DREAM of the UNBORN BUTTERFLY
My escape from Jehovah's Witnesses to seek a life as an artist ...
(1974 - I pulled up stakes in Fort Worth, Texas, packed my wife and 3 small kids into a Ford Maverick, and headed to California seeking a job of some kind where I could earn a living --not as a janitor, window washer, or minimum wage slave - but as some kind of Artist.)
“Konichiwa” he spoke with a smile wrapped in mischief.
It was Paul Miyoshi. He was an old man.
The pupils of his eyes were black, mysterious, as from another world.
The first time I walked by him; he raised his head of white hair setting his gaze serenely upon me. There had been a slight bow that triggered in me a mirrored response.
He was both riddle and pun, light and shadow, and his laughter danced in my ears.
Over the next year and a half, I’d get to know this man much in the way a box within a box reveals more boxes. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was about to become my first Sensei.
(When the student is ready, the teacher appears.(Siddhartha-)
“This is how art and life are chosen, with Nature or against Nature --. Traditional Japanese life flows with Nature. We surrender as falling leaves surrender to the wind.”
Companion artists giggled about Paul Miyoshi; characterizing his epigrams as a “fortune cookie” style of speaking. But then, young men reared in Western ways go against Nature.
A true student must surrender to his teacher- a lesson to be learned; one for me to follow.
“In Japan, traditionally, houses are made from trees. The bottom of our house is from the trunk wood of trees. The top is the boughs and branches. In between, everything fits, slides, rests by clever interlocking joints, and gravity itself. Windows are paper. Light diffuses serenity. In the West, you block sunlight, smothering your world in curtains and bathing your soul with artificial light and tangled electric wires. The western world builds Cities like stone fortresses in the battle for supremacy with nails, bolts, and steel. ”
I was a Texas boy in my mid-twenties. I escaped--a fugitive of my own life--fleeing westward into California with a dream of becoming an artist. I knew nothing about how it might be done.
I was full of an artistic impulse but only barely acquainted with reality.
In France, ducks are force-fed until their liver bursts. In Texas, I had been force-fed religious doctrines until my life burst.
What talents I possessed naturally were suddenly the focus of everything--I had decided it was time for this to be my focus. I would somehow become what I was inside all along.
I simply couldn’t go on the way I had been--existing; uncreative, drone-like, endlessly warning others about Armageddon as I tried to “Stay Alive till ‘75.”
“You have a garden?” Miyoshi asked one day.
“Nothing in life grows without a garden.”
“The garden is our lesson: chaos becomes form. Nature flows as it happens. Life becomes shapes; nothing living truly resists that flow.”
“You are an artist?”
“That’s what I’m here to learn.”
“Art isn’t about getting something right.”
“Well, you could have fooled me!”
“A fool learns technique. Other fools are fooled by technique.”
“Monkey see--monkey do. It is the way of the monkey--not man as an artist.”
“Well. Okay. Art Schools teach technique for some reason.”
“Western schools teach how to lie. An enlightened teacher instructs what comes first.
First: how to see, then how to be.”
Triangle Industries sounds exactly like what it was: a factory churning out ‘art’ objects representing decorative products at a reasonable price.
My place in this industry was as a production line artist.
Like Henry Ford’s factory assembling the Model T Ford, long rows of easels and artists duplicated copies of ‘artsy-fartsy’ paintings sold en masse as valuable object d’art.
These were: Handmade soulless imitations.
Our Art was like a painting of a piece of cheese in a mousetrap. It caught a certain kind of unwary mouse.
You see, this was factory-style art.
Two highly talented artists came up with images that might sell at the market.
They would proceed to break it down into three different STAGES (single canvas examples) per stage: a background, a middle ground, and a finished subject with details and a signature.
I was in a group of living artists-as-living-copy-machines.
Instead of ink, we used paint and brushes.
Stage by stage we copied what was in front of us by rote.
(Monkey-see / monkey-do).
Dozens of identical copies, hand-painted on real canvases: that’s the gimmick.
TRIANGLE’s Art Designers designed expressly to be copied like Arthur Murray’s Dance Studio: footsteps stuck on the floor indicating where to place your feet in order to learn to dance the Cha-Cha.
Each (in-between stage) required ‘authentic’ flourishes--techniques. Talent was optional.
Personally, this was an exciting but hollow experience that I looked upon as an apprenticeship. It was but it wasn’t - simultaneously.
I was building technique but without any aesthetic dogma attached; mere practicality.
“In Japan, a student works to exactly master every stroke of the Teacher. To graduate you must replace your teacher before you are allowed to become what makes you who you are.”
It felt like the joke about the guy who swept up elephant dung in the Circus parade.
A bystander yelled at him, “Hey, why don’t you get a real job?”
