Interview With Jampa Dorje

By Bouvard Pécuchet - 4/1/13

I made my way, wearing snowshoes, along the faint traces of a trail in the deep snow to Luminous Peak, the cabin where Jampa is still ensconced after having completed a traditional Tibetan three-year retreat at Tara Mandala Retreat Center, near Pagosa Springs, Colorado, in the San Juan Mountains. He welcomed me with a big smile and a hot cup of tea.

Bouvard: This tea has an interesting flavor. What is it called?

Jampa: Lapsang Souchang. It comes from the Fujian province of China. Smokey, some people say it tastes like boot polish. I have some other choices, if you'd prefer.

Bouvard: No, this is delicious, but don't yogis avoid becoming attached to fine teas?

Jampa: Well, there's no reason for throwing away good tea. Enjoy your tea, and then we'll get down to business.

Bouvard: Do the Tibetans have a tea ceremony like the Japanese?

Jampa: Not that I know of, but they do use tea as an offering, and I have heard that, if there is a limited amount of tea available, the first steeping is called the "nirmanakaya" and the second is the "sambhogakaya" and the third is the "dharmakaya." Each kaya, or dimension, is progressively more rarified, until it is tasteless. (Jampa laughs.)

Bouvard: Can you tell me about your assemblages?

Jampa: Assemblage is a process of making a painting by combining found objects. Assemblage has its roots in collage, and collage has its roots in folk art. Picasso added real newspaper and pieces of a guitar to one of his paintings. Schwitters used found materials. Philip Whalen said, "Kurt Schwitters tore it all into COLOR." Abstract Expressionists, like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg took assemblage to new heights of composition and absurdity. It is not all to be viewed in a serious vein. There is also humor in this work, although some critics see it as "anti-art" or "the end of art." A gallery curator told me that my Cowboy Funk pieces were too dirty to hang on her walls. The outdoors does cling to my combines, which is another name for these objects, and I feel they are akin to environmental artworks.

Bouvard: : Many of your assemblages hang on sheds and fences. I saw a number of these, as I walked towards your cabin. Do you see them primarily as belonging outdoors? You also make collages and boxes, right?

Jampa: Yes, the collages and boxes are made of more delicate materials. They are more intimate. The junk pieces I like to see outside. They highlight an otherwise overlooked structure, and the various objects around old buildings seem to become a part of the assemblage itself.

When I was hanging out with Don Webster, an artist I knew in Aptos, I was sweeping up a bunch of debris into a wooden box, and I decided to pour in some glue. Why not? Of course, it didn't hold together, but it was a start. If you want a combine to hold up under the force of the elements, you have to give some consideration to how you construct it. I often begin by laying the parts I have collected on the ground and leaving them. I rearrange them a few times, taking into account how they fit together, structurally and esthetically, and how I am going to eventually mount them, what wire, nails, screws will be used.

Once I am satisfied with my composition, I start with the background level and begin to build, changing things as necessity dictates, as the materials demand. It never comes out as I planned, but that is half the fun. I do tend to over work my pieces, not to let well-enough alone, to get cute, "to put a bird on it." Literally.

At the gallery I mentioned earlier, where the curator was concerned about the crustiness, the rustiness, the flakiness, I did get three works accepted in a community show and won first, second and third prize in the mixed-media category. I asked the judge, later, why the one piece received third place, and she told me that the little hand-crafted bird I had added to a projecting piece of metal was silly. Maybe so, maybe not; I had added it because I didn't want someone to poke out their eye. There's a bird in Rauschenberg's Canyon. Maybe, if I had spray-painted my bird black, it might have flown.

Bouvard: Where do you find your materials? How do you choose?

Jampa: There's a lot of junk out there to choose from, too much really. I set rules for myself, like I will only pick up pieces of stuff I find along the roadside on my morning walk. Occasionally a piece "presents" itself and goes to complete a work still unfinished. People give me things: "Jampa could use this," they say. Sometimes, I find a huge stash of materials, on a ranch or in a junk pile. I get excited. I want it all; but I settle on pieces that interest me. Another rule is to use things from other projects I'm working on, say, doing some plumbing or fixing a garage door. I may incorporate the broken parts or the left over materials in my art.

When I lived on a ranch near Ellensburg, Washington, there was a mound of junk out in the desert. The guy I worked for had problems, work pressures, girlfriend pressures-he was a man in a mid-life crisis-and he used my shoulder to cry on. We had a good working arrangement, a rent-free house and a monthly salary, but the added "psychologist" part on my days off had not been part of the original deal, and it became oppressive. I continued to do my chores, but I took out my frustration by covering a large shed with junk. This was my first big work. My boss sold the spread, and the man who bought it was going to bulldoze the "Tack Shack," as it was called, but his wife said it was a treasure, that she loved it, and it was saved from destruction. Kind of a happy ending, unlike the fate of the wall in The Horse's Mouth.

