My Taoist Vision of Art
Sal had been
making “crazy stuff” for at least ten years when a local publisher and an art museum director decided that Sal
should explain what he was doing to the public. For several years, elderly citizens
of Boone, NC, drove around his property after Sunday services and observed, from the road, the evolving exhibits by the artist. They suspected that there was something sinister that the foreigner from the Philippines
was creating that could corrupt the beliefs and morals of the Appalachian Mountain people, especially the children. Dr. Charles Watkins, the director of the Appalachian Cultural Museum and Dr. Rao Aluri, a regional book
publisher, commissioned Sal Kapunan to write a book about his creations.
Since the book was intended to explain and justify
his strange creations that were publicly displayed around his properties in Boone, NC and Cape Coral, Florida, the author
will quote from Dr. Watkins’ Foreword written specifically for the book. The
author greatly appreciated Dr. Watkin’s insights about the meaning of Sal’s artworks.
“… At first glance, Kapunan would
hardly be an outsider. He is well-educated holding a doctoral degree each in
philosophy and education. He has achieved considerable success, largely as a
result of mastering Western ideas of real estate speculation. Art historians
typically view outsider artists as working through their worldly and personal failures.
Sal Kapunan is a different kind of outsider. His work represents a visual
processing of his personal achievements, not simply educational and financial achievements, but those as a human being in
balance with the world. In other words, as a Taoist.
“He is, himself, somewhere on a cultural
continuum, no longer of the Philippines where he was born and raised, but not so completely American that his vision is colored
by over familiarity with the razzamatazz and hurly burley of post-industrial life at the dawn of a new millennium. He is a natural questioner, perhaps the best kind of outsider. And,
as an outsider, he sees things that we, on the inside, miss and he calls attention to them, stripping us of our own contentment
and making us aware of what we take for granted.
“It is particularly important to understand that most of Kapunan’s artwork has been created within the
context of garden building, both in Florida and in North Carolina. The uniting
of art with ornamental horticulture precedes recorded time, but certainly we know that the ancient Greeks and Romans placed
in garden settings as a means of enhancing both the man-made and natural elements, creating something greater than the sum
of the two parts. This urge remains ubiquitous with us today, as any roadside
shop selling concrete St. Francis of Assisi statues and plywood pictures of women bending over will testify. This is, of course, the lowbrow end of the concept’s spectrum.
“At the other end are the elaborate
efforts such as the ‘garden of cosmic speculation’ began in the Scottish Borders by physicist Charles Jencks and
his wife Maggie Keswick in 1990. …
“So, too, are Kapunan’s gardens about ideas rather than moods. One
suspects that if Kapunan had never started to make art, his gardens would have been based on Eastern principles of simplicity
and repose. But he did, in fact, begin to make art and now, rather than simplicity
and repose, his gardens have become wonderlands of fantasy and creativity, yet one can still see the Taoist basis that underlies
his work. But this is a Taoism that has had a head-on collision with Postmodernism.
“When one looks at the garden and the components out of which Kapunan’s art is made---vacuum cleaners,
auto tanks, tennis racquets, bicycle parts, telephone sets and so forth---the result should be mayhem. But, instead, there is order. In fact, there is more than
order. There is a serenity that feels very Eastern, even in the non-orientalness
of the setting. The art is not junk sculpture---it is a conscious reordering
of the meaning of things, a reforming of artifacts that are moving out of their previous form, much like the journey of Sal
Kapunan from the Philippines to the United States, and into something else. These
things---gas tanks and Kapunan alike---are what they were and what they have become, all at the same time, as if past and
present were both visible at once, like an infinity mirror. In the case of the
Boone garden, it is a garden of pathways, of wood and branches, ivy, pine needles and pebbles.
It is the Orient and Appalachia and modern industrialism and the world of handicraft, all merging under some locust
and pine trees in the backyard of a most remarkable man.
terms of Appalachian history, this is a good thing. For too long, the general
public and many scholars have viewed traditional mountain culture as something eternal, a perpetual Scottish-Irish Nirvana
of storytellers and dulcimers. Kapunan---the philosopher, artist, and gardener---reminds
us that no mountain is an island, that change is not only inevitable but healthy
and that the view from the outside can be quite remarkable.”
Everyone Is An Artist: Making Yourself The Artwork
about his Taoist-inspired artworks in 1999, Sal had a wonderful insight. Since
he didn’t have any training in art, how could he become an artist? Could
anyone become an artist simply by deciding to make things?
He visited the theme park created by Harold Solomon
in the boondocks of Olga, east of Sarasota, Florida. Solomon built himself a
European style castle made of discarded industrial materials. Solomon jokingly
called himself ‘King Solomon.’ Solomon, too, was untaught or self-taught. He taught himself 22 different trade skills in the process. He learned electrical, plumbing, sheet rocking, brick laying and so on over a period of five years.
Sal found out that there were several thousands of self-taught artists
all over the world. They simply decided to make things and neighbors regarded
them as artists.
Several words have been used to refer to such
artists: vernacular, visionary, folk, crazy and many other pejorative terms. The
generic term that fits this class of artists is “outsider” because their art and culture is outside of what most
people consider traditional art. However, the term that Sal favors is “visionary”
because the more sophisticated outsider artists have a higher vision of reality. They
have a vision of what they want to do and just do them.
A good example of a visionary was Eddie Owens
Martin of Buena Vista, Georgia. He was born in poverty and worked as a sharecropper
until his late teens. Then, he left for New York City to start his world exploration. Instead of traveling, as he had planned, he found himself in the company of low lives
and social rejects. He indulged in petty crimes, including prostitution, in order
to generate some funds.
When he was 40, his mother died and left
to him her small farm. He returned to Georgia to claim his inheritance. In Georgia, he envisioned himself as the head of an imaginary tribe. He called his farm Pasaquan and called the imaginary people Pasaquanites.
Every day, Martin portrayed his imaginary people dancing, singing and listen to radio transmission from outer space. The Pasaquanite’s hairs were standing to the heavens because they were the receptors.
Martin painted every space in his house. When he ran out of walls, he
built concrete walls around the house and covered them with illustrations from the floor to the ceilings.
designed elaborate capes and artistic coats, which he wore to meet visitors. Sometimes,
he shocked his visitors by wearing nothing at all. Due to the revenues from tourism,
he was able to construct several more buildings, which he used for more elaborate murals.
He could have lived indefinitely except, in the 1980s, he contracted cancer and ended his life in 1985 with a bullet. From 1950 to his death, Eddie left a considerable body of artworks that were beautiful
and amusing. His home and farm have been turned into a museum by the state of
There is at the center of our consciousness a psychological entity that we refer to as “I” or the “self.” The self is our point of reference for our actions, thoughts and feelings. The self is complex because it has many facets. Some of the
facets are physical. If you have a sore elbow, that part of you hurts. There are many processes within us that we are aware of. We
maybe aware of our growling stomach. We are aware of our thoughts and how we
react to them. Using reason, conscience and common sense, the self tinkers with
irrational thoughts, extreme feelings and erroneous reactions. This is one way
of sculpting ourselves and becoming better individuals and more decent human beings.
Every time we think or master a field study, strands of our brains are being hardwired, which is like writing our biographies
in our brains. The unique pathways that we create in our brains make each person
a unique individual.
Artistry is encoded in each person’s brains. We are programmed by
our genes to appreciate art and to do art. Every day as we wash our faces, shave
our beards and comb our hair, we are doing art because we prepare ourselves for a personal artistic presentation to the public.