I’m laptopping you from a persimmon grove in a corner of an extensive archaeological site known as “The Terracotta Warriors.” Thousands of (mostly Chinese) tourists are grabbing souvenirs and thronging into an arena-sized building known as Pit No. 1. Over 6,000 life-sized figures are in there — only a third excavated so far. Qin Shi Huang (259BC – 210BC), the first Emperor of China, employed and enslaved more than 700,000 workers here. Together with his nearby mausoleum, craftsmen took 35 years to ensure his immortality.
The warriors and their horses were fired from local clay in a complex process of casting, sculpting and layering. The detachable heads were finely finished and everything was originally painted in lifelike colour. Face to face with these 2200-year-olds, I see they’re alternately serious, eager, philosophic, amused, tense, or lost in thought. Lots of personality is revealed, but no apparent theatrics in these faces — immortality, even then, was a serious business.
Scholars speculate a wide range of potters and other workers were employed — some perhaps ceramic workers from the court who may have been familiar with popular soldiers and generals. In a way, though, the faces are unitized. Roundish chins and noses are the norm and moustaches are pretty well consistent. Some of the types are rough and ready, while others look positively intellectual. It’s all very spooky — these guys seem ready to jump into action.
Looking for evidence of personal style, researchers have found the signatures of more than 80 individual sculptors. Craftsmen and artists, even though they might happen to be slaves in those days, were held in high respect.
All this effort and all these soldiers were supposed to take Qin safely through his eternal afterlife. Maybe they did. But looking now through the veil of time and the fragility of human nature, it’s also possible that only the art is immortal.
PS: “In Chinese history, almost all emperors paid attention to two things. One was to try all means of gaining immortality, and, failing this, to at least build a grand mausoleum.” (Wu Xiaocong, Archaeologist)
Esoterica: What can we learn from Qin’s vision? (1) We artists need to make our art as permanent as possible. (2) Even though we may be part of a great crowd, we need our art to have individual personality. (3) If what we make turns out to be half decent, people will eventually show up to take a look. (4) Someone will always be around to make cheap imitations.
When Qin died at age fifty, he’d consolidated China into one large state. He also standardized the currency, modernized the language, unified weights and measures and got a good start on the Great Wall. He was also a mean one. “Everything will be dictated,” he announced at the beginning of his rule. Minor offences were to receive various ghastly versions of the death penalty. Delivered finally to his underground mausoleum, even his spare concubines were buried with him — alive. On the other hand, he was, as they say, a great supporter of the arts.
Post-post modern installation for the ages
by Mike Young, Oakville, ON, Canada
Working in stone does give us sculptors the edge in the immortality stakes — for good or bad. I have speculated on how a work of mine, dug up by an advanced — or returned to primitive — civilization, say 4000 years hence, will view their abstract “find.” A fertility symbol? A Shaman’s altar piece? Part of a larger, lost mechanism? Who was the artist, and why did he make it? The list of speculative possibilities goes on and on. Hey, maybe I’ll throw a few assorted pieces into a bog somewhere as a post-post modern installation for the ages.
Similarities spark speculation
by Jackie Knott, Fischer, TX, USA
I’m so pleased you are visiting China, especially Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors. We visited in 2010 and it was a memorable trip. Interesting how we don’t recall the emperor’s name without Google’s help but everyone knows of the Warriors; as you say the art is immortal. The enclosed photo was taken at the National Museum in Beijing. When I saw this pottery I literally broke stride and stared. The caption stated it was carbon dated to 10,000 years old and the similarities of this grouping and others, to Southwest U.S. design pottery cannot be mistaken. There is speculation that some Native American tribes could be related to early Asian explorers. There is no archeological proof of that and I deeply wish that theory would be investigated. Further is a painting I did of a Navajo woman. I can assure you the likeness is exact.
Note the lidded eyes, flat nose, and complexion… put this lady in appropriate costume and you just might assign her to a province in China.
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by Alev Guvenir, Istanbul, Turkey
Artists communicate through vibrant energy. This energy is an imprint of the Universe. Art, definitely, is immortal. But what about the artist? Whether famous or unknown, the artist no doubt achieves immortality through his or her work. “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.” (Richard Bach)
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Hidden caves and longevity
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
As for “immortality,” there is no such thing. At best, one can leave a message, some bit of communication that may have an incredible endurance. The Chauvet Caves in France seem to hold the record for human communication across 35,000 years. The secret of that longevity is that the cave opening collapsed, and no one saw that communication for thousands of years. For any artist seeking “immortality,” I would suggest sculpture in granite that is buried deeply under a concrete slab and far away from a subduction zone. My interest in traditional art media is that it has proved trustworthy over hundreds of years. I am thinking about making my own cave, painting it, and having it sealed up and hidden.
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Thrilling trip to China
by Donna Veeder, Utica, NY, USA
I went to see the Terracotta Warriors in 1986. That was also when the Beijing Airport was not much larger than a local bus station. It was my first and most thrilling trip abroad. We watched shepherds leading their sheep through the neatly planted trees toward home and old men playing a gambling game under sparse streetlights. I am so glad I saw China before Beijing began to look like Las Vegas. There were hutongs (narrow streets and alleys) under our windows–we could see into them from the school where I stayed. We took a train ride out into the western desert as far west as Dun Huang, after visiting Xian, at the other end of the Great Wall. Trains were comfortable, the windows opened and we could talk or trade with the people at stations for food or souvenirs. Everyone wanted to talk to us on the train and practice their English. Artists were treated like special people! What a change from home. We were respected. I came home and built myself a studio.
