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Winston Leathers
Winston Leathers Work

ABOVE: untitled (Departing Spring), 1964, collograph, a/p, 74.5 x 55.0, Accession: #02.017. Collection of University of Gallery One One One, School of Art, University of Manitoba; gift of Winston & Kathleen Leathers.

Winston Leathers and Zen

by Ann Davis, December 2004

For more than a century, North American artists have had a considerable interest in the philosophies and art of the Orient. The ideas of Taoism and Zen Buddhism, in particular, have had great impact. Starting with the Transcendentalists in the United States and the Impressionists in Europe, artists such as Edouard Manet, Emily Carr, Georgia O’Keeffe, Lawren Harris, Fred Varley and Mark Tobey used the philosophies and the aesthetics of the Far East. The journey toward inner exploration continued in the second half of the twentieth century, with artists fascinated by the Tao Te Ching, the I-Ching, the writings of D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, the Beat writers and Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The musician, poet and artist John Cage has been a critical link between the Far East and North American artists such as Ted Godwin. Other artists, including Morris Graves, Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman, assimilated Asian philosophies and presented them in their art, as did the Canadians Art MacKay and, later, David Sorensen. Ideas and methods borrowed from Zen were considered a way of doing and being but were not considered to be religious or intellectual.1

What is Zen; what are the teachings of Zen? Perhaps the best summary, according to Hugo Munsterberg, is found in the following gatha or sacred lines, attributed to the Indian monk Bodhidharma, who arrived in China in A.D. 527. This gatha probably dates rather later:

A special transmission outside the doctrinal teaching,
No dependence on letters or words,
Pointing directly at the Mind in every one of us,
And seeing into one’s Nature, whereby one attains Buddhahood2
All the essential teachings of Zen or Zen Buddhism are found in these four, spare lines. First, Zen exists outside the traditional doctrines of Buddhism, having little to do with philosophy or religion as they are usually understood. Second, in contrast to other sects, the Zen masters paid little attention to the numerous sacred scriptures of Buddhism, as it was felt that that knowledge could never be found through study but only by awakening one’s own nature. Finally, the Mind—the Ultimate Essence—should not be sought in the sutras—the temple—but in our heart, in the depth of our essential self. It is only in this way that one can find peace and become a Buddha. These concepts parallel other mystical approaches: what Christians call God, Lao-Tzu and his followers call Tao, and the Hindus’ Brahman.3

Winston Leathers was very much a part of this important interest in Zen. Diane Lemieux, a University of Manitoba student in 1998, wrote an essay on an early Leathers’ print and, for her paper, she interviewed the artist. Lemieux noted that Leathers developed an interest in Zen while he was in Mexico in 1957 and, later, was influenced by Mark Tobey, who studied Zen in Japan, and Alan Watts, a leader of the Zen movement in the U.S. in the 1960s.4 Although Leathers wrote little, and much of that was often poetry, what he did write is very revealing of his philosophical acceptance of the principles of Zen. This is manifested in a number of ways: first, his subject matter; next, his method of working; and, finally, his abiding interest in and respect for nature.

Leathers’ work is highly abstract. He, like others, moved away from art totally based on Western traditions, from art that had a direct relationship with objects, with images that were a substitution for appearances in the visible world. His work had no narrative or didactic purpose. And he did not seek any absolute meaning. In the 1974 pamphlet that accompanied his Cosmic Variations exhibition at The Winnipeg Art Gallery, Leathers explained: "As for my own work I hope to evoke a sense of wonder I see around me, not as a pictorial souvenir, nor as an equivalent of what I see, but as a personal statement of order and beauty."5 Here then is Leathers’ interest in his own inner nature, in his essential self. This is very close to the teaching of Hui’nng, often considered the true founder of Zen Buddhism. Upon being asked about his teaching, Hui’nng replied: "My master has no special instruction to give, he simply insisted upon the need of our seeing into our own nature through our own efforts …." 6 The American painter Mark Tobey, a reflective whom Leathers admired, put the same idea differently. Like Zen painters, Tobey is intent on his inner vision rather than on the outer appearances of the world around him:
The dimension which counts for the creative person is the space he creates within himself. The inner space is closer to the infinite than the other, and it is the privilege of a balanced mind–and the search for equilibrium is essential—to be aware of the inner space as he is of outer space.7
Regardless of inspiration or title, Leathers always sought that balance between the outer space and his own inner space in his work.

