Interviewsand Articles


Transcendental Vision in Sand City

by Richard Whittaker, May 11, 2012




"This an exhibit you might be interested in" the email read - Transcendental Vision. And there was something else I noticed, too. The exhibit would take place in Sand City.
     Sand City?
     As I paused to take all this in, the metaphorical possibilities were irresistible. Memories of “Ozymandias” peeked out of the shadows. "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! - round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.” And another memory came up, the film Woman in the Dunes. I recalled a dream-like world of sand where the wind never ceased blowing. Sand drifted relentlessly across walkways, under doors and through window cracks… .
     The note carried me into unexpected realms.

There really is a Sand City [Sand City, California].
I'd seen the exit sign many times over the years on my way to Monterey. Those last few miles along the coast highway before reaching Monterey, sand dunes - small mountains of them - accompany drivers, and that exit sign for Sand City never failed to cast its spell. Still, I’d never taken the off-ramp to investigate the place.
     So instead of scrolling past the invitation, I took a closer look. The full title of the exhibit was Transcendental Vision - Japanese Culture and Contemporary Art. A pdf of the exhibit catalog was attached with this quote: “Things are not nearly so comprehensible and sayable as we are generally made to believe - Letters to a Young Poet.”
     "It’s hard to go wrong with Rilke," I thought.
     Then came a short text from Craig Hubler—chairman of the Sand City Arts Commission.
     Sand City had an arts commission?
     The more I read the more my interest grew. Further along, I came to the words breathing silence. Wow. And then, “artists who have transcended the ancient East-West divide express a vision of spirituality and the sacredness of everyday things.” In spite of an immediate question about the likelihood of any exhibit pulling off such a sublime vision, just the mention of it was exciting.
     I looked through the entire catalog and ended up sending Gail Enns, the show’s curator, a note of appreciation. To her question, why didn’t I come down for the opening? (a drive of 100 miles), I wrote, “I will - if schedule permits. But it’s a long shot.”
How Things Sometimes Add Up
Thanks to other events, it happened that I'd met an intriguing man, Ron Nakasone. I’d first heard of him a year or two earlier while talking with Carin Jacobs who, at that time, was the director of CARE - the Center for Art, Religion and Education at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She had an idea for an event. I would moderate a conversation between an artist and a GTU faculty member. The aim would be to explore areas of overlap between the artist’s work and the theological interests of the faculty member. Ron Nakasone might be a good faculty choice, she suggested. Ron knew a lot about Asian art and was an artist himself.
     I loved the idea, but time passed and nothing developed.
     Then, one evening I found myself giving the Reverend Heng Sure, abbot of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, a ride home from a talk he’d given. Heng Sure was someone I’d mentioned to Jacobs in relation to her proposal. He'd taught at the GTU. Before taking up the robes of a Buddhist monk, he'd been a folksinger. Now his songs carried Buddhist messages. He was also a puppeteer with a knack for improvisation. So I mentioned Jacobs’ idea to Heng Sure.
     He was game. Then he told me there was another person I should talk to: Ron Nakasone. It turned out that Ron had been Heng Sure’s PhD advisor earlier at the GTU. Small world!
     Heng Sure added that not only was Ron a master of large-brush calligraphy, he was also a Buddhist priest. He taught at Stanford, too. Would I like an email introduction?
     I would. 
     Nothing ever did materialize with Jacobs' proposal. But it did lead to my meeting Nakasone. One morning I found myself having coffee with him. He put me at ease right away and, at some point in our conversation, I remembered a phrase I'd heard connected with Buddhism - pure land. I couldn't recall where I'd heard it, but the simple phrase had a quiet, almost magical effect on me.
     I'd pondered this. And suddenly, I wondered what Dr. Nakasone might say about this phrase. As I tried to describe the elusive feeling the idea of pure land as a Buddhist concept conjured for me, I felt my words falling flat. Some things are not sayable, I thought.
     But Dr. Nakasone listened attentively. Then he said, “That’s what the Buddhist path I follow is called: Pure Land Buddhism.”
     This was so unexpected it completely stopped me. After a pause, I asked, "Where do you think that phrase came from?"
     "I don't know," he said. "You've heard of advertising, haven't you?" He laughed. "You know, maybe they were just trying to trick some young men into trying the teaching out."
     His response couldn't have been more unexpected. Who is this guy? I thought. I liked him. And the mixed effect his words had on me was as interesting as the phrase itself.
     A few days after our conversation, Dr. Nakasone sent me a draft of an introduction to a book he was working on. It was about the topography of Huayan (Pure Land) Buddhist thought. One sentence stood out:  Cartographers face many of the same challenges of philosophers, researchers, artists, scientists, ascetics, spiritualists, and anyone who tries to explain and make intelligible his or her discoveries, thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
     Indeed. How does one make intelligible to others certain moments of realization, or of seeing—or what this "pure land" could be?
     As we’d talked over coffee that morning, he explained this was certainly a way of thinking about one of the most important things an artist might try to do—that is, map an elusive, but vital inner experience.
     "Yes," I thought. Yes.
A Small Question about Consciousness
Things are always going on below our awareness. When the conjunction dawned on me: Ron Nakasone /Japanese culture / contemporary art - and the Sand City part, it was also clear that I hadn't arranged any of it. Hmmm...  Interesting.

