Originally printed in the May June 2002 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Kruse, Don. "Coloring in the Lines around My Think." Quest 90.3 (MAY - JUNE 2002):
By Don Kruse
[Artist and teacher Don Kruse has recently donated three of his painting to the permanent collection of the Theosophical Society in America. At our invitation, he writes here about those paintings and about the process of producing them and the meaning of art.]
When artists are asked to discuss their own work, they will often talk about technique and content. Technique is how they "style" their chosen media, shaped by their education and knowledge, personal biases and idiosyncrasies, emotions, psychology, beliefs, and life experiences' in short, all of those determinants that make a unique personality. Craftsmanship is styling that is skillful, disciplined, controlled, and "well and truly made." Art is often contrasted with craft, but I think that most artists want to be considered creative in both craft and artistry. Creativity should not be limited to the artistry side of the work.
Content is the subject matter or what the image is all about a landscape, portrait or still life, for example. The content of art includes many great themes drawn from religion, philosophy, mythology, and other symbolic systems. A society's most profound metaphysical beliefs and attitudes about God, Truth, and Reality are often the greatest concerns of its artists. Content provides meaning to a work of art, whereas technique is the process of expressing that meaning. Because the content or iconography is where meaning resides, it is crucial when the completed form is first imagined in the mind's eye and the creative act occurs. Such considerations as geography, nationality, historical era, and culture influence both content and style. They are some aspects of a work of art that an artist may choose to talk about.
Margaret Mead once asked a young child how she made a picture. The child replied, "I get a think. I draw a line around my think and then color it in." I try to do approximately the same thing'simply, clearly, and honestly. The real distinctions lie in my images or "thinks." How and where did I get them? Are they from nature or from my imagination, maybe even from the world of art itself? What do they signify? I try to communicate to viewers a complex iconography, an esoteric world of Theosophy, Tibetan Buddhism, and Jungian psychology. Does a child care if another person sees the line she has around her think and colored in? My images come from my wandering through museums and galleries, sitting in lectures and seminars, reading books, looking at comic strips and movies . . . and meditating'just being a silent witness. Perhaps both the child and I get our visions from the same place, a most marvelous and wonderful gallery called by the Tibetans the Great Matrix of the Mystery.
The design, composition, or structural putting together of parts to make a harmonious whole can be learned in classes, or to some artists it may come naturally. I taught Graphic Design for many years, so I draw on commercial art as well as art history for the design of my own pictures. I just try to draw what I have seen, as beautifully, elegantly, descriptively, and expressively as a Zen calligrapher would. I try to use a simple pencil as they use their brushes. I think one's personality can be revealed by handwriting. Every slant, loop, pressure, twist, and turn reveals meaning to a trained eye.
For an artist, the marks, lines, dots, dashes, shadings, shadows, and light of drawing reveal the soul. They suggest confidence, sensitivity, depth of understanding, and maturity of spiritual development'or so the Zen sumi brush painters say. After once being given a beautiful set of sumi brushes, I learned that my native tools, pencils, pastels, crayons, and occasionally watercolor are best for my efforts. It's interesting that soft bristle brushes and ink (soft, moist, receptive, feminine) seem to typify the introverted contemplative yin East, while pencils, pastels and steel pens (hard, dry, masculine) may be extroverted Western yang traits. But, of course, I still admire and respect the great variety of materials and techniques used by artists around the world and throughout history.
Having drawn a line around my think, next I color it in. I try to stay between the lines.
Expressing the artist's personality or emotions has been the criteria for measuring much art during the past century. Every nuance of uniqueness, every personal idiosyncrasy, is scrutinized and praised as revealing meaning through the personality and artistic technique. Much of this preoccupation with drawing-room psychology came about after Freud and the birth of modern psychology. This is not a criticism, as I have been deeply influenced by the writing of Carl Jung and his followers. Still, I have chosen to try to move my center of attention from my personality 'or self to my Buddha Nature or Self. Through the practice of yoga, Theosophy, Tibetan Buddhism, Jungian Psychology, and other minor efforts, for over thirty years I have tried to deemphasize my ego inflating obsessions. I don't sign my pictures; I've tried to make them anonymous, free of personality quirks. In short, I try to eliminate anything to brag about, inflate my ego, or cause more hubris.
