Awakening Through Creativity:
Knowing Not Knowing
Kindly funded by:
2018 MOFSA travel award
2020 Arts Council England
Description of Project
All my mindfulness meditation visual fine art projects and educational activity over 20 years have revolved around the questions, ‘What are We?’ ‘How Can Art Heal?’ Meditating and contemplating on these questions before, during and after studio practice, I paint, draw, print, use photographic processes, write poetry, prose and create handmade artists books, teach Mindful Art in the community and run Mindful Creativity Coaching in the community.
Thanks to MOFSA, I now have the opportunity to consolidate this work.
Aim of project
To consolidate long-term meditation training, recent Barre Center for Buddhist Studies Dharma and Art Course practices and fine art practice by creating a body of high quality art work, documented visually and in writing, ready for exhibiting and publishing.
The documentation will be used for:
Developing own creative practice
Writing an in depth book on art as a support for mindfulness and meditation
Developing Mindful Creativity community workshops
Developing a secular Art and Meditation course
The art work will be shown in 2021 at Diss Corn Hall, an Arts venue, alongside community workshops and an artists talk.
What I will do
Investigate ways of integrating personal meditation and mindfulness practices with contemporary fine art practice incorporating painting, drawing, printmaking, photography and image-text.
There are three, connected projects, Excavations, What Remains? and Here Not Here forming the basis of the enquiry. It is envisaged that these will evolve along as the project progresses. This evolution will be documented and used in subsequent writing and workshop development.
An autobiographical contemplation on how conditioned mind grasps at experience such as perception, memory, conditioning and self as solid. I will make four, wall hung, mixed media art works on panel incorporating thick, textured layers of pigment, plaster, wax, oil paint, collage, words, drawn elements, photomontage, combined with opaque, transparent, scraped and dug out layers to reveal luminous, fine elements and space within. Light will be incorporated.
Deliverables: Four wall hung mixed media art works on panel; sketchbooks and studies; visual and written documentation for developing into essays, articles, publications, talks, resource book, artist’s monograph, workshops, exhibition, blog, website
2. What Remains?
A large artist’s handmade book inquiring into what remains when we strip away impermanent, changing thoughts, emotions and identities. Incorporating hand written questions with drawn, painted and photographic collages, in textured, transparent and translucent layers, the inquiry poses self-reflection questions to readers, inviting them to contemplate their own inner processes. No answers are given, so people can find their own responses.
Deliverables: Hand-made artist’s book/s; studies, visual and written documentation for developing into essays, articles, publications, talks, resource book, artist’s monograph, workshops, exhibition, blog, website
3. Here-Not Here
An experiential, visual and haiku exploration of the Buddhist Heart Sutra ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form’. How to make visual the experience of no reference point occurring simultaneously with everyday experience? A series of drawings, studies and oil paintings investigating and responding to this question.
Deliverables: Four completed wall hung art works with haiku and/or Heart Sutra integrated with imagery on canvas or panel; studies, sketchbooks; visual and written documentation for developing into essays, articles, publications, talks, resource book, artist’s monograph, workshops, exhibition, blog, website
Project Start Date: October 7th 2019
Project End Date: October 31st 2020 approx
About my spiritual journey
I have a strong sense my purpose here is to discover my essence, and open creative pathways revealing essence. Trauma has been a wonderful teacher: when 9, nearly losing my mother to TB, parental divorce and the suicides of brother as a child and husband in my thirties opened my mind to impermanence, the transience of all things, leading to the questioning the meaning of life and receiving art therapy. Born in a Jewish family and attending Christian schools raised questions of self and identity, stimulating a spiritual search. My father was an intuitive mystic.
Following my husband’s death in 1981, I studied Christian Essene spiritual healing with the College of Spiritual Psychotherapy. Wanting to see if my Jewish roots could help, I studied Kabbalah with a rabbi’s wife. Interest in the perennial philosophy led me to look east, study Hindu and Vedic teachings and travel to India, before arriving in 1991 at Tibetan Buddhism, my spiritual home.
All spiritual traditions in their esoteric essence seem concerned with what we are and the meaning of life. In Christianity it is said the kingdom of heaven is within; and to ‘rest in God beyond all thought’ (Cloud of Unknowing). The Buddhist Heart Sutra says that form (and anything else we know including self) is emptiness, emptiness is form; the two are inseparable.
Seeking instructions in how to actually practise Heart Sutra teachings, I was drawn to the Kagyu-Nyingma schools of Tibetan Buddhism, which emphasise experiential meditation and contemplation on awareness, knowingness, emptiness and nature of mind. I received teachings from realized spiritual masters including Ato Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. In 2005 I discovered Mingyur Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher holding a lineage for Mahamudra, a tradition of progressive training in the path to enlightenment relevant for the western mind. A brief outline of this training can be seen here
Inspired to deeply commit, I ordained as a Buddhist nun in 2007. While extremely beneficial, in 2014 I returned to lay life in order to find ways of integrating ongoing spiritual practice and personal healing with creative practice, teaching art and everyday life, for both my own and other people’s benefit.