I thought I might drive down to Sand City, but the date came and went. Then, a couple of days later, it occurred to me I could still go down there, and I sent Gail Enns another note.
     “Even better!” she wrote back. "I'll show you the exhibit and Patrick Frank is coming up from Los Angeles. We could all have dinner afterwards!” 
Evidence of Something...
    “There were a thousand people at the opening,” Gail told me. "And every day, people just kept coming in. Fifty, sixty. Amazing.” Later, I got a note from one of the artists, Jerry Takigawa, who said there were more than a thousand people at the opening. 
     Fifty or sixty people a day coming into almost any fine arts gallery in the country on a non-opening, non artist-talk, non-anything day, would be unusual. And this happened in a tiny place tucked in between Monterey and Seaside. If you include neighboring Pacific Grove and Carmel, the population base to draw from is only about 75,000. In short, the response to the exhibit was remarkable. Was that something worth pondering? Maybe so.

Sand City Incorporated
“Very pleased to meet you,” Craig Hubler said as we shook hands. 
     Finding the exhibit at 600 Ortiz Blvd. had been a little tricky. As I took the exit for Sand City, I figured I’d be able to find the place without worrying about street names. All of Sand City, I'd read, covered only forty acres. "Impossible," I thought. And checking on it, I found its area is well under one square mile.
     There must have been some drinking involved among the city fathers when they came up with its name. And high spirits.
     Most of the little streets were laid out in a grid tilted diagonally between Del Monte Blvd. to the east and Highway 1 to the west. Several of these streets terminate at dunes where sand creeps over the curbs. All of it was built on the grounds of an old sand-mining company. “Sand-shoveling” might be more accurate.
     Today the place consists of a few big-box stores mixed in with little-box stores with a few houses sandwiched in here and there along with some small industry thrown into the mix - and sand, of course. It's a little bit of sprawl that edged north from Monterey.    
     But having ignored the place’s street names, I found myself lost in a little maze. Which struck the right note, in a way. But before long I did find my way to the exhibit. It occupied the spacious ground floor of a newish commercial building.
     Walking in, I spotted Gail Enns. She introduced me to Craig. I soon learned he was also a Sand City city councilman.
     “This place has a city council? I asked. “You mean, Sand City is actually incorporated?”
     It is.
     Three hundred people live in Sand City, Craig explained. There was a mayor, a police force and four city councilmen. “And counting the mayor, three of us are professional artists!” Craig added cheerfully.
     I let the phrase “professional artist” pass. (What exactly is a professional artist?) Instead, I found myself trying to fit what I'd just heard into some possible version of reality. (Later I actually saw the Sand City Police Department building with a couple of police cars parked in front.) And the part about the city council having majority of artists, including the mayor—what would that be like?
     The silence that followed in the wake of Hubler's statement begged for at least a bon mot. But for the life of me I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
     So Gail made a move, “But the city still doesn’t give much money to the arts!”
     "Well, done!" I thought with an inner fist-pump.
     Her comment was received with nods all around. Just the way it is. By then, Patrick had joined us and we all chatted before I wandered off to get a look at the actual exhibit.
What Is Seen? What Is Heard?
What was it about the exhibit that had touched people, had drawn so many to it? I was reminded of Agnes Martin who wrote, “You have no idea how sensitive people are.” Of course, the opposite seems just as true.
     Many in the local Japanese American community had turned out for the exhibit. What currents had lain silent in that community just waiting for a measure of honorable recognition? Tom Graves’ sensitive black and white portraits of Japanese Americans who fought for the U.S. during WWll, must have played a part. His photos were an adjunct to the work of the twelve artists included in the exhibit catalog. They reminded me how powerful a photograph can be. In them something essential is revealed about Graves himself - because what does it take to create the space that allows a person to come out really appear when a camera is being pointed at them?
Logos Schmogos
     As Gail, her husband John, Patrick and I were having dinner that evening, we tried to account for the astonishing turnout. Gail pointed out that the show had been well advertised. All the local papers covered it, she said, adding,“We even had our own logo!”
     I imagine the Carmel/Monterey area as a place for tourist art. But could the echo of Robinson Jeffers, Edward Weston and John Steinbeck still resonate there? For years, Ansel Adams’ Friends of Photography had been located in Carmel and had attracted many of the country’s best photographers. Pacific Grove’s art center was having some good exhibits, too. Perhaps they still are.
     Pondering all this brought back a memory.
     I’d gone into a bar - in Carmel, probably - and had fallen into conversation with a well-oiled man sitting next to me. When he discovered I had an interest in the arts, he became expansive. “You know those paintings of children with the big eyes?” I nodded. “The artist’s name is Walter Keane. Have you heard of him?”
     I had. And I’d seen the paintings. In those days who hadn’t?
     “I didn’t get your name,” the man said, sticking out his hand.
     “Richard, and yours?” I asked.
     “Walter Keane.”
     Walter was juiced and badly needed some strokes.
     Not so easy, I guess, having had fifteen minutes of fame.
     But Enn's exhibit was something else, and fame played no part in it. The work on display in Transcendental Vision was quiet, thoughtful, often contemplative and required attention. It was not the kind of art that had made Walter Keane and his wife, Margaret, so successful for a while.

