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“In the Taoist Tradition:

“An Interview with Landscape Painter Catherine Kinkade”

Excerpted from TCM World, Vol 4, No.2  By Kristen A. Park


Purple-blue door, Vermilion, Jacobean-style, swirling print wallpaper, Cobalt blue hall, Catherine Kinkade’s Montclair, New Jersey home looks and feels like the home of an artist. In the filtered light of the dining room hangs an enormous drybrush painting of Bethon, France. For a moment I commune with the fields surrounding the tiny medieval French town. Catherine explains that the work evolved out of a commission to create a label for the Gruet vineyards in the Champagne region.

” Finding my occupation as a landscape painter was anything but a direct route,” Catherine says. “It was rather like tacking in a sailboat in one direction and then the other, but making ‘progress’ nonetheless in one overall direction. It isn’t until you look back that you see how well the pieces fit together.

” Catherine’s work bridges East and West: She is a contemporary American painter working in the Taoist tradition of landscape painting. “I had been painting for years when I realized that I am part of a whole tradition I had known nothing about. Imagine my surprise!” she recalled. The tradition to which she refers is Taoist landscape painting, considered by Taoists to be one of the greatest expressions of Taoist thought and a major access route to the Tao.…

Foremost among the principles of Taoist and much of Asian painting, is what is referred to as “pure reflection of Nature”. Achieved through the artist’s inner serenity, it can be realized only through oneness or unity with Nature. In this tradition of painting, it’s the inner quality of the artist, her spiritual state, which allows her to comprehend the soul of Nature. If the painting is working, it reflects the energy, or Qi, of the painter as it does the Qi of the natural world…. It is a process that is dynamic and circular.

It’s an approach with which Kinkade resonates deeply. Catherine affirms “The subject of a painting is as much an internal landscape as external; the artist has to find the landscape for himself and within himself.”

“Painting, for me,” she continues, ” is about becoming one with the landscape…. In fact, when I’m in the painting process, I only know I’m separate from the landscape when I move. It is as though I’m watching someone else’s hands and materials painting. When I’m deeply in the work, time doesn’t exist.”

NearTroyesEven the subject matter she has been working with for years is a great favorite of Taoist painters. “Many of my pieces show trees on mountainsides or next to streams, where they are linking images in the landscape – their roots in the earth and their branches reaching to the sky,” Catherine remarks. “I’m concerned with atmospheric perspective (mist), and lost and found edges, like the edges where the water meets the land. I’m interested in the tension between the land and water.”

One major Taoist priciple is wu wei, or effortless action. Kinkade observes the traces of wu wei in the landscape: “I am very aware of the path of least resistance in Nature. It reads like a branched energy grid, radiating out, with each successive branch diminishing in size. This makes it quite easy to locate the source of the energy – a pattern which exists everywhere in the landscape.”

Yin and yang, the ancient Chinese philosophical concept that is fundamental to so much of Chinese culture, serves as an organizing principle in Taoist painting. A Taoist landscape is seen as a balance of yin and yang, an interplay of harmonious opposites… allowing open space to retain equal importance with the more tangible subjects.

In Taoist landscape paintings, subject elements such as mountain shan and water shui are balanced against each other — the mountain symbolizing the solid and static aspects of the Tao, and water signifying the fluid and the flowing. Indeed, the Chinese word for landscape is comprised of two radicals: mountain and water. In Catherine’s eyes, “If the piece is working, there is a balance between sky and land, heaven and earth.”

Taoists embrace the universality of change… which becomes a source of inspiration for the artist. Catherine echoes this in her work: “I am intrigued by the changing forms of the landscape: the transformation of solid into gaseous, such as when clouds obscure the land, for example, or different layers of simultaneously existing forms, such as trees in mist; how the seasons grow out of each other, and the jewel colors of nature. I love the edges where something becomes something else – where there is room for movement and a little mystery.””For me,” the artist affirms, “painting is about spontaneity and listening intuitively. After gathering a sense of the place, I forget all the technique, take a deep breath and just do it. I have come to trust my intuitive sense.”

As I pass through the hall to leave, I see again the rugged beauty of the French countryside in the painting on the dining room wall and recall what Catherine said earlier in relation to painting: “I like to think the viewer is being led on sort of a spiritual tour beyond this world …” Through Catherine’s landscape my heart reaches the invisible made visible through paint.

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