The opening scene of Sam Albright's video, The Collage Artist, takes place in front of the Tack Shack. I appear in a black tweed overcoat and fisherman's cap, working on my art. I get in a battered GMC van and drive down 4th Parallel Road towards Ellensburg. Mt. Rainier can be seen above the Manastash Hills, and there's a great shot of a hawk cutting the air in front of the van. The video follows the activity of an artist preparing a retrospective art show. There are three parts: the ranch scene and trip to town; a café scene, shot in the Four Winds with a part that is an interior monologue; and a final, Chaplinesque scene of Chris Shambacher and myself, accompanied by Craig, Chris's three-legged dog, carrying a mysterious box around town. The video was shot just prior to a show I had at Gallery One with Don O'Connor and Bruce McNaughty. If you go to the gallery at my dPress website, you can see photos of this show by Julie Prather.

Bouvard: Jampa, what is the source of your inspiration? What makes you create?

Jampa: Oh, that's harder to describe than how I make my art. You know that I am also a writer. I go back and forth and sometimes combine both mediums. When the poetic muse takes a vacation, I do visual art. They're related activities. In collage, you cut and paste images; in poetry, you take an image from your mind and put it, in the form of a word, on the page. The brain might but the impulse to make art is the same. Both are means of expression, like giving birth to something that wasn't there beforehand, an urge to procreate. There's a time for flirtatious-like curiosity with an idea or image, and then of conception, gestation and delivery-even before I begin to work-then, you have to nurture this baby. The actual making of the poem or collage involves all the trials and hopes and disappointments of getting this baby to grow into a being, but I don't like this analogy much. Maybe the drive to create is something more transcendent, like communing with the Absolute. Or it might be totally mundane, like wanting fame. If you think too much about this, you'd never do it.

Bouvard: What might set you off, be a catalyst?

Jampa: Anything. As Borges points out, everything has its poetry, its beauty, even if you can't see it. A blank page is a formidable thing, perfect in its blankness, but once you make a mark on it, you are committed. The work moves, changes, and you can find yourself lost, weary and confused. Stop. Leave it. Sleep on it. It's easy to botch things. Or, go on. It's your call. Sometimes, from a mess, a masterpiece emerges. I recall Henry Miller's short story, "The Angel Is My Watermark," where an image of an angel appears in his ruined watercolor. After he had tried several ways to save it, he tried scrubbing it in the bathtub; and presto!

Bouvard: There's a question I've wanted to ask someone who is both a creative artist and a meditator. Do you find there to be a conflict between these two activities?

Jampa: I didn't quite finish answering your last question, but I think what I have to say will lead to that, ok?

Bouvard: Of course, go ahead.

Jampa: William Blake described a work of art as consisting of three parts: one part came from myth, a part from the art tradition, and a part from your own genius. It is my view, a work of art also has its source in three locations: in an outside place, an inside place, and a secret place. By the "outside," I mean the context for the work to be done, perhaps a commission or an upcoming show, and this imposes a deadline. This pressure acts as a stimulant. The "inside" is your own personal standards and the methods, the skillful means, you have developed to make art.

For example, my way of writing is described in My Process (dPress, 2002, see Vol. 8 of The Collected Works of Richard Denner). I explain how I write into the book. I use linked text boxes in a computer program to create a book format. The open pages "call out" to be filled; and from here, it is out of my hands. The book becomes an editing process. I print out a copy, sew it up, edit, and print it again, until I am satisfied. There are usually pieces left over, and these start the next book in a series. The "book" is never done. It is done when you put a frame around it and call it done. With my assemblages, I may begin with a frame and fill it. Or, a wall seemingly calls me. I make a few strokes, and the composition begins to expand and take on a life of its own. This is why it's hard for most people to dedicate themselves to art, to live in the moment and give up their structured lifestyle.

Then, there is the "secret" place that is a source for the work of art. I may be inspired by a beautiful woman, or I may find I am writing or making a picture to please a friend. I discovered recently that I wrote many poems to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Spicer. I want to be in that Circle of Hell where Dante put the poets. As Jack once said, "Poetry is a conversation among the dead, and the poets get it second hand." It is in this secret place that strange knowledge comes to the artist, and it is here that meditation is helpful.

Is there a conflict between making art and meditation? My experience is that there is room for both, that they are compatible and enhance each other. Aspects of the creative process are meditative: there is the focus of shamatha, of maintaining a mindful presence in your work; and there is a kind of seeing, or insight, that arises from the vipashyana aspect. It is impossible for the mind to reach complete stillness when making art, especially with writing, where logic and the law of contradictions are in play, yet the mind stream is channeled, directing the flow of energy toward realization of what is really real.

After a session of meditation, where the discursive mind is given rest, I find my creativity enhanced, my hand steadier. The continual search for bliss in visionary fantasy, the god-like power of creativity, the revelatory ecstasy of epiphany are a mistaken direction to pursue, if you want lasting transcendental wisdom. Finally, there is no meditation; all dualistic notions are subsumed under equanimity, in a simple state of awareness.

Blah, blah, blah!

If you have brought your art onto the path, then it is a form of practice, and your view, your practice, and how you carry this out in your life are unified, were always a unity. You need to develop confidence in this. It doesn't mean having a Big Ego. You develop what the Tibetans call Vajra Pride, which also requires you to maintain humility and compassion for others. You don't need to be acknowledge by others. You acknowledge yourself. I could go on, but I think this is a good place to stop.

Bouvard: Thank you, Jampa.

Jampa: You are entirely welcome. Blessings. May the two-fold accomplishments of mine and others be of benefit-no, that's not it-through the two accumulations, may the two-fold benefit of mine and others be accomplished.