June 3, 2018 Fuego Volcano in Guatemala Erupts
My family and I were in the Hudson Valley of New York enjoying a short vacation the week before Volcan Fuego erupted leaving death and destruction in it’s wake. Hundreds of people were killed and many more lost their homes to a blanket of ash and fire.
Two days before the eruption we traveled down to New Jersey so Rache and the kids could get on a plane back to Guatemala. After dropping them off I returned the rental car and went on to Penn Station in Manhattan to catch a bus to Ithaca for sesshin, a silent zen meditation retreat, for 7 days. I was excited to see my teacher, his family and friends at the Ithaca Zen Center which I hadn’t been to in over 4 years.
The Ithaca Zen Center
I spent two years at the IZC developing my Zen practice and preparing raw vegan food, a practice I had begun in Los Angeles a year before. In the winter the IZC functions as a Zen meditation center, and in the summer it is a health retreat called the Body Mind Restoration Retreat Center. It serves 40 people every 10 days for 4 months. The guests come from all over the world to detox their minds and bodies. It was the best of both worlds for me at that time. Raw food and meditation have been an important part of my life for several years now. And what I learned from meditation I now incorporate into my art as well as all other aspects of my life.
So I finally made it to Ithaca several hours later after a long bus ride through beautiful upstate New York. It was great to be back. The IZC is like a home to me, and I really missed my extended family of Zen buddies and health food afficianados. Fortunately, before sesshin started, I had a couple of days to hang out at the center swimming in the ponds, taking saunas and relaxing with old friends.
Had I known what was about to happen in Guatemala the next day, I certainly would never have left my family and gone on to Ithaca.
A day before sesshin was supposed to start, I was feeling great, refreshed, and excited to begin the meditation. Then I received a call from Rache who sounded exhausted and a little frazzled. First she sent a photo of what appeared to be black hail on the skylight window. Black hail? Never seen that. In Guatemala? Not cold enough. WTF! Rache didn’t even really know what was happening at that moment. Fuego had just erupted but it hadn’t hit the news yet.
The slide out back covered with ash
The kids call our car Charlie. Charlie is pretty ashy.
Keep in mind that our house is about 17km away from Fuego. The homes in the pueblos surrounding the volcano were completely covered and destroyed by burning lava and hot ash. When Fuego is active, we sit on our roof and marvel at the lava as it pours down the side of the mountain. Before, it was beautiful to watch. Post June 3 it is an entirely different feeling.
So now I was pretty scared about the safety of my family. Who knows what could happen? When the volcan erupts it spews hot gas clouds also, and I didn’t really know how far those gasses travel. That’s what had me scared the most.
Rache assured me everything was ok. But actually, Fuego erupted twice in the following days creating more devastation. I wasn’t aware of this, and with Rache’s calming words I went on to start sesshin the next morning. Fortunately Antigua is far enough away from the volcano and everything was ok in our town.
Just before sesshin started I sent Rache a text asking her to collect as much ash as possible. Two years before I made my first ash painting with ash collected from a river basin near Fuego. I just didn’t do anything with it. But now I realized I would make more paintings as soon as I got back.
These kind of things always seem to happen when I’m gone. But this was a big one.
First ash painting done in my previous studio about two years prior.
After a really great sesshin I headed back to NYC; a long rainy day on the Greyhound bus that seemed to take twice as long as the ride there. But I was feeling great, clear, open, and I had just talked to the kids on the phone and knew everything was ok.
I still hadn’t seen the news and had no idea of the devastation Fuego had caused. So I just tried to relax and enjoy the trip. I really love the country side of upstate NY. It’s rare I get to enjoy it, so I just disappered into the landscape.
Back in Guatemala
After getting home I had a great night with my family then crashed hard after all the travel.
The next morning I looked outside and it looked like nothing had happened. Everything was normal. But they did collect 5 huge bags of ash from the cleanup, so I set to work after breakfast.
I spent the day covered in ash, trying to seperate the black powder from the sandier material. I learned a lot of things from the ash. It was speaking to me and I was trying to stay as open as possible to receive its story. Generally when I have a new material to work with, I set aside a day of dedicated focus and energy to build a relationship with that material. It’s intense but exhilarating to work with a new material. There is so much to know and learn. It’s like meeting a new friend or lover.