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Two parts of immortality
by Pat Merriman, NC, USA
I have an inventory and, reaching into my late seventies, I realize that I need to consider the “What if” and “When I die.” So I am creating a codicil to my will that will include my collections of art as well as my own inventory. (In my professional and current life I’ve been a volunteer in the cancer and integrative medicine field.) I have asked two artists to be curators, and with my chosen cancer nonprofit to be event specialists… stage a bang up sale, memorial, jazz dance etc., with the funds going to the cancer center. It should be done within about 6 weeks of my death. I would love to hear what others have to say on the subject. Immortality is that my art carries on for the purchasers but contributes to the essence of my lifelong work with cancer.
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A deep understanding of art
by Catherine C. Reed, Ukiah, CA, USA
For many years I taught science classes, studied science and completed advanced degrees, yet I never had a true and deep understanding of science until I engaged in research at a large university. The knowledge and focus I gained from observing and working with experts at the cutting edges of their fields made me think about and practice science in a far more intense and intimate way.
Now I’m retired from that work. Time is short. How can I develop a true understanding of what art is and how to practice it? I make art quilts and strange crocheted objects. Any suggestions you and your readers can give me on developing a deep understanding of art will be greatly appreciated.
(RG note) Thanks, Catherine. You used the word “research” as key to your understanding of science. Apart from getting a wide-ranging understanding of art through books and gallery tours, your own research within the walls of a home workshop can be the most rewarding. In my experience, every work we make is an assay into new territory and an opportunity for study and modification. It is this daily investigation of the potential of creative media and our own capabilities that rewards best of all. We find our most joy through the action of our hands and our minds. It’s a certified way to die happy.
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A challenging situation
by Kamal Bhandari, India
I am an India based realist artist. I regularly read your letters through which I come to know about the challenges faced by various artists and also I get to know helpful advices given by you and others. I would like to discuss one challenge which I face as an artist.
Few years back when I visited a gallery to show my works, the gallery owner appreciated a few pieces and kept them with him for display and subsequent sale. I was delighted to have the feeling that now I have entered the list of professional artists. But when I was leaving the gallery, I suddenly felt my eyes becoming wet. I held back my tears from coming down. I felt as if I have sold my kids, whom I have given birth and brought-up with much care, to someone. I couldn’t bear the pain of being separated from the works which were close to my heart.
When I returned home I prayed to have my paintings in which I had put all my heart and soul returned. The Lord heard my prayer and after 2 months I got a call from the gallery owner who told that none of my paintings had sold. I thanked God and brought my paintings back. Since then my paintings adore the walls of my house. I keep painting but do not sell now. Please advise if it is the right decision or what else should I do.
(RG note) Thanks, Kamal. My rationalization is that even though my paintings are on other peoples’ walls, they are still my paintings. And they are better there than in my storage. Letting other people share my work in this way makes it possible for my family to enrich our lives with travel, education, collecting and more painting. If we think of our work as our children, then these children need to be released to have lives of their own. Consider the words of Kahlil Gibran:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
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by Stewart Turcotte, Kelowna, BC, Canada
I read today’s letter, and then went to the clickbacks to see some of Robert’s favourite warriors. A nice selection of stalwart companions, no doubt. But a warrior is many things; he is a champion, a knight, a trooper, someone who fights a struggle for the betterment of some part of society, someone who struggles on for a long time, perhaps a lifetime, to correct or improve a situation.
This is a photo of my favourite warrior. This man has waged a one man war for the improvement of the artist’s situation and for the unlimited access to information and communication for that long struggling class of people in our society. This may be a new class of warrior, the artist warrior.
“Share your knowledge. It’s a way to achieve immortality.” Dalai Lama
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Art and Poetry
by Alexandra Fajfer, Port Credit, ON, Canada
For a long time now I enjoy reading your stories, advices, tips, thoughts you share with complete strangers. I admire your paintings and appreciate time you spend teaching others what you have learned through your professional career, answering questions or to commenting specific subjects.
For this reason reading your letters is like being in your studio — I feel like taking classes. I have never taken any art painting classes or courses (except for years at school), even I understand I should.
Your work is remarkable. I sent a link of your page to my friend in Poland — he is a poet, too. He was really impressed with your art.
As it is spring, I am sending a poem which I wrote two years ago about the same time of the year we enjoy now.
spring is emerging from every part
of breathing soil
dressed in thoughts
we share about tomorrow
dressed in greens radiating from your eyes
and your cheerful smiles
freshness of what we say and do
like the new beginning of every day
like the water we drink while thirsty
from each other’s lips
and the hunger only you and I can fulfill
Spring 2010 — Port Credit
Enjoy the past comments below for Immortal art…
Teapot with Shallots
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Bob Frank of Westford, MA, USA, who wrote, “All of the terracotta artists were killed after they completed their work so they would not reveal the location. A steep price to pay.”
And also Jackson Chan, who quoted Woody Allen: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”
And also Richard (Dick) Quis, who wrote, “Thank you, Robert, for mentioning me in your passion article.You have quite a reach. I heard from an art teacher in Paraquay who introduced me to some great Spanish artists and writers. It was quite an experience.”
(RG note) Together with Eugene F Moynihan, Richard Quis is the author of the quirky but valuable Thinking Anew: Harnessing the Power of Belief.