I have received numerous spiritual teachings, participated in silent group retreats and undertaken solo retreats, which have had a huge impact on my life. I live in semi retreat, teach and coach mindful creativity, make art, and write. I have run voluntary meditation groups.
How the project relates to my spiritual journey
Since 2005 all my art practice has been completely underpinned by Tibetan Buddhist Mahamudra training learning to:
Be aware of increasingly subtle layers of grasping, aversion, delusion and confusion
Recognize and rest in innate, loving, joyous, awareness-emptiness luminous mind
Recognize and rest within awareness of the essence of experienced phenomena
With a boundless, compassionate heart, to try to help others
All three approaches to the project deal with the relationships between 1-4 above, in different ways:
Excavating mind relates to mainly (1) and some of (2) above through layering texture, transparency and materiality
What Remains? relates to (1-4) above, through inquiry, text and mixed media imagery in hand-made artist’s book form
Here-Not Here relates to (1-4) above through colour and luminosity in oil painting
The role of art in my spiritual journey
Spiritual practice and making art evolve together, intimately informing and nurturing each other in mutual feedback throughout the spiritual and creative journey. Making art is meditation, they are inseparable. Contemplation and meditation define the subject matter of my art, informing and underpinning activity of body, mind and soul before, during and after creative activity. For me, making art is joy, an opening into timeless essence.
I believe the role of art is to be an inspiration pointing to universal essence. In 1987, seeing Mark Rothko's paintings at the Tate Gallery, London and listening to Mahler's Resurrection Symphony conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, opened my mind to how the arts can reach beyond purely visual and aesthetic dimensions to be deeply transforming, healing, revealing, and spiritually awakening experiences.
In 1988 I asked a teacher on my degree course, ‘How do I paint pure consciousness?’ to which he replied, ‘Become pure consciousness, then paint’. I agree with this, and would also add, ‘By painting you can discover pure consciousness’. During my BA Hons in Painting (1987-1991), I began a spiritual and creative search, studying Hindu and Tibetan mandala painting, the work of Agnes Martin, Jackson Pollock and Richard Pousette-Dart, Paul Klee and Kandinsky and travelling to India. My BA Hons thesis in 1991 ‘The Symbolism of the Center in Religion and Sacred Art’, investigated the relationship between sacred art and the perennial spiritual teachings.
Following studying traditional Tibetan Thangkha painting, I began investigating ways of integrating Mahamudra practices with contemporary fine art practices by doing a Masters Degree in Fine Art from 2005-2007. For my final Masters Degree exhibition project, I made a 5-minute video, ‘Letter to My Mum’, https://www.zangmoalexander.com/art-projects-by-zangmo-alexander answering her question of why I wanted to ordain as a Buddhist nun.
From 2007-2019 I have been developing projects integrating art and Mahamudra (details in next section) while also teaching art and mindful creativity coaching.
During the 2018-2019 Barre Art and Dharma course, we were challenged to synthesize spiritual practice with the process of creativity. This entailed observing deeply ingrained conditioning and also inquiring into the nature of knowing and not-knowing in everyday life and when making art. This opened an intense and profound process that I will explore more deeply in this project.
Completed Previous Related Projects
Solo exhibition, The Photographers Gallery UK, Tell Me What You Are: Luminograms inquiring into perception and projections of mind, based on associations of concepts, thoughts, labels, ideas, beliefs, opinions, and the storylines we build around them to create and project our reality. How real or true are they? How do they cause suffering? How do they benefit us?
Solo exhibition: Horsham Arts Center UK, who invited me to make a new body of 30 pieces of art work for this exhibition, The Contemplative Eye
Solo exhibition, at Michaelhouse Center, Cambridge, UK, Lyrical Abstraction by Zangmo Alexander
MFA degree course: Meditation Diary
MFA degree show, Norfolk UK (distinction), Letter to my Mum, video: Before I ordained as a Buddhist nun, my mum asked me why I wanted to be a nun, so in reply I made this short video sharing my disillusionment, questioning the wisdom of relying on materialism for any lasting peace and happiness.
University of East Anglia, UK, The Stripper: collaboration with Dr Pema Clark who devised this one-hour play based on my life and work, about peeling away layers of delusion through spiritual practice
Altered Family Album: A family photo album made from a cash book by my granddad. I added the yogic song Eight Things to Remember by the great yogi Milarepa, transforming the album into an object for contemplation on impermanence that would be very personal
Ongoing long-term projects within which shorter projects are situated
What Remains? An inquiry, in artists’ book form, into the nature of mind, storylines and labels, self and identity
Drawing As Meditation: Open awareness meditation as the starting point and process from which to draw
Hotel: a study in transience and impermanence through the metaphor of my travels and hotels I have stayed in
Liminal: investigating, through drawing, photography and text, the in-between states which permeate knowing and not knowing
Stillness and Movement: The mind is either still (just aware, with few thoughts or emotions) or moving (more thoughts, emotions and energy movements). Drawing and painting from awareness of stillness-movement.