Aloka reflects on life as an artist in the Triratna Buddhist Order, creativity and individuality. Interview by Barry Copping
Barry: As a Buddhist artist, you’re presumably communicating Buddhist values through your work?
Aloka: I do two distinct types of work. Firstly, there are commissions for ‘Buddhist iconography’, for want of a better term. I don’t regard that as really my work – I’ve got certain skills and use them to help people out. The paintings are essentially theirs. People give me a whole variety of material, whether it’s text, bits of fabric, colour samples or photographs of other works, so that I can tailor the image to help them connect better with a particular Buddhist figure, rather than just taking a reproduction out of a book.
In discussing a commission, I say ‘Whatever you do, don’t tidy it up to make it make sense. You may say things that are completely contradictory – don’t worry about that, because I just feed it all in.’ Trying to get inside someone else’s imagination is a really interesting discipline. Of course, the public commissions (say for Buddhist centres) are a bit different.
What about the work you do regard as your own?
That’s different in that it’s more about finding things out. I’m not actually trying to communicate anything. I mean obviously you do communicate stuff, but I just start with a completely blank canvas and hopefully a completely blank mind, and I want to discover something new. So it’s going into a similar space to concentration in meditation. This often takes time, but it’s just an indirect route. Sometimes people think ‘indirect’ means ‘less effective’. But I think indirect methods can actually be more effective, especially at the beginning of one’s practice. Dealing directly with your mind is a bit like trying to find the soap in the bath – it’s not that easy!
There was no longer anyone around I looked up to – a very important lack.
Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order, of which you are a member, has said that artists are essentially alone, on account of their greater awareness, their greater individuality and even their greater creativity. What’s your take on that?
A problem I found when I was younger, in being dedicated to working and hence alone, was that I became more and more isolated. That’s potentially very dangerous. I wasn’t coming up with the answers I expected just by dedicating my time to working. I had this idea – I don’t know from where – that if you gave yourself completely to work, as your work improved you’d sort of improve as a person; that there was some ethical or moral dimension to working. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but I expected to became a better person almost by osmosis. After college and a few years chugging along on my own, I realised that wasn’t necessarily the case. There was no longer anyone around I looked up to – a very important lack. The people I did look up to were all dead artists – again, quite isolating. Having begun to doubt that work was the answer to everything, then everything else started falling apart.
That was probably one of the things that induced me to look for something else, and eventually to find Bhante Sangharakshita. I was seeking a context where people dealt with some of the big questions, such as what we’re here for.
So you’ve found the Sangha an appropriate place to explore the big issues, and I expect your art is fruitful in that context?
It’s hard work actually, because for years I couldn’t quite work out how the two fitted together. I helped out at Padmaloka on Going for Refuge [ordination training] retreats for eleven years. That was the only thing I ever found almost as demanding as art. In a way the brief was simple – helping people who want to contribute to creating a spiritual community under the umbrella of Bhante’s teachings. I wanted people to have an easier time discovering what it is to be an Order member than I’d had. Everything has moved on so far, and this Buddhist movement is now a much friendlier place than when I got involved.
What was your experience of school and art college?
Even at infant school, I was always the odd one out. I don’t really know why – probably just a sort of vibe that you give off. I was a very quiet child. In the British school system of the 1950s, quietness was equated with good behaviour. Being well-behaved was seen as being intelligent, so I’d be in the A-stream rather than the C-stream where the naughty kids were. The naughty kids may well have been far more intelligent than I was. Really, I could have missed school entirely and it would have had no adverse effect.
Even if the girls wanted to do fashion, they still had to learn welding
I was fortunate in that I could go to art school when I was 13, which was the norm then. I’d known right from the word go that I wanted to spend my life drawing. There was enormous resistance to full-time art training from mainstream schools, where you were told ‘You’ll never make a living’.
I was at art school in the 1960s, through till age 21. Of course there was a lot going on in art schools then – they seemed to be the melting pot for all sorts of cultural developments. I was so lucky to be in the right place at the right time. The first art school I attended was quite old-fashioned in that they taught you very thoroughly. There was no mention of ‘art’ as such; it was more about learning skills in a variety of disciplines. You had to do everything. Even if the girls wanted to do fashion, they still had to learn welding. If you wanted to learn welding for sculpture, you still had to do embroidery.
So you value that rigorous technical training?
My goodness, yes! There’s not a day goes by without my being immensely grateful to my tutors. Bhante says that when given something that you need, the normal, healthy human response is to feel gratitude. Otherwise there’s definitely something wrong!
What do you make of Sangharakshita’s comment that ‘Artists have long been notorious for flouting convention, rocking the boat, refusing to conform’?
People will insist on seeing you as refusing to conform – I’ve spent most of my life trying to fit in! I’m just really bad at it. I wanted a quiet life, just wanting to be left alone to get on and work.
Sangharakshita encourages us to create a community of people where everyone’s standing on their own two feet, is at least aspiring to be a true individual – maintaining, building and developing their own integrity. The Order isn’t something that you join as such; it’s not something established; it must constantly be recreated afresh, so that the Sangha, the spiritual community, is continuously reinvented through people being as effective in their commitment as possible.
People say to me, ‘How do you fit in?’ I say, ‘Don’t fit in – whatever you do, don’t fit in!’ I mean, don’t not fit in just for the sake of it; don’t be silly, but I mean, if you’ve got something to say, then say it! If there’s something you don’t understand, or like, or agree with, then for heaven’s sake, speak out! At least get things clear, because you may just have the wrong end of the stick. Always ask questions first. It’s no good wading in, criticising people or situations unless you’ve actually ascertained whether or not you’ve got your facts straight. It’s very easy to get the wrong end of the stick. ■