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August 17, 2020

HeartMind: An Interview with Artist Suiko Betsy McCall

By Cat Li Stevenson

Suiko Betsy McCall

Sangha News interviewed artist, founder, and Abbess of the Art Monastery, Suiko Betsy McCall. Suiko and Green Gulch Farm Abiding Abbess Fu Schroeder will be co-leading the online HeartMind: Art & Zen Workshop on August 28 – 30.

SN: Could you share a bit about your connection to SFZC?

I was a farm apprentice at Green Gulch Farm in 2014. When it was over, it was a big decision whether to stay on as a resident or go back to my life in Oakland. I ended up back in Oakland for a while and then came back to GGF for the January Intensive and eventually did a practice period. I started a romantic relationship with Qayyum Johnson, who was the Farm Manager, and lived with him there for a few years, splitting my time between GGF and Art Monastery.

SN: So at that time you already had Art Monastery?

I started the Art Monastery in 2007. At that time, it was located in Italy. In 2009, we ran our first Artmonk Retreat, a week-long silent art retreat to cultivate creativity, support artists, and to support people who are blocked in their creativity and want to get back to it.

It’s important to recognize that art is so much bigger than painting, singing, writing, photography. It’s also cooking, gardening, social sculpture, and writing emails.

Toward the end of that Artmonk Retreat, as I was setting up my paint brush, paper, and ink, I was aware of being in a very quiet, settled place. I didn’t know what I was going to paint. I was sitting zazen, with my paper in front of me, and holding the paint brush over the paper, and just being with the breath. I was in the glorious sensation of waiting, and OK with waiting, even if nothing would come. Then a movement came, and it came from the body, and it made this one stroke — it was so different from any other art I’ve done. I thought, “Wow, that felt really great.”

That evening, we did a silent art share. We passed around the art without comment. I watched people’s faces as they looked at it and I could see that there was really something important there. I had found something quiet and still and brought my full self to it. It infused in the piece and they could really see it. That was a huge moment for me.

I had this vision of contemporary artists, living together in a rural place, really committed to the craft. I’ve always been a spiritual seeker and I thought we would have spiritual experiences together [laughter]. I wasn’t a meditator when I started it, but the Art Monastery shaped me and led me to meditation.

Before that first Artmonk Retreat, I did a 5-day retreat at Spirit Rock. I thought that if I was going to facilitate an art sesshin, I should experience an extended meditation retreat first. That retreat had a deep impact on me. After the retreat at Spirit Rock, I experienced the connection between creative practice and contemplative practice at the first Artmonk Retreat. And from there, it’s been a process of deepening. We continue to run more and more Artmonk Retreats, and my personal practice has become deeper and deeper.

SN: Can you share about the upcoming Zen and Art workshop?

The original idea came from (GGF Abiding Abbess) Fu Schroeder when I was living at Green Gulch Farm in 2017. I was having dokusan with her, and towards the end she said: “Why don’t you and I run a retreat together? I’ll bring the Zen and you bring the art? We can bring in the Heart Sutra.” I was beside myself. I looked at her and blinked, and I said, “Are you messing with me?” I was so excited. I couldn’t have fathomed approaching her with this idea.

If this retreat makes an exclamation mark in your body, then you’re being called. Come and find out what that call has for you.

So that’s what we’re doing in the workshop. Fu will give the Dharma talks and I will guide the creative exercises. There will be chants and songs and some contemplative movement. The idea is for it to be the full breadth of our experience: movement, singing together as embodiment, sitting together, the wonderful wisdom of Fu, and artmaking.

In the morning we’ll sit, sing, and move. After a break, Fu will give a Dharma talk and I will lead a practice to help people get their creative feet underneath them. The whole afternoon is offline so people can make art or be outside, or rest, or just not be on a screen. We will come back in the evening, share what we made and get feedback on our pieces. And then we’ll sit together. It’s a really great flow.

SN: Who is this workshop for?
It’s for artists who meditate and meditators who make art. We have people who are artists interested in Zen and long time Zen practitioners using it to foster creativity they already have. It’s important to recognize that art is so much bigger than painting, singing, writing, photography. It’s also cooking, gardening, social sculpture*, and writing emails.

If this retreat makes an exclamation mark in your body, then you’re being called. Come and find out what that call has for you.

For more information and to sign up for the HeartMind: Art & Zen Workshop with Betsy McCall and Fu Schroeder, go here.

*Social sculpture is the practice of life-as-art, as coined by Joseph Beuys. Elements of the Art Monastery social sculpture include: a community schedule, resource pooling, ceremony, group process, artshares, shared labor, and ethical purchasing agreements.


Suiko’s artwork