Strolling through Brooklyn on a misty Friday morning, I didn’t know what to expect. On another level, it seemed entirely natural. Despite having never met the artist I was about to interview, I felt sure of one thing. Jun Ishida was a spiritual aspirant. In his art I could see the way personal experience guided his hand.
Ishida’s abundantly colorful paintings emanate a cohesion that evades description. Dense yet weightless, skillful but effortless, chaotic and calming, his art challenges conventional notions of harmony while drawing attention to the self-evident nature of peace. It’s really damn cool.
Seeing my own peaceful experiences reflected back at me through his paintings, I recognized the need to understand more about his art.
Less than a week after coming upon Ishida’s work, I found myself at his doorstep armed with a notebook and pen.
“Ben?” He flashed me a smile as he opened the door.
We silently plodded up the steps to his floor. A few of his paintings hung in the stairway near his apartment door. One was a reproduction of an earlier work and the other was a beautiful yet humorous depiction of the Jersey City skyline.
Once inside the apartment, we sat down. He offered me tea and the pet cat made herself comfortable on my lap. When I tried to prepare my notebook, she immediately sat on top of it. I took the hint and instead turned my phone on to record our conversation. Best just to stay present.
So, the cat sat on me and I sat on a chair and Ishida sat on a large exercise ball. Then we talked.
Lazy Yogi: What is your perspective on art and the way yours sets itself apart?
Jun Ishida: Art is part of my spiritual practice. I am not doing it for the purpose of self-expression. Of course there is the element of my “style” but I am doing it for, I want to avoid the word “higher” purpose, but my artwork has a purpose to encourage my audience to reflect on their spirituality. To start to think about this spirituality and spiritual practice.
I’m not going to convert anybody or anything like that, but I want my audience to start thinking about life and that there’s something beyond your paycheck. It’s separate from what’s considered hot contemporary art because while those works may address a certain topic in an abstract way, I feel that mine is deliberately grounded. It’s not like an idea floating around, it’s a visual reflection of my real experience.
LY: Do you mind talking a little bit about your spiritual practice?
JI: I am comfortable saying I am Buddhist. I am actually a convert. Since I am Asian, people assume I was always Buddhist. I grew up in Japan so I have a familiarity with Buddhist concepts, however I was never Buddhist. I lived in Nepal for a year about fifteen years ago, there are lots of Tibetan Buddhist practitioners there. I was living with the statue makers and then after I got back to the States, September 11th happened. These Tibetan monks were doing prayers in Union Square park and I got to know one of the monks very well and so eventually I became a student of his.
It’s just a lot of things Buddha says makes sense. Buddhism is very practical I think, to navigate life. And eventually I started reflecting on my own heritage as well. That’s more like the history of how I got into Buddhism, what exactly would you like to know?
LY: Do you have a meditation practice?
JI: Yes, in Tibetan Buddhism I do different kinds of meditation. I try to do that every day and I try to use mindfulness on trains and when I’m going to work. Actually, I incorporated that meditation practice in my pieces too. Besides my paintings, I make outdoors installation pieces and incorporate walking meditation. I learned it from that Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. I ask my audience to practice walking meditation on my mandala, this structure I build on the ground. I ask my audience to come inside my mandala and walk around it.
LY: So how long have you been painting?
JI: I decided to be a “professional” when I was 17, so around two decades. I came to the US around that age. First I came as an undergrad student to California.
LY: What brought you to New York?
JI: Well, “all artists have to come to New York” so…[laughter]
LY: Can you tell me more about the Fellowship program you are about to begin?
JI: Basically they are willing to give you studio space and time and I can just create my pieces. No restriction or anything. Very competitive to get in, it depends on the program. Some are very hard to get into. So next month I have a month in the northern part of Wyoming, I’ve never been to it. And they’re going to give me studio space and I can just do whatever I want.
LY: Do you have any idea of what you’ll be looking to create during that time?
JI: One thing is a continuation of my Lotus Series of painting, those were some of the works you had seen at the New York Buddhist Church. I want to expand that body of work in a slightly different direction, sort of as a sub-branch of my series.