In "Demon Queller," the central figure is Shoki, the Japanese hero, who strikes a dramatic pose threatening the mischievous demon, Oni. In many Japanese myths, demons are quelled, not killed. They are vanquished and made an ally or an assistant in the hero's continuing struggle to conquer his remaining internal demons, those personality impediments or obstructions that retard or make impossible his psycho-spiritual quest for enlightenment. Below this scene, in a rectangle (the material plane), are a variety of demons. Some are taken from Eskimo drawings'childlike, charming, but still pretty scary, I think. They are hairy, screaming, wild-eyed, and, all things considered, pretty good graphic representations of elemental demons. I was interested in a primitive or fundamentalist's literal depiction of evil (low in the picture, on the physical material plane). Next to these random free-floating images is a shaman's healing trance from the Bushmen of the Kalahari. In a kind of procession or dance, spirits or healing energies come into the top of his head in broken lines of short dashes. Later, enveloped in his trance, he casts out demons and takes in healing forces with the aid of other celebrants.
The picture is constructed in layers, the lowest is the primitive, physical, literal or fundamentalist stage. The middle section with Shoki and Oni is the psychological and mythic level. The highest plane is a triangle separated from the rest of the picture by a loose bouquet of flowers. I use flowers often as a symbol of life energies like the Tree of Life. The angel is, of course, the devic kingdom or the invisible realm of helpers, ancestors, gods, heroes, and all other spiritual forces. Buddhists call those three stages vestures or bodies or incarnations of the Buddha. Nirmanakaya is the physical incarnation. Sambhogakaya is the bliss vesture, the archetypal or mythic body. Dharmakaya is the spirit or Truth realm. Art can reflect or contain by analogy the human condition or constitution: "As above so below". Just as we humans are a reflection of a higher and more complete reality, art stands to us as we stand to God.
If you have good art history recognition, you will have guessed the angel to be taken from Albert Darer's set of woodcuts entitled "The Apocalypse." I often browse my mental file of art, as well as other sources, looking for just the correct character or symbol to tell my myth. The telling of that myth is often a collage of art images that I've collected and rearranged into a new design, altering the color, and binding it all together with drawing.
"Toys" is a rather simple composition, constructed of almost symmetrically stacked toys, three high, like a totem pole. The toys symbolize heaven and earth, with humanity dancing precariously between. Earth is symbolized, as it often is, by a four-legged creature and his rider, in this case the hobbyhorse and uniformed soldier. They rock backward, creating tension and imbalance. You almost want to reach out and help hold them or straighten up the entire column. The puppet in the middle has unseen forces tugging at his arms and leg. Perhaps those invisible influences can maintain balance through humanity's efforts. The top toy is a beautiful little Japanese tin toy. The round drum represents heaven and supports a lovely lady repeating the soldier and his mount at the lower level. Some stability is achieved by the small almost square stage to the left and its puppet performer, Punch, remembered from the very old European street entertainment for children,"Punch and Judy" shows. The picture is just a gentle reminder of how toys, puppets, games, even comic strips influence a child's development with archetypal symbols. Perhaps somewhere in our adult psyche, there may still be a deep identification with and satisfaction from recognizing these images.
I use words and phrases in my pictures for the same reasons that a medieval monk in his small cell or scriptorium wrote out a prayer book or the Bible in calligraphy. The sacredness of language, the magic of the written and spoken word, and the love and admiration of each and every letter became his prayer, as it is mine.
"Suffering Fools" is an attempt at a humorous representation of psychic poisons. In Tibetan Buddhism, three human character flaws are seen to be the core reasons for humanity's constant suffering. The Tibetans call them poisons, each with its own antidote or medicine. The moneylender at the far right represents greed or desire. He seems happy enough with his wealth, but it is never enough'he will soon be craving more. Generosity is his cure. The silly king toward the left, with his passion for power and control, is only a moment away from fierce rage at not being obeyed. Equanimity is his salvation. The foolish clown, between the other two, dances on and on in his ignorance. He doesn't know and doesn't know that he doesn't know. Wisdom is his antidote. On the far left is Punch again, this time being bitten by his own dog because of something really stupid he must have done . . . or not done. All of us must suffer these fools in others and in ourselves.
Ananda Coomaraswamy suggests that "all art is a support for contemplation." He means that art is a meditation tool and that it can inspire an experience of the transcendent. Most artists hope that their pictures provide, at least to some extent, such an experience.
Don Kruse, who has a Bachelor of Science in Education from Indiana University, is Associate Professor of Fine Art Emeritus at Indiana University at Fort Wayne. His paintings draw on mythological images, popular art such as comic strips, and the works of master artists'all blended into a united whole, imbued with inner meaning. Don can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 260-744-5949.