My Art&Zen Blog

Q&A from Artist Talk with Michael Elliston (Roshi) at Kai Lin Art:

I like to do this spontaneously, but Kai Lin has provided some penetrating questions, and I will try to answer them first, in some detail, as I believe the questions themselves are quite incisive and compelling. Time allowing, we will take questions at the end.

Q.  Your work has evolved tremendously over that past 8 years you’ve been with the gallery. Tell us about your process, what you are trying to say through your abstract color fields and what creating art means to you as an artist.

Thank you, Caitlin, Yukai – but has it really been eight years? Hard to believe…


The evolution we have witnessed flows from the relatively simple formulation of black-and-white sumi ink on paper of the earliest works, through gradual addition of color palette, from monochromatic to polychromatic, amplified by experiment with pigmentation, relative viscosity, placement and movement of the medium on the canvas.

More obvious experiments involve choosing black versus white as the departure field, as in the example of TOTEM and SPACEDREAM #1 and #2. My approach is very scientific I think, but more like jazz improvisation on a chord progression, than like playing classical music from notation, though the results sometimes hit symphonic notes as well.

TOTEM — 49×33 inches — Sumi ink and watercolor on glass and gesso panel

It is natural to start out simple, as in composing a solo for one instrument, then adding voices to fill in the harmonics and supporting movements. Simplicity is a value, but complexity lends richness.

My approach is to work fluid and relatively flat, primarily, balancing the apparently chaotic behavior of the medium with desired outcomes. If you let it go too long, it tends to turn into indistinct puddles. If you interfere too much, you tend to ruin what might have been a great outcome.


What I am trying to say through my art is less important than what IT is trying to say. By balancing the influence I have over the medium with Nature’s natural processes, hopefully something primordial will be expressed. It is like dancing with the watercolor, and as a result I think of it as music for the eyes. The colors are like so many instruments in an orchestra – the woodwinds, strings, brass, tympani, etc. As in musical composition, the more voices you add, the more complex the interaction, and more difficulty in

I would not refer to this work as abstract, as in abstract expressionism, as I am not trying to express some human-scale reality, but more as concrete – expressing the voice of the insentient, the four fundamental elements of earth, water, wind and fire – in the context of space and the thrall of gravity. The results as I see them range from the micro to the macro, capturing basic forms of Nature that we find in all aspects and scales of the Universe surrounding us.


What creating this body of work means to me as an artist is that we do not really create anything, but rearrange the materials we have to work with – paint, medium and materials, etc. The skillful level of combining and controlling that interactive process results in the relative sophistication of a given work.

The art actually exists somewhere between the resultant piece, myself as the artist, and you as the viewer. That is, I see something different when I look at any of these, and you see something different, just as a cow or a porpoise, or an extraterrestrial alien, for that matter. I choose names that I feel will have the least impact on your ability to see with your imagination, not mine.

So I feel that I have the greatest artist in the world working for me. All I have to do is get out of the way. But it turns out to be very difficult. When it is successful, I think I have managed to reveal the natural beauty that is inherent in the pigments and their interaction with the other elemental forces. I also strive to leave no obvious traces of human meddling in the process. These reveal the innate beauty of stains or spills that might have occurred in Nature, given the causes and conditions necessary to generate the images.

Q.  How do you find balance between the two planes ? Is the process iterative ? 


The two planes that comprise the shadowbox – the opaque rear canvas and the transparent lens – are complementary to each other in combining to manifest the final composition. Because I necessarily work backwards on the glass, I never see the final image until I sandwich them together after they dry. Often, both work separately, but not in combination – e.g. the cover plane tends to obscure the background, or one does not quite rise to the level of the other. It is my function as the artist to make the call, and to redo one or the other, or recombine with other pieces. This makes me feel a bit like God, making critical decisions over a microscopic universe.


The process is necessarily iterative, but as Yukai can tell you, it is impossible to fully replicate any process. He has asked me from time to time to do another one like one that sold, and can testify to the results as being a measure of just what degree of control one actually has, in this milieu.

PALEOLITHIC is an example in this show; it was done as a companion piece to LASCAUX, which sold in a prior exhibit. Side-by-side comparisons clearly illustrate the state of the art in terms of iteration in this approach. Scientists are now admitting that absolute verification of any experiment is impossible, for the same reasons. At least no one will ever be able to create a forgery of my work.

