Interview: Meri Stiles

 

Gravity, if you will, has little pull in the prints and drawings of artist Meri Stiles. Whales float overhead. Etheric spirit forms rise from the corporal. Simply drawn figures with elongated arms and legs shed the weight of the world and fly, reminiscent of Chagall’s evocative work.

Other paintings showcase unexpected juxtapositions. Human forms sport heads of birds or boxes. A fish in a pot, transparent as an aquarium, starts to boil on top of a stove.

Stiles, a psychology professor at Lyndon State College and longtime student of Buddhism, is an accomplished self-taught artist who appreciates, she says,“anything slightly off kilter.” Her work– both on campus and in the gallery– displays the influence of a rich inner life and a sense of adventure that has taken her all over the United States and to the other side of the globe.

It also displays her abiding commitment to social activism and commentary. Many of her pieces speak to violence, featuring guns and grenades, and red, wound-like gashes and splotches they leave behind. The cleanness and precision of the lines of her drawings are often streaked or stained with watercolor, rendering the whole suggestive rather than didactic. The dreamlike landscapes she creates, like the philosophy she embraces, are open to contemplative interpretation.

Bringing experience as a clinical social worker in an agency as well as a hospital setting to the classroom, Stiles says she considers it“a privilege” to teach in her field. Clearly, though, the world is her classroom. She’s led students to Guatemala for a service-oriented trip, and recently spent time in Nepal and India on sabbatical.

Her most recent drawings, paintings, and constructions, many completed after and under the spell of that inspirational sabbatical, are collected in“Attractor,” a show that will run at the Northeast Kingdom Artisan’s Guild in St. Johnsbury from Oct. 7 through Nov. 21. An artist’s reception is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 16, from 4 to 6 p.m.

How did you come to teach at LSC?

I grew up in Saranac Lake, N.Y., deep in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains. The town frequently registers the coldest temperature in the nation. It’s similar in many ways to the Northeast Kingdom— mountainous, rural, cold, snowy, filled with astounding nature and beauty, and at times desolate and isolating. I remember quite well the electric color of cold winter days, the hazy summer shades, and bleakness just before spring— the emotional experience of those memories shows up in some of my artwork now. And is reignited by the changing seasons here in the NEK.

I left Saranac Lake for college in Buffalo, N.Y.— I studied at the University of Buffalo and earned a BA in Communication, MSW (Social Work), and then a Ph.D. in Social Welfare/Clinical Social Work. I lived in Buffalo for 25 years. I love Buffalo. It has a vibrant arts scene (museums, music, galleries, theater) and many colleges and universities; it’s affordable; the people are friendly; there’s plenty of green space; and it’s a small, fairly clean city.

When I came to interview for the position at the college and drove over Route 2 to Lyndonville, it felt like I was finally coming home again.

Those years after graduation were a time of exploration and growth.

After my undergrad degree I ran a ski shop for about seven years. While I was doing that I was studying healing arts including shamanism, reflexology, Reiki, and Bioenergetic therapy. I studied with practitioners of these methods through local colleges and institutes. It was an exciting time because I was interested in so many things and the teachers of all of these disciplines were available to teach!

During this time I was also drawing a lot and teaching myself how to paint— although I think that teaching mostly consisted of buying paint, brushes, and canvas— and just painting. For my entire life I’ve enjoyed looking at art and designed objects, and I’ve always been able to figure out how to make things on my own. I like designing and making anything really– from clothes to jewelry. I showed a few paintings in a group show while I was in Buffalo.

In 1993 when I was 7 and a half months along in a pregnancy, I ruptured my spleen, which resulted in a near-death experience for both my daughter and I. We both came through it. Julija was premature and weighed 4-pounds, but she gained ground fast! It took me about a year to fully recover.

During this year I met my teacher, Dr. May Bychkov, who taught me meditation techniques to help me in my healing. I studied with him for a few years. This is how I began to meditate as a daily practice. Although I had been reading about Buddhism and Spiritualism for quite some time, my meditation practice helped to clarify my spiritual focus on Buddhism. And to clarify my career focus on social work.

And you turned that clarity and inner meditation practice into action.

Toward the end of my studies with my teacher I began to volunteer in a cancer hospital as a friendly visitor. After some time I was given permission to teach meditation and use Reiki with patients. It was amazing to work with people in this role. I met incredible people who taught me about resilience, strength, love, faith, sadness, humor, and gratitude. I think about these folks a lot. Many lost their battle with cancer. From time to time when I meet a new person I wonder, might this be the reincarnation of this or that person that I once knew?

