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How Meditation Can Unlock An Artistic Universe

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Artist Lia Chavez exists somewhere in the beautiful intersection of performance art, meditation and neuroscience. Known for her durational meditative performances, intense bouts of introspection that can last up to 10 hours, she explores what she deems "interior optics" or a series of otherworldly visions accessed by depriving herself of light for prolonged periods of time.

Essentially, she slips into deep states of reflection (theta rhythms), blindfolded, and attempts to capture the visions she perceives in the void of her own mind. To do so, she positions herself atop large pieces of paper, recording the images with paint, charcoal or ink as she meditates. She likens the process to Hubble Ultra-Deep Field imagery which collects the light of luminous objects in the void of galaxies beyond. Her explosive mental imaginings resemble electricity, clouds, firebolts and stars, drawing an eerie parallel between the mysteries of outer and inner space.

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Carceri 11, 2013, 72 X 113 in Photo Courtesy of Two Rams

Chavez's collected drawings are on view at New York City's Two Rams Gallery until April 5, 2014. We recently chatted with the artist to discuss her mesmerizing process and how meditation enforces her artistic output:

Could you take me through your process? What type of preparation precedes the sensory deprivation?

For the “Carceri” works, I set up a variety of mark-making implements -- among them acrylic paint, charcoal, conte, oil pastel, ink, graphite -- alongside the edge of a large sheet of delicate Japanese paper in a random, chaotic order. I then sit on the surface of the paper. I blindfold myself and insert the earplugs. As the process is rooted in performance, it requires intense focus for several hours. Any given piece can last from six to 10 hours during which my perception of light and sound are blocked. I take no breaks. I’ve trained my body to inhabit this state for long durations of time with a carefully timed eating and drinking regimen. Usually the preparation period for a piece or series of pieces will last several weeks until the rhythms of my body have adjusted and I can comfortably and joyfully sit for up to 10 hours without taking a break.

I begin by blindly selecting a utensil from the wide array strewn along the paper’s edge. Then I begin to meditate, connecting with my breath and stilling my mind. As I delve deeply into the expansive silence of interior space, I can sense when my mind enters a theta brain wave state because I begin to experience vibrant interior optics in my mind’s eye. Sometimes the visions occur in rapid sequence and at other times, I will sit on the page, watchful and waiting through what feels like an infinite void. Sometimes they form gradually, and at others, they appear to be seared by fire upon my mind’s eye. Each individual vision forms the dictate of a mark I make on the paper. When I sense that a phase of the meditation has passed (similar to the way in which meteorological systems dramatically disintegrate), I blindly choose another drawing or painting implement and enter into the next meditation phase.

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Carceri 10, 2013, 72 X 136 in Photo Courtesy of Two Rams

When the “storms” quiet I know the piece is complete. The process is both deeply exhausting and incredibly invigorating. A lengthy duration of time can pass by in a flash. An eight-hour meditation can feel like two hours, depending on how focused I am. This recurring experience has led me to be convinced that time travel is something that is accomplished by becoming very still.

And what happens when the meditation period ends?

When I remove the blindfold, the piece is decisively finished. I am always surprised with the result -- particularly in terms of the strong parallels between the focus of a meditation and the formal synthesis of a piece. To see internal cohesion emerge out of a process that is deeply chaotic and populated with sensations of overwhelm and vertigo is deeply satisfying and captivating to me.

How would you describe your meditative method?

My meditation technique is informed by 10 years of practice and study of traditions which range from yoga (which I studied in India), to the practices of the Eastern desert fathers and mothers, to the writings of wise, visionary teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton and Hildegard von Bingen.

The darkness meditation practiced by Saint Francis of Assisi has been particularly influential to me. The title of these works, “Carceri” which literally means isolated places, derives from the Eremo della Carceri, the site of the cave in which Francis meditated while wearing blinders, claiming the spiritual light he experienced in meditation was so great that any additional physical light would be lethal. Over the course of my life as an artist I have journeyed to Assisi to research the work of Francis (whom I consider to be one of the great performance artists of all time) as well as to meditate in his cave. Like Francis, I have found prolonged periods of aural and visual silence to be an essential tool for generating natural breakthroughs of perception.

