“What is your original face before you were born?” asks a Zen koan. Some Buddhist masters test a student’s progress with such puzzles. Yet answers aren’t easy to find. Even Google isn’t much help. Each person must find a personal response through meditation.
Walter Jule, an internationally renowned printmaker from Edmonton, makes art that’s like a koan. He uses diverse media – printmaking, mixed media, video and installation – yet each work is breathtakingly simple. A viewer unfamiliar with Eastern thought might yawn. But simplicity is a ruse for our flitting minds. Only silence lets meaning unravel.
Jule’s Zen influences have deep roots. At six he became fascinated with a painting of Mount Fuji and asked his mother if he could meet the artist. As a young man in the ’70s, he was surrounded by a spiritual supermarket, including Buddhist thought. John Cage, a Buddhist-influenced performance artist, even dropped by his university classes.
But Jule decided to go to the source: a Zen temple in Saitama, near Tokyo. “I just got off the train in Tokyo, went there and didn’t come out for five months,” he says. Sitting in meditation for eight or 10 hours a day was grueling. By the end, he could barely walk. He went on to study for 20 years with the famous American Buddhist Joko Beck. Before her death, she told Jule to teach. He ran a meditation group for nine years but, more importantly, continued to transmit his insights through art.
Walter Jule, "Touching Indra`s Net: for Morris Graves", 2010
Walter Jule, "Touching Indra`s Net: for Morris Graves", 2010, ink-jet in laser-cut Plexiglas with relief printing and wooden elements, 35"x 59" x 6"
Mapping Indra’s Net: for Morris Graves resembles an aerial landscape composed of translucent twists and warps. It was inspired by the plastic insulation Jule saw in the window of a friend’s house. Mesmerized, he bought 20 rolls on the way home. He stretched it on his studio wall and heated a spot. The process symbolized Indra’s net: the universe is a mesh and at each juncture a jewel reflects all the other jewels. Each time Jule heated a spot, every other spot – no matter how distant – was somehow altered.
The process illustrates dependent origination, a cornerstone of Buddhist thought. Put simply, something is set in motion and then chance happens. It’s like Cage clicking his stopwatch and allowing whatever occurred to become a sound composition: a cough, a passing truck, the hum of air conditioning. Both chance and the artist create the work.
Walter Jule, "Mirror Facing a Mirror", 2013
Walter Jule, "Mirror Facing a Mirror", 2013, ink-jet on laser-cut Plexiglas with relief printing and wooden and paper elements, 79" x 118" x 6"
For Jule, this is simply the way life unfolds. Was that picture of Mount Fuji he saw as a child an accident? Perhaps it was part of an underlying pattern. “We don’t stop and rest enough to observe what is before us, especially if it’s something we can’t explain,” he says. “My interest is not something I can google, but things that are unseen and unspoken.”
Much like the sound of a frog jumping into a pond in the famous Basho haiku, Jule’s work resonates with meaning. There’s no mental clutter here, only art composed of shadows, traces of smoke or crinkled paper: visual koans that fill ordinary phenomena with wonder.