Heart of the Treasure Valley: Sacred geography

Painting murals in India was a bridge between cultures, experiences, ways of living and savoring fleeting moments

Idaho StatesmanAugust 10, 2013 

  • THE SARNATH MURAL PROJECT

    The Sarnath International Nyingma Institute was founded to preserve ancient Buddhist art, language and culture, and foster dialog between East and West. Because of that, the murals in the meditation hall were a merging of both Eastern and Western artistic traditions. “Each articulated leaf would be a meditative expression of the wisdom within,” writes Kaveri Singh, lead artist along with her husband, TJ Singh.

She settles onto a boulder nestled in the evening shade between mint and rabbit brush. Quail murmur in the grasses, birds flit in the bushes, the sound of a raven’s wings fills the air. This is her secret spot, her quiet refuge, here on the granite.

She says: “For me, rocks sort of symbolize what it’s all about. They seem like incredibly solid rocks, but really, they’re all about impermanence.

“They were at one point liquid, volcanic rock; or silt and sand and deposited, then heat and time and pressure made them into something solid.

“So it’s a real metaphor for the illusion that so many of us have: that there is permanence and that you can control things.”

Annabel Armstrong knows, perhaps more than most, how quickly things can change.

She was married just six and a half years when her husband, writer, artist (and Statesman food critic) Gordon Kio, drowned while they were on vacation in Mexico in 2003. It happened very quickly; the death certificate says two or three minutes under water.

“In the space of time it takes for someone to brush their teeth and floss, my entire world changed.”

And yet, acknowledging — and, in many ways, honoring — the fleeting nature of life has also brought Annabel its greatest meaning.

“ … I think that life is really all about relationships and ultimately, that’s why we’re here. We’re very much alone; we come into this world alone; we are these autonomous beings, and we leave alone — even if you die surrounded by people, you still walk that path alone.

“But nevertheless, each of us — all these autonomous beings — have relationships with other people. Maybe it’s just a brief contact you have with the cashier at Albertsons. That can be really important, too.

“…The idea that what we have right now — and how we are embracing life right now — is so important. And not the errands that have to be run.”

Annabel remembers that when she and her husband arrived in Mexico, they were exhausted from travel and travel preparation.

“I went for a dip in the pool and Gordon was sitting on the side watching me swim. … I said to him, ‘I don’t want to take a nap. I don’t want to miss a single moment.’ Less than 24 hours later, he was gone.

“Makes me wonder if there was a part of me that knew. Certainly, I was very much in the moment, very present, enjoying my time with him — which turned out to be my last hours with him.”

Annabel took nine months to herself after Gordon’s death. Not to work, not to travel, not to paint, not to do anything except take walks with her dog. Maybe write in her journal. It was the beginning of a series of “why not” questions to herself, and a challenge to conventions that begin with “supposed to.”

“My first reaction (was), ‘Oh, no. I could never take time off.’ I looked at my bank account — why not?... Most people would be like, you can’t just spend savings sitting around doing nothing.

“… (But) with his death, I didn’t want to end up being — I don’t know. Bitter? Angry? I didn’t want to be that. … He just radiated enthusiasm for life … I wanted to do what he did. I wanted to have (his death) make me a better person.

“… I think that life is often difficult and if we can just go through certain experiences and come out the other side, we end up a better, stronger person. I think we’re on the right path.”

Annabel is also an artist. She’s a decorative painter, which means her canvasses are the walls and ceilings of homes and businesses. She applies colors, paints murals, creates texture from her own skill with practices that date back centuries.

“… Creating a space that has meaning and relevance for (people). … Crafting a space that’s just comfortable and makes them feel good. (Sometimes) that’s really as simple as the choice of colors.”

Last October, Annabel had an opportunity to take her skill to work on a mural project in Sarnath, India, where Buddha gave his first sermon. The huge mural would fill the walls and ceiling of the main chanting hall of an institute for Buddhist studies, dedicated to preserving classical Buddhist languages and fostering dialog between East and West.

“(Sometimes I think) that people are afraid to make a leap of faith … I think there’s a loss in potential, human potential, for the planet.”

