“You should sculpt,” he said with a smile. Mischief mixed with laser insight graced his face and beamed through his eyes. My portfolio was being looked at by my guru, Baba Muktananda. And although I'm always wary when someone tells me what I 'should' do, coming from the Guru such expressions take on a deeper dimension beyond words. The work was primarily a collection of oil paintings from my recent studies as an art student, and I had been called to speak with him about a sculpture project being proposed for the ashram grounds. He slowly and deliberately gazed at each image, had some complimentary things to say about the work, and then looked up and uttered those words, “you should sculpt!” Awash in a wave of bliss from simply sitting with him, I smiled and said, “Yes, Baba, whatever work you'd like me to do,” while protests and alarms rumbled through my mind . . .“How can I do this? I’m a painter, not a sculptor!”
Charite After William Bougeureau Oil on linen 46”H x 35”W
One of the paintings Baba viewed was the one you see here, a copy I made of Charite, created originally by the French nineteenth Neoclassical painter Adolphe William Bouguereau. The original was part of the permanent collection at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, where I was completing a degree in Drawing and Painting. I had told my professor in my senior year that I wanted to learn more about classical academic painting, probably because nearly all my other professors insisted that I explore modern art, which I did and was happy to do, but they seemed to be in a ‘Picasso was everything, Rauschenberg is the new king, figurative work is dead’ mind set, so naturally I had to look in the other direction. After all, Picasso had trained as a highly skilled traditional painter before he launched into his more expressive and abstract explorations, and it shows. I wanted to have that same academic grounding and discipline before I ventured into my own pursuits.
Charite perfectly embodied the subjects I was interested in learning - composition, anatomy, drapery, and masterful technique in the oil medium. The museum told me the painting was hanging in the basement storage racks, awaiting some minor restoration. I requested from the museum director that I be allowed to copy the work directly from the original, just as a painting student would do in the era of Bouguereau. With help from my professor, Guy Palazolla, and after a brief meeting with the museum’s head curator, the doors opened wide. Amazingly, I was given direct access to this multimillion dollar painting and a place next to the racks to set up my easel and paints, ready and able to study the work up close. Not only was the painting beautiful, it exuded a rich treasure of craftsmanship, mastery in both technique and form. My task was to see if I could imbibe and duplicate some of those riches.
Actually, at that time I never heard the title Charite associated with this painting. The curators affectionately referred to the painting as The Twins, an informal title. One of the historians relayed the idea that the two babies were Jesus and his brother James in the arms of their mother, The Virgin Mary. Others related the symbolism of the painting to Greek mythology. Someone else suggested the composition had Oriental influences which were popular in French culture at the time, the babies intertwined like a Yin-Yang symbol, opposite yet complimentary, cradled by the Tao, Mother of all things. Over the years, I came to see the work as symbolizing the twins of grace and self effort, cradled by the Goddess, the two ingredients Muktananda taught to be necessary for spiritual life. Safe to say, as with many great paintings, there are several ideas and layers of interpretation to be harvested, intended or not. Yet for the purposes of the project, the meanings within the work were of lesser importance compared to serving as a stellar example of the craft of academic painting. I will say, however, that the painting’s indescribable beauty attracted me the most, and kept me working on it.
Swami 'Baba' Muktananda
I believe I went off on a bit of a tangent . . . Fast forward three years from when I completed The Twins and I am sitting with my Guru, showing him my work. “You should sculpt!” . . which is what I wanted to do in the broader sense, serve him with whatever artistic gifts had been entrusted to me. However, Muktananda was known for taking his devotees in new and challenging directions, and so he did. I did a couple of full size cement statues on the ashram grounds, which was a little like sculpting with soft sacred cow manure. The medium was unwieldy and did not hold detail very well. The first of these sculptures was, of course, The Virgin Mary . . . right up my alley, as Baba well knew. Then followed Martin Luther King and a Shiva Lingham. It was rich, visceral, and engaging work. I even experienced a ‘Michelangelo and the Pope’ moment when I was working on MLK in the late afternoon, alone on the scaffolding. Baba came along walking all by himself, which in itself was unusual, and pointed up to the work gesturing, “is it done yet?” I said firmly, “no, Baba.” Ha! Michelangelo and I were now brothers! . . although his protest to the Pope was the other way around, "I'm a sculptor, not a painter!" Baba smiled and kept walking, and I had a good laugh. After that I didn’t sculpt for many, many years, at least not in clay, not so much ignoring that suggestion from the Guru but simply forgetting it, letting that tantalizing idea roll around in the back of my mind while pursuing other interests . . . until now.
Babaraj Anandamayi Ma
Over thirty years after that encounter with Baba Muktananda, I am sculpting him and other Great Beings and enjoying it immensely, the latest of which is a rendition of Anandamayi Ma, another serene and Divine Mother. So, we could say that the seed Baba planted with a smile all those years ago sprouted in it’s own sweet time . . .
Charite still hangs in the living room of my parents’ home.