A PILGRIM’S FUGUE
by Dennis Potter
Dennis Potter is an artist whose work spans an interesting period of thirty-plus years. We sat down with him to talk about his journey as a contemporary artist now working in a traditional craft medium.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from?
I grew up in the Deep South—in Huntsville, northern Alabama—and then lived in San Francisco after earning an MFA in painting at UC Berkeley in 1983. Along the way, I’ve also lived and traveled in Asia, where for ten years I taught art and studied Asian art before returning to the Bay Area in 2012. And just this year I moved back to Huntsville.
So you’ve come full circle?
In more ways than one. It’s certainly been a journey. After thirty years of figurative painting and printmaking I realized I wanted something more, something different. I wanted a new context for making art, and for being an artist. Although I’ve shown my work extensively in San Francisco, Boston, and New York, and have pieces in several public collections, the gallery art world is very contentious and difficult, really frustrating. I was very unsatisfied. I’d been teaching art to support myself and had total freedom in my own work, but it was a trade-off situation. Long story short, I wanted to go beyond myself, get away from my background and training as a painter and printmaker. I had a strong foundation in modernism with expressionist qualities, and I had gotten pretty sick of making figures and narratives, even in abstract formats.
What did you do to get outside of yourself and the art world you had been working in?
Ever since high school, I’ve been fascinated by Buddhism. At a certain point in my life, feelings of emptiness, groundlessness, and detachment began to influence my thinking—I blame the 90s, when I felt overwhelmed by the commercial art market. So I began to seriously study Buddhist art history, and I was surprised to encounter fresh new concepts, mainly about “art” as I knew it as a Westerner. For the Buddhist in Asia, art is not something peculiar in our lives, but integrated with our everyday existence. Asian art forms are highly traditional and familiar, marked by each maker’s particular approach. Individual expression is not the exalted purpose, but rather the development of an exalted form.
This is very much like how it is with the traditional Japanese raku teabowl, a form which began in the 16th century and is still being made, with contemporary variations, even by the same Raku family fifteen generations later.
Yes. Very much so. Objects and forms integrated with everyday life. The word “raku” comes from the place where it began — Juraku, near Kyoto. Juraku was the name for the special clay used to make the teabowls, and the word “raku” has been passed down through the generations as both a family name and a ceramic style. Just think of that: a place, a style, a family name, a patch of clay—one and the same!
What was it like, this new path you took—of seeing art as something woven in with everyday life, of perhaps even seeing your life as a kind of work of art itself?
To me it meant a relief from the dead-end emptiness of self expression, from an insistence on the primacy of the individual ego and the singular self. It meant embracing new depths of being, and being part of a whole, the whole of human awareness. My purpose became one of achieving greater consciousness, and to share that with other sentient beings. For me, this is a finer and more lasting purpose than self expression, though it’s impossible to entirely separate the two sides of that false dichotomy! I am after all a Western man with an art education steeped in the self and its expression. A non-joiner, a dropout, yes—but with such a strong background in modernist process that I must use that practice, not deny it.
That must have been tricky, to throw out the bathwater, but not the baby. How did you go about continuing to make art that was “not art”?
I wanted to at least shift my purpose and practice. Since I was living in Taiwan and studying Asian art, I started by painting images of kimonos, of figures wearing kimonos; I took photos of models in kimonos, wearing geisha or kabuki makeup. These exercises soon seemed appropriated and hollow and I realized I needed to be making objects themselves, that I was no longer interested in the pictorial representations of things. At the same time, I wanted to create things that were abstractions, that is, non-objective. Does that make sense? I wanted to be creating things where the process and materials were more important and evident than their subjective “objectness” or narrative. I wanted, ultimately, to create something not representing something, but actually being something, as physically as possible.
My breakthrough came when I encountered the pilgrim’s robe (called henro hakui) while studying the Shikoku Island Pilgrimage in southern Japan. The Shikoku Pilgrimage (henro) is a very popular and traditional pilgrimage, and involves visiting the island’s eighty-eight temples. The hakui worn during these pilgrimages are simple, over-sized kimonos of handwoven cotton or hemp, and what I noticed right away was how beautifully worn and weathered they were. I saw the hakui as a kind of skin, expressing the pilgrimage experience, tattooed with wood-block printed stamps identifying each temple visited and inscribed with sutras by the temple monks in Sanskrit or Chinese. The hakui I saw were stained and faded because many pilgrims wear the same hakui for years on repeated pilgrimages. When a hakui bears all eighty-eight temple stamps, it is mounted and framed and proudly hung on your wall at home. Also, traditionally, if you die while on the trail, your hakui becomes your burial shroud.