At first, the whole project sounded intimidating. She was scared; she was intrigued. She worried that her skill level wasn’t up to snuff; she worried about all the things one worries about when considering plunging into the unknown. And then there was that question again.

“When the opportunity came along, I had a feeling of ‘How could I not do this?’”

“It took a couple of months for me to realize, OK. I’ll just go and see how much I can contribute and not be worried about it.”

She arranged to be gone for months and solicited sponsors to make the trip possible. When she arrived in India, the meditation hall was painted white — a blank palette.

Over the next six months, she and more than two dozen volunteers from around the world would transform white into a tranquil, contemplative landscape with lotus ponds, sacred trees, flowers, birds and scenes from Buddha’s life.

“You have this responsibility to create something wonderful in a space that you know is going to be a very important space. It really is a little intimidating.

“… Once you start moving, paintbrush in hand, or a pencil or whatever your tool might be … once you get going, it begins to feel familiar and you can feel it clicking into place. I think a lot of artists feel that — that their art is something bigger and it’s channeled through them. It’s a great feeling.”

That didn’t mean it wasn’t difficult, demanding work, and the artists worked hard. For four months, Annabel mixed paint, coached students, mentored artists and supported the project managers, when mostly what she wanted to do was paint. The mix of cultures, languages and skill was the biggest challenge and the greatest reward; they worked, sometimes seven days a week.

“But there were moments of ‘ahh.’ You could feel it, the importance of the project. It gave you this sense of something other, something ethereal.”

Annabel came as an apprentice to the project leader, artist Kaveri Singh. At one point, Annabel was frustrated that she wasn’t receiving critique or instruction on her painting, which she felt that she needed.

“I had to reach a place where I kind of owned the kind of confidence she had in me. I had (to have) it in myself.”

And then Annabel started to paint a plumeria tree, one of the sacred trees of India. She sketched a plumeria tree growing in the courtyard, she did research, she studied photos.

“It was this real turning point for me, as an artist, to just be confident and move forward. It was incredibly liberating.”

For a couple of days, Annabel immersed herself in painting. Then a student was assigned to help her.

“It was a nice little lesson. First, in impermanence, which is intrinsic to Buddhist philosophy. Okay, so I had my moment of bliss, painting my tree by myself in the corner and that’s not going to last.

“And two, this moment of, all right, I had the mentor; now I’m going to turn around and be that to someone else. ... (The student) has actually thanked me since then, saying that I always had so much patience and let her grow in her own way and I was this wonderful teacher. And I’m kind of scratching my head going, ‘I was?’

“I didn’t realize I did that much. I think it’s important to realize that our interactions with people — how important they are without us realizing it. … It’s important to be fully present and in the moment for just that reason.”

The trip to India wasn’t a cataclysmic altering of Annabel’s life, but she came back with a strong sense of herself, as an artist and as a person. It has to do with going through challenges and coming out the other side — like going to India as an apprentice and leaving as a mentor. It has to do with being open to new experiences, and savoring them.

“That’s what life should always be about.”

One of the other things that struck Annabel about India was people’s reverence for the landscape. India is intense and crowded, and Varanasi, right next to Sarnath, is, Annabel says, India on steroids.

“It has its beautiful and quiet moments, too. … You’re in the quiet of the river (Ganges), and you can sense how holy this place is. It might not be your religion, but the fact that so many people revere it and come to pay their respects, in a sense; to bathe and purify themselves in the holy water of the river — that (reverence) becomes part of the place, part of the air that you breathe. You can feel it.

“… The reverence is attached to so many different things — it might be a rock, it might be a tree; it might be a brick-and-mortar temple — it’s so pervasive there. Particularly in Varanasi, where you can’t walk 20 feet without coming across some sort of shrine … a temple, a tiny little shrine or maybe it’s just some red string tied around a tree trunk.

“I just like that idea of the spiritual, however you might define it, finding it, manifesting it everywhere. … All these different little places that can somehow be where you connect with the divine.”

The notion of sacred geography wasn’t what took her to India, but it was one of the things that struck Annabel when she was there. It’s an idea that resonates with her, particularly as she sits among her rocks in Boise’s Foothills back at home.

“The divine is everywhere and as long as you take the time to be receptive to it and be mindful, then you can be open to it.”

Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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