I went back to school for a MSW degree because it was the fastest route to becoming a licensed clinician. My plan was to open a private practice combining psychotherapy, meditation, and energy work. Ha! I hadn’t considered that I might actually like the profession of Social Work. Once I began to study about social problems and understand the interconnectedness of all phenomena, a new door opened for me. I started thinking about continuing my social work studies and completing the Ph.D. program.

As I was completing the Ph.D. I worked full-time as a child, adolescent, and family therapist in a community mental health clinic, and later as a medical social worker/therapist in a private psychiatric hospital. I was also teaching in the MSW program at SUNY Buffalo. I was raising my daughter, working 3 jobs, and completing a Ph.D. It was a very busy time! And there was no time for art; however, I kept journals, which are filled with Julija stories, poems, and little drawings. These drawings show up in my artwork here and there. I like going through the old journals and being surprised at what I find. So much of what’s there I don’t recall at all— who drew these things?

After I completed my degree, I joined the Psychology and Human Services faculty at Lyndon. It’s been a full circle, but I have made my way back to teaching meditation (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction MBSR, a popular form of meditation developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn) now to students, faculty, and staff at Lyndon. And I’m back to drawing, painting, and creating stuff. This is the most productive, creatively speaking, I’ve ever been.

Tell us more about your study of mindfulness and Buddhist teachings.

I’ve read a fair amount on Buddhist psychology, and Buddhist philosophy, over many years. Buffalo had a wonderful esoteric bookstore right near the main UB campus; my office is filled with books from that store. The Himalayan Institute in Buffalo was also a great resource for books on pranayama and yoga. Many factors came together that allowed me to find Buddhist teachings and my precious teacher, who gave me the gift of meditation.

Since coming to Vermont I’ve studied the Mahayana Buddhist tradition from teachers at the Milarepa Tibetan Buddhist Center in Barnet. This is the same tradition of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama so I try to hear him speak every chance I get and of course read his books, both mainstream and sacred texts. To my mind he is the greatest social worker of our time!

This past year while I was on sabbatical I traveled to Nepal and India to learn more about Buddhist philosophy and to research the possibility of organizing trips for Lyndon State students to Nepal. I was able to spend some of that time on a pilgrimage to sacred Buddhist sites and hear the teachings that Buddha gave.

That travel must have been fascinating.

The pilgrimage was led by Venerable Robina Courtin, a Buddhist nun. It was unbelievable; we stayed and studied at Buddhist monasteries in Kathmandu and Bodh Gaya!

The whole trip was amazing— the places, people, sounds, colors, and food of these ancient parts of the world were beyond anything I had imagined. The combination of religious devotion and psychedelic colors continues to inspire my art and my teaching. This experience has opened my thinking and perspective on what’s truly important. It’s made me try to be a more generous person in teaching others and making art.

I think you’ve got a bit of wanderlust.

My dad was a school teacher, so we traveled in the summers— 5 kids stuffed into a station wagon with the pop-up tow-behind camper. I’ve been to all the states except Hawaii.

I was fortunate to have made a trip to the southwest last summer. I was presenting at a conference in New Mexico so we decided to drive and explore. I loved the desert and was deeply inspired by the colors, landscape, and dwellings in the southwest. When I came back I noticed I gravitated toward bright watercolors in my work. I wasn’t conscious of this until I brought some pieces into the Frame Dames for framing; they noticed a shift in my work.

I brought students to Guatemala for a service learning trip— that was a lot of fun! A few years ago I presented a paper at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland and took a side trip to Bern to go to the Zentrum Paul Klee– a museum dedicated to Paul Klee’s work. I’ve been fortunate to travel to Australia and all through Europe. And this year I finally had a dream come true by traveling to Nepal and India! When I travel I try to go to museums and to the areas where artists are. I enjoy seeing all manner of created work! I’d like to go to Japan to study anything. So we will see if that happens sometime in the future.

How has your Buddhist study influenced your social work and teaching?

The values and principles of social work are completely in line with Buddhist notions of Compassion (Loving kindness), and Emptiness (nothing we observe stands alone; all phenomena is connected to all else and is always changing). Social workers are trained to gather and analyze data using a systems approach that accounts for all that is impacting a person, family, community, or society. Social workers often work under challenging and sometimes dangerous circumstances. They use their knowledge, skills, and resources to empower clients to alleviate their own suffering. This can only be accomplished with a compassionate heart.