PALEOLITHIC — 30×60 inches — sum ink (black and vermillion) on gesso panel and glass
LASCAUX — 71×45 inches — sumi ink (black and vermillion) on gesso panel and glass

 Q. In comparison to your previous show Alchemy, the works of Boundless are smaller and more intimate. Does the scale allow you to experiment with other things in the paintings ?


In consultation with Yukai, we decided to try smaller formats for this part of the gallery. Surprisingly, I found it very difficult to revert to working smaller, though my first experiments in this period were all in miniature form.

Once I started working large-scale, I found the smaller canvases almost claustrophobic. It required that I re-adapt my own perception and approach, like shifting from a telescope surveying the heavens to a microscope exploring the molecular world.

Q. To create this body of work, did you find yourself changing your process in any way in attempt to create something new that we haven’t seen before ? I believe I saw a new painting by you that incorporated 3 planes of glass…


It may not be self-evident, but some of the special effects in these smaller and more recent pieces are the result of experimentation with a broader range of pigments, noting their behavior and reaction to each other. I use no special additives, other than a medium to enhance sheeting, or spreading, on the glass surfaces, which have little porosity. But I definitely and intentionally moved into a much broader palette of more subtle colors and combinations than before.

How far this can go before it reaches a natural limit is one of my current investigations. I have done multiple planes before, but in sculptural pieces, mounted on pedestals. This is the first time I have ventured into multiple planes for wall-hung framed art.


Let me pass these smaller pieces around, so that each of you may experience the intimacy of this scale. Note that by looking at the edge of the inside frame you can detect the three levels – two transparent planes against the background. You may note also that the color palette is constrained in these examples, to achieve a greater cohesion of the levels into one coherent image.


You may note that another new direction has come out of the demand for companion pieces – examples in the show are PURPLE GOLD (Homage to Prince), DANCE IN ROUGE #1&2, and SPACEDREAM #1&2. We would prefer that these be sold and kept together, like a diptych, as they are variations on a color and compositional theme.

DANCE IN ROUGE #1 — 24×33 inches — Sumi ink and watercolor on glass and gesso panel
DANCE IN ROUGE #2 — 24×33 inches — Sumi ink and watercolor on glass and gesso panel

This is another way of extending the metaphor of the musical composition, and could be extended nearly indefinitely, which will be one of my future directions. I would also like to go much larger, to an environmental scale, and deeper, through multiple planes, creating transparent walls that are larger than human scale. Rather like an abstract aquarium, if you will allow the metaphor.

Q.  Can you place yourself in the work ?

I believe I already have, if I understand the question…?

Q. What is the timescale of the artworks creation ?

Anywhere from a week to completion of framing, which is an inherent part of the piece in my work, to months and years. I have literally redone paintings over 2-3 years, as my technical ability increases, and older pieces are not quite up to my new standards.

I can redo any one of the planes, but am archiving older work so that there is a record of the periods of development. I have been doing some form of professional art since I was in college, beginning my master’s thesis in printmaking with Misch Kohn at the Institute of Design, IIT in the 1960s. This work is an extension of those early lithographs. I taught myself to draw at about seven years old, and have been hooked ever since.

Q. What living Artist is constantly on your radar?

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. He does some interesting things, some that even I have problem with (like shattering a Ming vase to make a point). There are a lot of indy film makers and musicians that are compelling as well.

I think of my work as a kind of snapshot of something that is living and in motion, so more related to film than painting as static. This is what I think of it as “music for the eyes,” a phrase coined by Wassily Kandinsky, of Bauhaus fame.

We are planning some stop-action animations of my work that will make visible the process that only I witness at present. I literally spend a lot of time watching the paint dry.

Q. What are you aiming to express through your artworks? What advice can you give to aspiring artists ?

Again, the natural image, through natural processes. I would suggest that aspiring artists spend little or no time striving to achieve a “style” – and more time observing how the medium actually works.

This is a Zen principle, as well as the Bauhaus emphasizes: to approach materials, tools and media from a sensory level, one of sympathetic or empathic openness, rather than trying to impose our will on the work.

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