That evening while the four of us were having dinner, Patrick asked, “Did you see Madonna?” He laughed.
     I hadn’t seen the Superbowl. Or the half-time show. Although someone had described the spectacle. Madonna had been wrapped in smoke and light and rode high up on a chariot thing - like some western version of a Hindu goddess’s temple-car - pulled around the football field by dozens of bare-chested men. There was an elaborate dance number performed on this outsized contraption, I was told.
     Something like a hundred million people had watched. And with YouTube maybe millions more would watch. None of us felt like getting into a twist about it. It is what it is. Spectacle is the name of the game. And what’s the game, exactly?
     “I love this work!” Enns, said, bringing us back to her exhibit.
     “What do you love about it?” I asked, curious to hear what she might say.
     She thought for a little while and said, “It’s honest.”
What Is Art For?
That was the bold title of an exhibit at the Oakland Museum in 1999 curated by William T. Wily and his wife Mary Hull Webster. Even bolder was that the question was posed without a hint of irony. That took some chutzpah.
     While I was walking around looking at the work in the Sand City exhibit, one of the artists happened to come in, Jerry Takigawa. It turned out he was also the catalog and logo designer, and the only artist in the exhibit I had the pleasure of meeting.
     I hadn’t paid careful attention to his large color photos, but after a congenial conversation with him, I took another look. The color in his photos came from bits of plastic carried from the massive gyre of plastic waste—maybe 100 million tons of it—slowly rotating in the Pacific Ocean. The bits of plastic he'd photographed had been retrieved from the stomachs of dead seabirds, or could have been. According to marine biologist Dr. Jennifer Lavers, more than eight million pieces of plastic enter our oceans each day, and each day more than 200 seabird species mistake these pieces of floating plastic for food. It becomes trapped in their stomachs. They die.
     One’s attitude toward the pleasing look of Takigawa’s photos shifts once this is known. His aim, he wrote, “is to cause the viewer to recognize the importance of beauty as well as our ultimate interdependence with one another.”
     Yes—and how does one wake up to that?

This is a question that’s more than just difficult to answer. But surely it’s still worth asking. Maybe in a time of spectacle, certain quiet voices can take one on an unexpected journey - and Takigawa is not the only photographer trying to raise awareness about the brutal toll plastic waste in our oceans is taking on sea birds - and other marine life.
     How the work of the twelve artists included in the exhibit reflected the influence of Japanese aesthetics, I couldn't say. I can say that the work of each artist quietly cast a different light. Half were Japanese, or Japanese-American. And potter Rob Barnard spent years in Japan working under the guidance of master potter Kazuo Yagi.
     Maybe a better question would be what are the sources of transcendental vision? Thinking about it, another phrase came to mind—one I found in Dr. Nakasone's writing: dependent co-arising.
     It’s not a bad phrase to bring up in the context of Enns’ exhibit. Looking at the work of these artists, it’s easy to imagine some kind of common, if unseen, ground from which the work emerges. How exactly this is identified is another question. And today, where can such quiet voices be found and heard?
     All and all, there was a rare poetry in the connections that unfolded from that little email invitation, and in my journey to a city built on sand - something precious beyond words.
After the exhibit, Jerry Takigawa wrote, “It was the comment of one visitor that brought the whole purpose of the exhibition into sharp focus. A middle-aged Japanese woman was quietly crying in the presence of the artwork. Gail approached her and asked if she was okay. The woman said she felt that this was the most healing exhibit she had ever seen—in either Japan or America.”
The artists: Sharron Antholt. Rob Bernard. Laurel Farrin. Mary Annella Frank. Tamiko Kawata. Grace Munakata. Tom Nakashima. Lisa Soloman. Masako Takahashi. Jerry Takigawa. Mark Tanous. Sandy Yagyu. Tom Graves.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.                  


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