Probably the most important influence Buddhist study and mindfulness meditation has had on my teaching and work with others is practicing equanimity -- or trying to practice it! This is a steady, conscious realization of the nature of reality as transitory and learning to regard all that happens as equal. Not grasping at some things and rejecting other things. Pretty tricky!

I find if I am present in the moment I at least have a shot at equanimity. And if I practice equanimity my mind is still.

I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to put a label on your art. Tell us about your work.

As a self-taught artist I’m not familiar with any formal or specific labels for my art style. My process of art making is simple, I think. The desire to work on something arises organically, and for me, it feels as though it’s always there. So I make art every day. I like to meditate and then organize myself for whatever I’m making and see what arises. I rarely sketch anything out first or have an idea of what the image or construction will be when it’s done. Occasionally someone will ask me if I can draw something specific for them- and I have done it– so maybe I can work that way, too. I read something recently written by an art teacher who said you should always have an idea of what you will draw before you begin. If that’s a criterion for being an artist, I’m probably not one!

I think my art is energy that arises in me and then ends up on paper, or canvas, or as a constructed object. If I could sing, dance, play an instrument, or act it might just as easily be expressed in that way instead. The art I make often reflects aspects of life and society that are important me; it makes sense that things I think about the most show up in my work. Buddhism, mountains, humor, human struggle, isolation, bones (representing impermanence), Zen, and activism all are reoccurring themes.

Paul Klee, Kiki Smith, Mama Andersson, and Yoshitomo Nara have all influenced my style of art, in terms of the feeling their art invokes in me, as well as the style of the images they make. When I visited the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, it was like a pilgrimage to a holy site! Kiki’s work has a simplicity to it that brings a familiar comfort. I can feel the bleak isolation of deep winter in Mama’s paintings. I crave that at times. Nara’s drawings remind me of the struggle of adolescence and the virtue of having a bad attitude. Oh yes!

Kiki is also my inspiration for trying out new techniques; she is fearless in this regard. Recently I’ve taught myself screen-printing, mono-printing, and block-printing. I love discovering new art tools and then trying to figure out what they can do. I rarely read or watch something about it. I just jump in blindly.

Why paint?

Painting allows a lot of color to get on the canvas or paper quickly. Many of my drawings are simple ink drawings on a white background so using paint either on the top and bottom of the image to frame it or to color some part of the work is satisfying. I like the pop of color in a sea of white.

 

Since my trip to the southwest last summer I’ve been using watercolor paints in much of my work. The range of color and the flow of color in layers is a mystery. I love the way colors blend, and layers change the richness of the color.

When I was in Buffalo I was painting large canvases with acrylic and oil, some of those pieces are hanging in the President’s house at Lyndon State. I’d like to get back to painting on that scale again. I do enjoy painting slow drying acrylic on glass and making mono-prints. And I’m excited to use a very large piece of glass I recently acquired. That will get me back to a bigger scale!

I use pencil, Indian ink, drawing ink, and watercolor crayon in much of my work. Most of the pieces have combinations of mediums.

Your Buddhist studies have influenced your artwork as well.

The teachings of Buddhism influence the process of my art as well as the content. Emptiness, meditation, the Buddha, and impermanence all weave their way into my art. Two images that show up from time to time include a person’s mind expanding into the vast universe and an all-seeing compassionate Buddha.

Gravity seems to have little effect in many of your paintings. And the juxtaposition of images can be in some pieces amusing, in others alarming.

I think I’ve always appreciated anything slightly off kilter. Some of my art is amusing, although there is often some aspect that isn’t nice— just like a brooding teen. Recently I made a little watercolor of a man flying by mountains flipping the viewer off. That activism felt right to me. However, it’s not in the upcoming show; I wondered if it was too crude. Would it cause the gallery problems? I have shown pieces that protested wind farms on Vermont ridges (Turbine Bell-bottom, 2012), and protested China’s illegal occupation of Tibet (Free Tibet, 2014).

As for gravity: I fly in my dreams all the time -- so many places I’ve seen in my dreams, from flying overhead. I once had a completely intoxicating dream in which I was on an intricate, colorful flying carpet flying over Istanbul. Maybe I’ve begun to believe people can fly. It seems completely normal to me; it didn’t even occur to me that (flying) was something noticed in my images. Clearly I should talk to more people about my work! It’s good to hear about how others see the work.