Pilgrimage garment variations, a progression in paper and fabric
All of this was a revelation for me: here was an object that was also a living canvas, whose ultimate meanings were fluid and lasting, real and abstract, everyday and otherworldly. I wanted to do something with these fascinating relationships, and I went to work, happily obsessed.
And so your own art pilgrimage began?
Haha–yes! Although initially, as I copied the hakui form and borrowed Chinese and Sanskrit characters, the work was not fulfilling. So I began using Western style imagery along with English text, transfers prints, collage. Then I began making the hakui in paper, which was better. The shift in material separated my objects from the original, and my hakui became something new. It wasn’t long before I began making the paper myself in order to construct more abstracted hakui and garments relating to the pilgrimage.
When looking at your body of work, we see, over and over, a kind of continuous construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction process going on. For example, in your weavings, it can begin as a way to make a solid piece of fabric, but then it loosens up to become a grid with tiny spaces, which then open up into holes, which then get reintegrated as drawn or torn circles on a solid fabric again. And sometimes the linear grids and weaves in your pieces can suggest a loom, itself a constructed object from which weavings originate, and once again we come full circle, from material to object to material.
Yes, this way of working is like making multiple pilgrimages, like circling an island eighty-eight times. It’s the same journey, over and over, but each time it’s new. In the beginning, I was searching for a universal form with historic, time-tested meaning that could stand on its own, as both Western abstraction and Eastern philosophy, and once I started to tap that vein, I found my way. First was the hakui or pilgrimage kimono, a worn, bruised but beautiful skin of actual pilgrim experience. Then I went deeper and found the mandala, a cosmic map of the universe, depicted in the form of circles within squares. The gridded, embedded squares embody secure belief, while the circles imply constancy of change. A mandala shows “the way,” how to detach from earthly experience to achieve enlightenment.
Circles within squares within circles: embedded mandalas in paper and fabric
The very structure of a mandala seems to be embedded in your weavings and constructions, layerings of linear grids and circular holes.
That’s true. I find this approach endlessly fascinating and useable if you remove the absurd paranoia about cultural appropriation. Did you know that even ancient pagodas are mandalas, circles inside repeated squares, with a central pole—the “Tree of Life”—physically detached from the structure but holding it stable even in earthquakes? Pagodas are very early versions of today’s quake-proof buildings. Anyway, I later discovered the kesa, a Buddhist priest robe that developed in the Edo period as a way for temple goers to give costly gifts to monks who were forbidden to acquire wealth of any kind. In an oddly Japanese approach, they would work gorgeous fabrics into simple robes, pieced like quilts, and therefore considered without value. This lack of value, even in something gorgeously constructed, became another useful model for me. I had collected quilts for thirty years but never considered my fabric constructions as quilts until I made kesa and—voila, I saw I was making quilts, in another context. Later on, I began to dye my own found fabric scraps and turned to making thangka, devotional images, sometimes as paintings, sometimes as pieced fabric. Thangkas are usually hung on walls—a bit unusual for Asian art objects but probably the object most like Western art in form and use. Thangkas are seen as living gods, and always employ the mandala as a central structure.
It seems as though your work keeps getting “reborn”—or finding its way—by following these archetypal forms and structures.
I’m really trying to structure materials in an honest, rough, handmade process. I’m trying to get to a truthful, fundamental way of creating objects that can be universally read, visually, beyond their context. Along the way I find materials in nature—or even man-made, salvaged materials like orange plastic snow fencing or mattress webbing—and process them in a minimal, primitive way for my own use. The result is sometimes ancient in appearance, sometimes more Pop, almost. And while my work may have an Asian look, it’s no more Asian than modernist minimalism. If there’s a thought or a meditation there, I want it to arise out of the object itself, regardless of style or form.
It’s interesting how you put together materials that become everyday objects, and in turn you also use everyday objects that become your material.