I paint the lotus because in Buddhism it symbolizes the Way of Enlightenment. The lotus grows in a muddy swamp and it comes out pure. It’s a metaphor for the way you need to overcome your negativity like greed, anger, you need to overcome your muddy parts. So I borrow the idea of symbolism from Lotus and I use it in my painting.
I am also very fascinated in the function of the brain and the way these go together.
LY: How much time do you tend to spend on each piece?
JI: That’s a difficult question because I work on different pieces simultaneously, like seven or so. I just keep adding and I can work on one piece for like several months. Sometimes I’ll think I’m done with a piece and come back to it years later to add or erase something. It’s a long process.
LY: So how do you know when a piece is done?
JI: It’s kind of corny but the painting will tell you. [laughter] The painting process is really like a conversation between me and the canvas. Quite often I have only a vague idea of what I want to do but I don’t really know what to paint in the beginning. But as I start having conversation with the canvas, I start to know which way I should go. And when it looks finished, the conversation starts to stop. But sometimes after a few years…
LY: The conversation starts up again?
JI: [laughter] Yeah.
LY: So do you find painting meditative for you?
JI: Oh certainly, yes. Very much so. I think any activity like washing dishes can be meditative but yeah painting is certainly meditative practice. It is a part of my practice.
So I want to explore more pieces about mind, brain, enlightenment during my Fellowship and maybe another outdoor mandala. I’d really like to do the outside one but I don’t know if I can take Wyoming winter. I kind of want to do something with snow though.
LY: A demonstration of impermanence?
JI: Yes. That impermanence part is kind of important. My whole mandala pieces come from the idea of Tibetan sand mandalas. And the fact that after they finish, they just sweep it into a pot and throw it in a river. That’s to show impermanence of life. It’s kind of a fascinating concept and the act of destroying. I couldn’t quite destroy my mandala itself but I let it decay. I use all natural materials and just leave it there. Within a year, it’s taken over.
LY: Do you feel that your work has evolved over time?
JI: When I was starting at 17, I was basically making copies of Salvador Dali pieces. His mannerisms, his style. It was kind of fun. That period and the following period didn’t have much to do with Buddhism.
When I see my old pieces and my current work, I think I was always a seeker of some sort. Yet I didn’t know what I was seeking. Like my surrealist period. Always having strange longings, strange sadness to it I think. But then my spiritual practice gave me direction of how to live with some strange loneliness or what I’m longing for. Longing is probably for how to understand the state of enlightenment or to be close to higher beings, that’s probably what I’ve been longing for.
I like to depict lots of creatures, insects, birds, many things. It’s coming from the idea in Buddhism that all sentient beings are equal and they all want to be happy. So often my little creatures in my painting are representative of those sentient beings. I like to depict those little things.
LY: Wrapping up with one last question, what would you want people to ultimately take away from your art?
JI: I want to give more than temporary visual pleasure. I want to give my audience something continuous to have, to hold on to, which is to have peace in their mind. To start understanding how to get calm and peaceful. My ultimate goal is when people see my paintings, they experience the state of tranquility and they can keep and live with it. Even the next day they will still be calm and fresh. That is my ultimate goal.
As we talked, I found Ishida to be humble yet inspired. He was quick to laugh and didn’t seem the least bit fazed when the cat decided to sit on his newest work on canvas. English hadn’t been his first language and yet he found no trouble communicating indescribable things.
After the interview, Ishida took the time to show me his various works. Insects, molecules, haikus, excerpts from the Buddhist sutras, neurons, samplings of myriad painting techniques, each canvas boasted unique features indicative of Ishida’s style.
More than that, they all had the same thing to say: The way is open. Everything is here for you. There is peace within the dance of form and formlessness. There is nothing but this.
On my subway ride home, I felt that continuous tranquility of which Ishida had spoken. It wasn’t anything new or added. It was the radiance of something timeless that had been there all along.
Born in Kobe, Japan, Jun Ishido has lived in the United States for nearly two decades. He is married to Natasha Wozniak, another talented artist, and they are based out of Brooklyn, New York.
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