Karmapa, 2004 Oil on linen 16 × 14 inches
Karmapa, 2004
Oil on linen 16 × 14 inches

I’m a spiritual person, but perhaps not a religious one, as I believe in the transcendent and ineffable, and that we don’t know everything we think we know (although of course I believe in Darwin and Science and the non-subjugation of peoples and our planet due to the dogma of ideological beliefs that can be ruinous to the spirit of the world). But bits and parts of religion and belief systems are appealing to me, along with the Joseph Campbell idea that there are similarities or myths that are ubiquitous throughout the world that become a spiritual-like necessity. To paraphrase, his idea of an artist is that "it is an artist’s job to tell stories for a culture to understand itself in order for the culture to progress," and hopefully religion does this at its best, and of course this is also what I try to do in my art and teaching. Tibetan Buddhism makes a lot of sense to me—like the semiotics I studied as an undergraduate student at Brown University, Buddhism is a much more ancient ideology that everything exists in the world—but perhaps not in the same manner as we perceive it in though or language.

His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, is the leading inheritor of Tibetan Buddhism—after His Holiness the 14th Dali Lama dies, he will carry the torch and help to spread the word and spirit of Buddhism. China has a "fake Karmapa" that they try to trick people into believing in their oppressive regime but this painting is of the "real" Karmapa, , Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who they had to sneak out of China to safety in India in a trunk of a car. The Dalai Lama helps to find and recognize his reincarnation, but now with China being what it is, there won’t be anyone to officially acknowledge his reincarnation when he passes, and no one to find the next Karmapa after this one dies, making the 17th Karmapa perhaps the last of this kind of reincarnated Tibetan spiritual leaders.

When they felt it was safe enough for the Karmapa to travel stateside, my friend Lisa Kirk (who introduced me to Tibetan Buddhism and to the existence of the Karmapa) gave me this image when we were going to teachings together on 2nd ave above the McDonald’s in the East Village. She had simply made a color Xerox on my behalf, and I had it up in the little one-room apartment I was subleasing from a friend as I was trying to forge a place for Andrew and I to come back to NYC after exiling ourselves from the city and art world. This image gave me hope, and even after it became water damaged—became even more transcendent, and continued to be an iconic photo that I literally looked up to in every way. I made this image thinking of all this when I painted it, and the painting has stayed with me for over a decade, watching over me and my studio and bringing good energy, as I hope it does here on the wall next to 9-11 (a painting I created while listening to Buddhist chants, the Karmapa’s music, and Dalai Lama tapes), John Lennon, Bobby Kennedy, Anne Frank and more peoples who are remembered for their sacrifice (and empathy and compassion).