Doing Work, Creating Art and Breathing

I was immersed in art/work practice today, spending the morning glazing my jizo (see link for more information about this Japanese Bodhisattva) and spending the afternoon working on my rakusu, the symbol of jukai (lay ordination).

My jizo survived his first firing, and somehow I managed to get a little bit of my vision of a Bodhisattva into the clay, much more so than in my first attempt. Although I’m trying very hard to just let each one exist on its own, without my judgments, I seesaw back and forth from feeling artistic pride (Wow! I made this!) and an art critic’s scorn (A third grader would have done a better job.).

We met in Susan Spencer’s studio in Sebastopol, which is an art lover’s paradise. Her garden is filled with ceramic figurines of all colors, shapes and sizes, from the whimsical to the spiritual. The ceramic studio has a big work table, and shelves lined with paint brushes, sponges, cutting tools and all kinds of miscellaneous implements. It’s hard to resist the call to create when you’re standing in that room.

Today we applied glazes, which is both easier (since the surfaces to paint were large and fairly clearly delineated) and at the same time a leap of faith (since I have no idea what it’s going to look like when it comes out of the kiln the second time). Sangha member Debi was also with me, finishing the glazing on her feline jizo, a black cat Bodhisattva with wings and gold eyes.

I love colors. It’s funny, because there was a long period in my life when I dressed only in black. Everything I owned was black – black bike messenger bag, black piano, black car. But at some point a few years ago, when the world got a little brighter for me, colors came back into my life. So choosing the glazing paints was heaven – sky blue, emerald green, rose pink. My jizo’s robe is textured, so I used a sponge to wash some of the color off, leaving indentations of color beneath the ridges of clay. At the end, I covered the entire figure with a clear glaze, which dries white, completely masking all the work I had just done. Again, trust comes into play – the colors should reappear after firing. That’s what I’ve been told.

I had a wonderful time getting paint all over my shirt, cradling the jizo in my arms while I applied the brush, feeling the weight and roughness and “I am that” -ness of it all.

And then, on to the next adventure. At sewing class, there were only four of us, due to a house blessing held this afternoon at sangha member Deborah’s, so our teacher Connie Ayers was able to give lots of one-on-one attention. We practiced stitching, ironing, cutting, and marking.

But then I got to move on to the real deal, the cloth for my actual rakusu. I ironed the face cloth, for the front piece of the rakusu, and then Connie helped me apply the pattern and mark lines. On to cutting – which made me nervous, because that can be screwed up, but I made it through without destroying anything. The next simple step, ironing the folds on five pieces of cloth, I managed to bungle, doing it the opposite of what I was instructed. Thankfully, though, it was salvageable – just more ironing. The final step was to pin the first five segments, which again took some doing, but I survived with help from Connie.

Now this week I have to take the big plunge – make my first stitches on those pieces of cloth. This whole sewing thing is fascinating for me. I am so surprised how pleasurable it is. Once again, as with the clay, there is that sense of work and of art. I am making something with my own hands.

I am a word person. I make my living sitting at a computer, writing news stories and designing pages, which are sent to the printer electronically. At home, I spend hours in front of the screen, doing my own writing, blogging, emailing. I exist in an environment of ideas and papers, metaphors and keyboards.

To sit down at a table and pick up a lump of clay and roll it in my hands, to wield a paint brush, to thread a needle, to iron and tie knots and draw lines – this is opening me up. It’s like the breath in zazen, a reminder that I have a body as well as a mind.

Just breathe.


Creating a Jizo

On Sunday, I will go to sangha member Susan Spencer’s house to glaze my jizo. A jizo is a guardian spirit, a little bodhisattva, who protects women, children and travellers. The statues come in various forms and shapes, but all have a beatific smile, a childlike appearance, with great serenity and patience resting on their brows.

When I lived in Japan, I saw jizo everywhere. Because they are frequently purchased at temples to honor children lost to miscarriage or abortion, or infant death, the jizo I saw were usually dressed, clad in miniature red knitted bibs, shawls or hats, with toys placed nearby. Women use the figures to grieve, and to wish the lost children (mizuko, or “water children”) safe passage to their next place.

I have always wanted to have a jizo of my own, but never made that happen. Then, in the spring, Russian River Zendo created landscaped temple grounds with a gift from a sangha member who had passed away. Ceramicist Susan Spencer suggested that the sangha create jizo in her studio for the grounds. Over the summer, I participated in one of the workshops, making a jizo for the garden.

It was a wonderful, frustrating experience in “beginner’s mind.” I had a clear idea of what I wanted my jizo to look like – but I hadn’t worked with clay since fifth grade, and even back then, I was none too skillful at it. That day at Susan’s, nothing seemed to be going as I planned. The head was misshapen, the ears too big, the nose odd looking. I was so annoyed after the first thirty minutes that I almost left and went home. I’ve never been very patient with tasks that I don’t have a natural talent for – I guess that’s the down side of having too many other things come easily for me.

But I eventually got over my surliness and just did the best I could, summoning up as much humor as possible. The end result was a figure who looked more like Yoda from Star Wars than a Japanese monk. Sigh. He now stands guard at Russian River Zendo, a tangible testament of my imperfect offering.

Susan offered to hold another workshop this fall, for those of us who wanted a jizo for our own gardens at home. I decided to try again. I kept it really simple this time, going on the theory that less is more. In particular, smaller ears!

I haven’t seen how he survived the firing yet – and this will be my first time to do glazing, as Susan did that for me the last time. I can’t wait to meet up with my little jizo again. I am determined to love him, no matter how he turns out. It’s the heart in the clay that matters, right?

Language note: In Japanese, there is no plural form for words. So, when I use Japanese words, like jizo, I don’t add an “s” when there are more than one of them. Whether the subject is singular or plural is indicated by context only.
Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved