Influence of the Tao

It’s 1982. I’m living in downtown Los Angeles, working on movie sets as a scenic artist, and making paintings in an old warehouse converted into lofts for artists. I’m finding some success as a sky painter in Hollywood and wondering if I’m meant to continue making art as a career. Already interested in Taoism, and inspired by the Taoist symbolism inherent in the Chinese Book of Changes, I’m intent to see where this path might lead. With all of this, and for the first time in my creative life, I’m feeling the need for guidance.

I also have a small adobe casita In Taos, New Mexico. I show my paintings to a Gallery owner there, tell him of my interest in Taoist symbolism, and we talk about how I would like to find a teacher. He tells me of a Taoist master from China who has a following on the West side of Los Angeles. I’m excited by this, but am unable to locate this Master Ni.

Then one day, while walking by the Bodhi Tree Bookstore in Hollywood, I look down to see a flyer on the sidewalk that has the name “Ni” on it. Wow! I call the number and speak to a young man named Dao. He tells me a bit about their group and enthusiastically invites me to a gathering to be held the next day at a house on the Malibu hillside. I go there and meet Suta, Master Ni’s secretary and assistant. She introduces me to his sons, Dao and Mao. I experience their radiance and am lifted by the peace I feel within this group of diverse people.

My first sight of Master Ni is when he enters a crowded room ringed with students and begins a sword dance. He and the sword are one. I am entranced with the surety, balance, and grace of his movements. In this moment I feel I have found my teacher and wonder what he might sense in me.

Within months, Suta arranges a meeting for me to show Master Ni a photo album of my paintings. I arrive nervous about how he will relate to me and to my work. He takes his time looking at the photographs. Then, to my surprise, and in just a few words, he tells me that I am already a master artist, and that I don’t need to be his student. He advises me to study the books he’s written and tells me that we will be friends. His expressed confidence in me provides the surety I need to continue forward on my artistic path.

• • • • • • • •

Through the next years, while I still lived in Los Angles, I met with my Taoist friends from time to time. I watched as Dao and Mao grew into masters in their own right, and as they assumed and expanded the work at the center. I was deeply honored when Master Ni and Mao asked me to provide covers for many of the future books that father and sons would write. I loved reading the manuscripts, enjoyed creating paintings that expressed the content, and above all, valued the continuing connection with the Ni family.

In 1989, I left Los Angeles, made a new home in Northern New Mexico, and finally settled in Colorado. I missed seeing Master Ni and felt the need of a spiritual boost. Then one night I had a dream about him. I saw him sitting in meditation. He looked up to meet my eyes, reached to his temples, lifted off the top of his head, tipped it forward, and poured forth a stream of knowledge that reached me. I received his offering and felt a knowing that his teachings would be with me no matter the distance.

Through the years I continued painting, recalling the dream when I needed guidance. I made very large sky paintings on ceilings all over the US, in India, Macao, Mexico, and Japan. Between these jobs, I traveled throughout the evocative landscape of the Southwest with my 3 dogs in an old Airstream Trailer, making plein aire paintings of vistas in the Four Corners area.

My Colorado home, shared with my partner Tom, is near Mesa Verde National Park; From a mesa top we look out upon sacred lands – Ute Mountain Tribal Park to the west, the Navajo’s Mount Hesperus to the east, and Shiprock — an ancient volcanic neck where the Navajo people believe they emerged from out of the earth — to the south. Such panoramas take us back through time to the ancient people whose natural wisdom, so in line with the Tao, is with us daily.

These lands inspired many sky paintings on canvas, The Four Corner’s Taoist Series, and The Animals as Totems Series. There is a metamorphosis aspect to these paintings, brought to life by the inclusion of I Ching Trigrams and Hexagrams that act as guides to the invisible force of nature.

Today I continually rediscover the message from The Tao. I am older, and thanks to Master Ni’s teachings, am also wiser! I have a wonderful life with Tom and the gardens he has created, and with our 4 dogs, 2 cats, and 6 fish. I’ve just completed a series of 8 paintings of the horse representing the 8 energy elements of the I Ching. An 80’ long mural on the side of my studio in Cortez is also underway. It features many horses excited by lightning and running through the vast landscape and sky. As time goes on I plan to include our dogs, who daily show me their simplicity, nipping at the heels of the wild horses. Life is bliss.

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