Feb. 22, 2014
John F. Simon studio visit [Chester, NY]
I should have conducted a studio visit with John F.Simon at the end of 2012. The plan has been canceled due to our stressful schedules at the time. After numerous snow storms in New York, the sunshine finally came back last Saturday, which allowed me to travel to John’s home at Chester. I went on travel with one particular question in mind: how does he make the connection between meditation practice and the computer software work?
In a lovely sunny day, the one and half hour travel by bus from New York City to Chester is a pleasant journey. John’s place is only a few minutes away by car from the bus station. From far, we saw a nicely built modern architecture sitting in front of a grove, in the middle of a large piece of land covered by a thick layer of snow. Thirty feet away next to it, was a small house that John took as studio for his daily meditation and artwork production.
The inner space of the studio structured in industrial style. The high ceiling shuffled by steel frames; the walls were simply painted white; the various half carved harsh materials spread on numerous large workbenches. All gave the impression that we were standing in the corner of the factory – yet clean and nicely arranged – instead of an artist’s studio. A few prototypes in fragment were hanging on the wall facing the main entrance gave a glimpse of John’s new large painting in progress.
One can hardly imagine that an artist would need to operate so many heavy machines to make his paintings. Some of John’s early works were made on a laser cut machine that he rarely uses today. To cut and shape the high-density urethane (HDU) and metal, the materials that he uses to make his current paintings, John purchased a Shopbot full size. In our conversation about his knowledge about materials, I surprisingly discovered that the artist’s selection on materials entirely based on his sensibility on colours. “For the same colour, different materials provide different density. For instance, the HDU and the foam insulation don’t provide the same white. Painting is all about colours!” In some other words, the subtlety of the colours and the patterns in John’s paintings is realised by materials.
I could never figure out by my own John’s artistic process without he showing his studio and explaining to me in living voice. No one would imagine that the artist had to undertake such a complicated and meticulous process to produce his paintings. The process takes departure of a daily meditation practice, where John closes himself in the studio, sits in silence, letting his unconsciousness navigate deliberately until a drawing emerges in his mind. He then puts it down on paper, sometimes completes one or two sentences, scans the entire outcome and uploads it to his website where have been archived more than two thousand “Divination drawings” from fifteen years daily meditation practice, the source of his creation.
The fifteen years daily meditation practice – unbelievable achievement in many people’s eyes – is only the departure point in John’s artistic process, the heaviest part hasn’t even started. Every major painting starts from a sketch that takes origin from the innumerable “Divination drawings” collection. Once the sketch is ready, the artist scans it into computers. The digitalised sketch will be decomposed into small fragments in Rhinoceros on one computer; they will be re-adjusted, re-shaped, enlarged, stretched from flat graphic images to three-dimensional objects with different sizes and thicknesses. They will be then uploaded into another computer, opened within the Illustrator platform. Here, the artist will finalise their details, cover them with different colours, re-compose them back to the sketch, and export the finalised digital sketch to Shopbot to shape the raw material into the prototypes of his future painting. Sometimes, when the artist wants to carve fine patterns on the surface of some specific parts of the raw material, the old laser cut machine will be in use.
The prototypes derived from such a complex and meticulous process look like some skeletons from architectural projects. In a certain way, John does work as an architect on his paintings. Once the spiritual meditation is accomplished, the artist has to have his mind set to the similar state of an architect, in order to work on different software interfaces. The constant shift between the Zen emptiness following the flow of unconsciousness, and the extremely rational and accurate calculations imposed by computer language might be constantly experienced by countless artists working in the intersection of art, science and technology. Only a few of them can invent such a process as John’s.
When I questioned on the necessity of his process for the outcome, John seemed convinced that this was the only way to produce the work he truly wanted. Could it be any better way – a simpler way – to produce the same work? John hasn’t found it. Although complex and demanding, at the end of so many years practice, today, it only takes John two weeks to a month to go through the whole process to create a large scale painting, which doesn’t sound so bad. However, for his ongoing painting to be achieved by summer/fall 2014, the process seems more complicated, and the production duration might also be longer than usual.
On a small desk next to the only window of the studio, I saw a few sets of water-colour palette, pencils and brushes, with a series of new “Divination drawings.” In fact, these drawings were not created by the artist, but his unconsciousness. When I questioned on how he could keep seeing drawings emerging from his unconsciousness after so many years, John laughed and said: “I never had a problem to see these drawings. They are always there, always different. They are just too many!”