This is the heart of the matter; how to make something that arrives at being purely itself, not a mere container for “something else.” It’s a paradoxical kind of emptiness, a journey or process of becoming wholly, singularly oneself and yet connected—materially, spiritually—to everything else. The simplest description of this kind of emptiness in Buddhist teachings is this passage:
This is because that is. A flower cannot exist by itself alone. To be can only mean to inter-be. To be by oneself alone is impossible. Everything else is present in the flower; the only thing the flower is empty of is itself.
In other words, the thing is itself, nothing more or less. I always hope that the simple accretion of materials in a woven or sewn process suggests that’s all there is, in some evocative way that might lead to growing awareness.
And where are you now, on your “pilgrimage”?
I consider the most important part of my work is to bring together a philosophy of being with physical materials and processes. I also like that my work can be appreciated as a crossover from craft to art or art to craft.
While living in San Francisco all those years ago, I escaped the violence of growing up gay in Alabama and found freedom of identity. It was glorious—though dangerous and scary as AIDS entered the picture—and I loved it deeply. It is gone now, that San Francisco, and I’ve retired to a more affordable, easier life. Huntsville is an odd place, sophisticated if conservative, with high levels of education, art appreciation, and quirky genius mixed with the gritty reality of the South. A hybrid place, as I am a hybrid, reconstructed creature. As we all are.
These days, I don’t consider myself a fiber artist per se, though I value and love the explosion of fiber works which have become an important part of the art world’s mix of media in recent years. It’s an explosion, a freedom, but it can also be a liability, giving birth to a kind of pointless, commercialized diversity in the current art market.
Being a male who works in fiber—I don’t think about it. I’m not a joiner, never have been, I just search for good artists who get it, who understand what I do and what I am as they are searching. I’ve always done things women do, I’m a feminist, a kitchen artist, finding materials at home and in grocery stores, hardware stores, junk stores.
My recent paper and fabric constructions came after a ten-year hiatus from any showing at all, after a period of almost “making it” in the commercial and competitive gallery world of the 90s that turned me off. Now I’m making and showing again as I please—at local venues, in national juried shows, and within the big circle of my hometown of Huntsville, which, personally, is the most satisfying. Soon I will have a studio at Lowe Mill, a huge historic factory building that is now a major arts center. You might look it up. It’s wonderful.
Dennis Potter has been a painter, printmaker, and fiber artist for more than forty years. He grew up in the deep South and has lived in the Bay Area since earning an MFA from the University of California at Berkeley in 1983. His work has been shown extensively in San Francisco, Boston, and New York. For the past ten years his work has been focused on a Buddhist conceptual model, and in 2016 Lowe Mill presented “Holes,” an extensive showing of his work. Lowe Mill is a historic mill building which has been redeveloped into artist studios, galleries, and performance venues, and is now the largest privately owned arts facility in the United States.
1. Measure. Painted and woven, sewn web straps, fabric, ribbon. 46 x 54″ (2016)
2. Indigo Weave. Dyed, woven and sewn straps, leather, paper, interfacing. 42 x 52″ (2016)
3. Enzo Thangka. Painted and woven, sewn web straps, ribbon, fabric. 40 x 34″ (2016)
4. Indigo Thangka. Antique and vintage Japanese indigo Boro, pieced, sewn, layered, pierced. 40 x 34″ (2016)
5. Cha Wan Thangka. Pieced and sewn found fabrics, ribbon, screen, net. 40 x 36″ (2014)
6. Black Enzo. Painted and woven, sewn web straps, belts, ribbon, braid, fabric. 42 x 36″ (2016)
7. Inked Kimo. Inked and woven, sewn web straps, ribbon, fabric. 60 x 48″ (2016)
8. Black Mendicant Kimo. Woven, sewn web straps, belts, braid, fabric. 54 x 48″ (2016)
9. Oni Camo Hoody. Woven and sewn web straps, braid, ribbon, fabric. 74 x 50″ (2016)
10. Cold Mountain Hakui. Ink-painted sewn and woven paper strips. 74 x 38″ (2016)
11. Hole Thangka. Woven, sewn web straps, ribbon, lace, cord, fabrics, screen. 54 x 48″ (2016)