use color in unexpected ways in my paintings. In the sacred art of the Buddhist tradition, bright and bold colors are used to heighten spiritual awareness. As I paint, I allow color to scream out to me and I obey its demands.
In Xiahe, our group of students participated in a project together with a Canadian woman who spent a decade in a Buddhist monastery in India learning how to paint mandalas. She now runs an art school that prepares Tibetan nomad young adults for a profession painting mandalas and other Buddhist imagery. I learned from her and her students that a work of art is worthless unless it is created in communication with the spiritual. I took away from her studio the practice of meditating before I paint, burning incense, lighting a candle, and inviting Spirit to guide me as I work.
I am both a poet and a painter. I perceive my world through the power of the visual and the magic of the poetic word. Perhaps for me poetry and painting are intertwined. The images that come to me in my poems live on in my paintings and vice versa. Sometimes I feel compelled to write lines or entire stanzas from my poems directly onto my paintings.
Visual art is that unspoken word. Art conveys all that we cannot bring to words. There are times when we as artists are rendered mute because we cannot put into words all that we feel, see, experience. That must be expressed in our visual language. And through the visual language of poetry, we invite the reader to see inside the heart of our inner emotional and visual landscape.