Developing the Ash Paintings
The first painting I did two years ago came out great, but I had forgotten how I did it. Usually I document in photos and writing the process of letting a piece come into fruition. That time I didn’t. But I do know that I would dust a piece of thick plastic and coat the canvas with clear gesso before flipping the canvas onto the compostion of ash that sat on the plastic. It was quick and gratifying I do remember so I continued that process. But this time I spread the ash out on a 4’x8′ sheet of plywood because that is what I had at that time.
I discovered that if I tapped on the board that was full of ash, the ash would seperate into balls that appeared to lightly ride upon the surface of the plywood. This was an early breakthrough moment with plenty more to come.
Developing techniques to work with the ash…
The basic idea was to get as many interesting patterns, techniques and compostions as quickly as possible without forcing it. Just letting it happen.
It’s like silk screening and I thought of the joy Andy Warhol must have had when he first developed his printing style. There is nothing like that feeling.
Other techniques developed from walking on the ash, laying in it, sweeping it, drawing on it, blowing it…anything that came to me.
Soon I realized I had some methyl cellulose (a type of binder or glue) that my Mother in Law Jan had given me. I think that is more or less a natural product so I replaced the gesso with the methyl cellulose to get the ash to adhere to the surface. The product is neutral and acid free and used for book making. It worked great.
Like the Wipee pieces, I want this work to be as spontaneous as possible. Quickly I create a pattern or compostion with the ash on canvas until it is something I feel I can work with. I don’t let it get away from me because I want the patterns and compositions to emerge naturally. This has to do with how focused and in the moment I am. As soon as I have something I coat a canvas with methyl cellulose to the size that I want it, then carefully lay it over the ash. There is a subtle touch to getting the ash to adhere to the surface. If I press too hard the compostion becomes too heavy and the subtleties are lost. There are several levels within the ash that need to reveal themselves to create a good piece. After I have lightly pressed the surface into the ash, I lift it up and check the image. Done. If it is good, good. If I fail the image, fine. On to the next one. This is now how I like to work. It’s quantity and quality. I need to produce a lot and the rally good ones will occasionally reveal themselves.
This process is similar with the Wipee pieces. I establish a set size and a time limit and work quickly with intense focus towards that end. Like meditation. I don’t want to lose a second of focus. If I reach the time limit, the piece is done and I move on. Sometimes I just disppear into the piece and it reveals itself; I “wake up”! Other times, it is what it is and I decide if it is worth keeping or get rid of it.
Ash Painting Image Gallery:
Reilief efforts have been a challenge, but so many groups and organizations have jumped in to help in their own way. Whether its foodbanks, housing developers and providers, Cleaning up at the scene, searching for lost family members, farming, shelters, the list goes on and on. This type of tragedy can really bring out nature’s potential violence but it also brings out the greatest human qualities as well.
One group (among many) that is really trying to help by providing land and housing to familes that lost their homes. Habitat for Humanity is trying, and may have by now, to provide housing to many displaced familes. I was lucky to be a part of a benefit auction at the Museo National de Arte Moderno “Carlos Merida” that donated the entire proceeds to Habitat for Humanity to buy land and build homes. It was a one night only event where the pieces were paid for on the spot and taken home. I arrived an hour late and many pieces were already gone from the museum, going to generous and dedicated collectors and patrons.
Habitat for Humanity benefit at The Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno “Carlos Merida”
Ash 1 showing at a benefit for Volcan Fuego survivors
Ulitmately the benefit was able to rasie $25,000 and I was happy to make a contribution to the effort. It was an amazing night, and it made me realize that I really liked working this way because its a win for everybody. The collector gets a great piece of art, the artist is able to bring their art to the public as well as donate to a cause, and most importantly the benefit recipient is able to find relief from suffering that comes in far too many forms.
I have shows coming up that will showcase this work. But for now I am donating 20% of the sales from these pieces to Habitat for Humanity.
If you would like to purchase these paintings and help the survivors of the Fuego Volcan eruptions on June 3rd, 2018, they are available directly from me, or you can purchase them online through 1st Dibs and Saatchiart.com.