How can art be used in service of a mission, toward a meaningful purpose? That’s the question I was set to address in a summer internship as part of my Master of Fine Arts program at California Institute of Integral Studies. I strongly believe that stories can be healing and lead us toward wholeness. My internship for Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico was a chance to put my beliefs into practice. Could I make something both beautiful and useful that wove teachings from their programs into a semblance of a story narrative that would be meditative and immersive?
At the end of the summer, I did a Q & A about my experience for my program’s blog on medium.com. I share it here for anyone who may have missed it there.
How did this project come about?
This project, which I call Contemplative Pause, arose initially because I wanted to dive more deeply into teachings from a year-long program I participated in at Upaya Zen Center. A group of 300 of us from around the world—representing a variety of religious and spiritual perspectives, not just Buddhism—met twice a month to consider how Buddhist wisdom can be used as fuel for action to make a positive difference in the world. As a service-offering culminating my year in the program, I produced a short, experimental documentary film telling the stories of nurses who provided frontline care for Covid-19 patients in the beginning of the pandemic. My first year of the MFA program coincided with this project. Our interdisciplinary arts workshops that year became an invaluable space for me to receive creative ideas and feedback from classmates and professors.
I wanted to build on the techniques I crafted in that project of creating multi-layered, abstracted visuals designed to focus the viewer deeply on the emotional tenor of the audio narrative. I did not want viewers to simply hear the nurses’ stories; I wanted viewers to have a visceral and bodily experience of their narratives. My question for this project was how might I use those same techniques to create an artful and meaningful contemplative experience from the raw material of over 30 talks given by a wide variety of teachers in Upaya’s program. Further, I wanted to explore how I might use the internship in our MFA curriculum to make art in service to an organization whose mission I admire. I was fortunate that Upaya Zen Center was open to the idea of having me use my internship to create such a project for them.
How did the internship and mentorship classes play a part in your process?
My intention with my summer mentorship with filmmaker and CIIS adjunct professor George Reyes was to expand my visual vocabulary and film techniques. George and I came up with a plan for me to produce short film experiments for our weekly meetings in which I would play with the interaction between sound, silence, voice, music, and visual imagery. I focused in these experiments on how I could use each element in concert with the others to encourage the viewer into deep reflection on the content. At the same time, I was sifting through approximately 50 hours of audio of the Upaya talks looking for short clips that could stand alone as powerful teachings without need for lengthy context. At first it was simply a matter of expedience to use the raw material from my internship project as the basis as the basis for my weekly film experiments in my mentorship. But very quickly I saw that the film results had even more potential for creating an immersive, reflective experience for viewers than the audio-only format I had originally envisioned for my internship project. The internship and mentorship ended up working together very synergistically, which had great benefits for my growth as an artist and the quality of the final project I produced for my internship.
How does this project fit in the context of your larger goals for your art?
The contemplative film series gave me extensive opportunities to test, experiment, and refine my visual techniques for illustrating narratives without relying on the standard “talking head” shots that are more typical of documentary film. I ended up with many experimental clips that never made it into the final project, which now gives me a library of visual ideas to draw from for future projects. At the encouragement of my mentor, I also began to research findings in psychology and neurology about how the brain receives and interprets visual and auditory information. I was fortunate to have access within the CIIS community to immediate resources to acquaint me with such research. Dr. Christine Brooks, a faculty member in the Expressive Arts Therapy Program within the School of Professional Psychology and Heath, graciously gave me an overview of the field and helped me situate my research in the most helpful context for my work. I am excited about the possibilities for insights from such research to help augment the intuitive approaches I am already using.
What’s your next project?
Next for me is a short documentary film in the same immersive, experiential style of my previous two projects. In this film, I will focus on a small group of American Zen Buddhist teachers who hold the master designation known as Roshi. Specifically, I want to highlight the experiences of women who were among the first of their gender to serve in this role. This film is part of an inquiry of mine that began with the nurses project to examine how individual stories can be combined to create a collective narrative in a way that respects the uniqueness of each individual’s story and also highlights the collective threads throughout them all.