It's interesting that you reference Saint Francis of Assisi, one of the many Catholic Christians who practiced meditation. How does spirituality -- or, religion, if at all -- interact with your work?

For me, spirituality is not about re-enacting the social conventions that are associated with religion. It's about romance, an eroticism of the spirit. My work is the embodiment of my ongoing romance with the Creative Muse and the joy of discovery and being discovered in that presence. It's an exciting moment to inhabit as an artist because the world is beginning to undergo a broad reintegration -- the same kind of integrated consciousness that characterized the Renaissance. I think we are figuring out that the previous mentality of fragmented being or denial of certain aspects of human experience is actually holding us back from exploring the full nature of reality.

Eli Wiesel has stated, "What does mysticism really mean? It means the way to attain knowledge. It's close to philosophy, except in philosophy you go horizontally while in mysticism you go vertically." I am interested in the congruencies that exist between the mind, the world, and the cosmos and I think the unique intelligence of art has a great deal to offer in this investigation. Given its intuitive roots, art most readily belongs to the “mysticism” category of Wiesel’s assertion. But I believe that art in the 21st century will experience a breakthrough and be acknowledged as a viable way of exploring the nature of the universe, not merely subjective perception.

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Carceri 11, 2013, 72 X 113 in Photo Courtesy of Two Rams

And what do you think meditation achieves that other forms of art making do not?

The discipline of meditation helps keep some space open, so that we can tune into the voice which tells us who we truly are and the actions that we must take from that core identity. (I’m paraphrasing the great mystic Henri Nouwen here.) Deep listening is an indispensable methodology for creating what is essential because it arises from the part of us that is essential. It relates to a larger process of tuning oneself as one might tune a musical instrument to produce resonant notes.

In order to truly advance one’s medium, an artist must listen and first take counsel from it. If I wish to work effectively with my medium, which is essentially light, I must first submit myself to the visual silence of darkness so that the true light can reach me and penetrate the blindness of my natural eyes. Mark-making from this standpoint feels far more potent and sensate, as the light I experience in a state of sensory deprivation is far greater than anything I have seen with my natural eyes.

Do you find that the visions that become your drawings resemble anything you've seen before? I know you've mentioned weather in the past.

I have experienced a recurring vision of seeing a great eye looking back at me and once I see it, I know I have entered into a kind of interior sanctum that I can either choose to remain in or run away from. It is a delicious and terrifying intimacy to behold and be beheld so forthrightly, but I know that this Eye is the place from which all my visions flow, so I must try to bear it as best I can.

As the duration of the meditation intensifies, so do my visions. In any given durational meditation I am likely to experience concussive visions of dynamic inner storm systems, cataclysms of radiance, vortices, gyrating fibers of electricity, clouds of short- lived photons, cascading firebolts, and embryonic stars -- to name a few.

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Carceri I, 2013, 72 x 132 in Photo Courtesy of Two Rams

We've discussed this before, but some of the beauty in your project lies in the fact that your process is such an enlightened way of viewing inspiration and mental breakthroughs. Inspiration doesn't have to be arbitrary or random (you don't have to be "struck" by an idea), you can work purposefully toward it. Has the idea come out more in your own self-analysis?

Yes, definitely it has. I approach performance art as a much-needed link between the disembodied observation of positivist science and the immersive nature of human experience; it’s something which I call “embodied research." As I have journeyed through intensive experiments in contemplative disciplines such as prolonged fasting, meditation and silence, I have found that inspiration is far from arbitrary and can be methodically mined. Moreover, as my senses have become more ajar, I have discovered that the universe is heavily pregnant with inspiration. If you listen closely, the whole world is singing.

Note: This interview has been condensed and edited.

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