The man with the broom shouts back, “What? Leave show business?”
Yes, my art apprenticeship was a bucket of elephant dung - but it was still show business.
The paintings were -- start to finish -- strange fiction.
A fiction biography and persona was invented for a non-existent Artist: a fake name, romantic tale of Dickensian struggles crafted into a counterfeit Certificate of Authenticity. The unwary customer could be wooed by the persuasive wording and adventure of it all.
This was the goal for Triangle Industry’s Nova Art department.
It suddenly occurred to me one day. This kind of art I was doing was exactly the same sort of thing I had been doing as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses!
I learned to copy and imitate my teachers - learning by rote.
Our Governing Body broke down the doctrine and we reproduced it exactly - until they painted over it - and we copied that new version exactly. Over and over again.
Some of the householders at the doors we knocked took one look and said, “No” but others saw something beautiful. A painting of cheese looks delicious to a hungry mouse.
“Japanese way of life is to go with the wind--to bend or we break.
China is our wind. Its army: irresistible. Survival is our first Art.
The great victory is the art of avoiding war--becoming like the water
flowing around the stones.”
Triangle Industries was a challenge.
I had no painting techniques because I was a pencil artist.
My teachers had told me, “Terry, you have a natural talent at portraiture.”
Okay, pencil talent but--my path had now taken me toward painting.
(Notice the word “pain” buried in the word “paint.”)
I was like a singer being asked to dance ballet.
It was a steep cliff climb from pencil to paint.
“You can be a Chess champion and a miserable Checker player.” They should have said.
I observed the other artists.
I tried asking questions and that was my first mistake.
Artists, for the most part, are not verbal. They don’t know what they know or why.
It is mere nature when they do this rather than that. Something mysterious and instinctive was theirs. The central “problem” is finding anybody who WANTS what they can do in exchange for money. In desperation - or merely in-between - artists take such jobs as we now performed. Actors wait tables and observe human behavior. So do Artists.
“We can know what to do and be unable to do it. Just as a religious man knows
all about heaven but his knowledge makes him no earthly good.
Knowing is nothing--doing a true thing is everything!”
My Jehovah’s Witness knowledge had been no earthly good to me or my family.
Spiritual meals do not quiet rumbling bellies.
Discouraged from ‘higher’ education, ours was a Last Stand against invisible enemies at the world’s end. We were protagonists in a first-century fantasy. Our only purpose, mission, goal, and ideal was warning fellow earthlings to come into our ‘ark’ of salvation before Armageddon arrived. We were conditioned to check for Armageddon the way a fisherman checks the weather. We saw “signs” of THE END every day for over 100 years the same way.
“End of the world for the caterpillar is birth of new world for butterfly.
Transformation is escaping from life as the worm.”
My Jehovah’s Witness life was the caterpillar’s life of devouring endless publications of Watchtower leafy nutrition. The only focal point in the universe is just over the other side of the finish line at Armageddon: survival depends on it.
“Art is the voice of Self. It says, “I am here. I am one blink of Nature’s eye.
Hear my voice before I go.”
Eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses expect Armageddon slaughter of neighbors who said “no” to the magazines and books. Like an army of janitors and sanitation workers, they’ll haul away the corpses of the young and the old when it is over.
Paradise begins with holy grunt work in order to be perfected by the end of the Millennium.
“Art overflows into a full life. Disconsolation seeps from an empty heart.
Paradise is not Journey’s end - but is the full life well-lived.”
A Jehovah’s Witnesses’ life is the garment fading into a coat of patchwork repairs; loyalty to a few well-meaning men who never quite get it right but always have the last word.
“In the West, the true believer dies in the dream of the unborn butterfly.”
I was thirty-one years old and I had been sixteen years old when baptized.
I had dutifully marched into prison, a conscientious objector, the way any sacrificed animal is tossed on the bonfire. 1967, 1968, 1969: smoke in the wind of true belief.
To do the right thing, please God, and teach others how to survive the End of the World.
“Stay Alive Till 1975”. Prisons, morgues, and insane asylums are filled with our sort.
We believe another man's Truth and pay our price.
“Catholic priests arrived in Japan; the Emperor asked what they wanted.
The priests explained. Their sole mission was to teach every soul in Japan
about God and his Son, Jesus, so they might become Christians.
The Emperor sat and listened through his interpreter.
Finally, he asked, “If people of Japan died ignorant of your Jesus--would your God send my people to burn in Hellfire for this ignorance?”
The priests explained, “God does not hold anyone accountable for what they do not know.”
The Emperor shouted, “Why do you seek to endanger us then with your words?”
He ordered their execution.”
(Fattening the bull before the slaughter is the work of the untalented evangelist.
If you personally are unconvincing - the one listening must die thanks to your poor performance.)
I quickly rose to become the head of Artists as Supervisor. This happened because I was rankled by the inefficiency I saw around me.
I devised more efficient methods of producing multiple paintings and filling orders. How? Motivating the artists with a monetary incentive system whereby each artist earned more money by turning out more canvases within the same time span.
The approval of the company’s owner, Zoltan Friedman, led to my tutelage by an efficiency expert, Erich Tilscher, for Motion and Time Management training principles.
“For Buddhists, Divinity is not a person on a cloud with tablets of rules.
Divine means the eternal flowing motion of music and art to refine the ear and eye,
the flavor of food in elegant presentations, treasures of the mind.”
Paul Miyoshi sculpted animals out of clay formed into statuary for homes and gardens; mold-produced ceramic/plaster statuary for orders sold by salesman out in the field.
Plaster animals he then brought to life with his artist’s brushwork and sealed in lacquer to a high gloss finish.
The hollow inside the plaster was filled with concrete. In fact, the heavier the statuary, the higher the price. A heavy statue is one that bespoke value in the mind of the consumer.
“There are roads unwise to follow, armies which must not be attacked, towns which must not be besieged, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed.”
In 1979, I left the Kingdom Hall in tears. I stayed merely alive till ‘75 and an extra four more years beyond it. The mouse on the wheel, exhausted by motion for motion’s sake, stepped off. Surely there was more to life than that dizzy circle of fruitless determination!
The last time I spoke to Paul Miyoshi, was the day I left Triangle Industries.
I was leaving to become part of a new atelier ( etching studio.)
Triangle’s chief designer, artist Ron Riddick, was starting on his Art company.
A few years later I would become the General Manager when Ron moved on.
As I was explaining why I was leaving to Paul, Miyoshi took hold of my sleeve and walked me off to a quiet corner of the factory.
His head was bald on top with grey hair hanging on the sides and back. His beard and dangling strands of mustache would have done Hollywood proud. Those bushy white eyebrows fluttered like flower petals and his dark eyes glimmered as moonlight on a still pond.
“You once asked me why I did not start my own atelier with my own students.
I have never answered you. Am I correct in saying this?”
“I figured you’d tell me or not - when I was ready to hear it.”
“No - you are not ready.”
Paul’s gentle mischief is in his humor. His insight always carried a laugh. For Miyoshi, humor was a slice of orange at the end of a heavy meal. It cleanses the palate and leaves the sweet tang as a reminder of the perfect meal.
He was right. I was unprepared for what came next.
“At 10:30 A.M. on Aug. 9, 1945, my family died. American bombers couldn’t find the target city of Kokura. They found the city of my family instead, Nagasaki.
My 14-year-old sister probably looked up into the overcast sky and listened to the rumble of engines. The last thing she would have seen - a bright flash of intense light. But I--I had been sent to Art school in Europe at the time. My father saved money for years to pay my way. My family’s love of Art saved my life from the atom bomb.
The flash of intense light incinerated my mother, my father, my sister. I honor them with a humble life. A life of contemplation and obscurity. It is not a Western choice. It is my choice.”
His unexpected words were paralyzing to me. I am seldom at a loss for words--this was one of those times.
“When I received the news, I performed a Buddhist funeral ritual.
Today, with your leaving, it is another little death. What is this death?
Death is change. I would tell you of this ritual and its message is my parting gift.
There was a sudden rush of forces in my head and chest at that moment. My casual goodbye-- a mere formality for me, I confess, was not casual to Paul Miyoshi. He did not take life in such a throwaway fashion.
I nodded to his question and he leaned in to whisper barely loud enough for me to hear.
He compelled me to listen.
“The story of our life is written with our finger upon the water. We paint our love for others with deeds. We pass, like the river, only once through this valley of sunlight and shadows. What piece of us remains behind - is in the hearts of others--this is our Art.”
And we shook hands. We bowed.
I quickly headed straight to the restroom and wrote down what Miyoshi had said on my tiny spiral notepad. I did so with peculiar tears.
I became the falling leaf surrendering to the journey of the wind--my life yet to come.
My life of religious service had been somebody else’s design of art painted over and over--copies of copies. For sale with concrete inside to give the illusion of value.
I had been invited to a genuine studio of real artists to begin the happiest years of my life.
The friends I made would not desert me like the others who switched off their ‘love’ in an instant. Automatic. Everything or Nothing.
Truly, Paul Miyoshi was right when he said,
“...the true believer dies in the dream of the unborn butterfly.”
Yes, I have seen the life I wanted flowing like a river and I felt the rush of time under my wings.
I have lived free.
I am here.
I am one blink of Nature’s eye.
Hear my voice before I go.
We write the story of our life with our finger as upon the water...