The second Zen attribute of Winston Leathers is his method of working. In the 1974 Cosmic Variations pamphlet, he refers to this twice: "The idea for a particular work is not consciously sought after, but emerges, or is found in the involvement of working." Later in the text, he states: "The sort of imagery I am involved with is arrived at or found, rather than preconceived…."8 Will or desire is rejected in favour of spontaneity and openness to a connection with the spirit of nature. Order is to be found, not imposed. Here then is the Zen redefinition of self, now a transcendent state in which one experiences awareness of universal connections, awareness of whole. D. T. Suzuki, writing in Mysticism, Christianity and Buddhism, discussed a picture of a hibiscus:
The secret is to become the plant itself. But how can a human being turn himself into a plant? In as much as he aspires to paint a plant or an animal, there must be in him something which corresponds to it in one way or another. If so, he ought to be able to become the object he desires to paint. The discipline consists in studying the plant inwardly with his mind thoroughly purified of its subjective, self-centered contents…. The identification enables the painter to feel the pulsation of one and the same life animating both him and the object…. [I]t is then that the brush, as well as his arm and fingers, become obedient servants to the spirit of the object. The object makes its own picture. 9
More than two decades after the Cosmic Variations exhibition, Leathers returns to a discussion of his working method, this time in relation to calligraphy. Working from the book Zen and the Art of Calligraphy,10 Leathers records that "the essence of beauty in calligraphy is movement: the brush strokes stretch and sweep, crouch and spring, strokes swell and diminish, shapes expand and contract. Line after line, gesture after gesture should have a way of giving life." 11 Here, surely, is another iteration of the Zen pulsation that animates both artist and object, drawing them together into one new whole. Here we have the spontaneous, the non-rational and the intuitive.

The third Zen attribute of Winston Leathers is his deep and abiding commitment to nature. While this tendency was probably part of his fundamental makeup, it was reinforced when Leathers went to Mexico in 1957. Writing notes about this Mexican experience, he explained:
Principle –
The theory of work and experimentation that implies nature alone as teacher has been one of the guiding principles for the younger artists of Mexico. Through this method of learning: by individual experience rather than being taught according to academic rule[,] a definite Mexican mode of expression has been and is being crystallized into a style. 12
Returning to his statement in the 1974 Cosmic Variations pamphlet, Leathers writes: "I am particularly moved by those aspects of nature that are wild, that seemingly haphazard look that is yet inevitable and complete. Landscape is the initial impetus…."13 Nature is a constant theme in Zen. Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769) is seen to be one of the greatest masters of Japanese Zen. One of Hakuin’s best-known formal Zen poems begins:
From the beginning all beings are Buddha.
Like water and ice,
Without water no ice,
Outside us no Buddhas.14
The cross referencing back and forth from nature to humans is ubiquitous, as is the symbolism. The crane and the monkey, often depicted in Chinese painting, stand for the wild and unspoiled beauty of nature. Furthermore, in his famous Essay on Landscape Painting, Kuo Hsi notes that "virtuous man takes pleasure in landscapes."15 Buddhist deities are typically shown not as god dwelling in paradise, but as men close to nature. Winston Leathers is very much part of this tradition of venerating nature.

The three Zen attributes I have identified in Winston Leathers’ modus operandi and in his artwork will, I hope, provoke and suggest and stimulate. Inner space, found imagery and centrality of nature are all fundamental to an understanding of Leathers’ art. Without having the luxury of talking to him about this essay, without being able to knock over the fire tongs in the delightful Minaki cottage,16 I have considerable confidence that his works speak to me and speak in the Zen language. I have not discussed the seven characteristics of Zen aesthetics—asymmetry, simplicity, austere sublimity, naturalness, subtle profundity, freedom from attachment, and tranquility17—but you will be able to see these seven attributes in his works. Professor Harold Henderson writes of qualities considered indicative of Zen: "a great zest for life, a feeling that nothing is alone, nothing unimportant, a wide sympathy; an acute awareness of relationship of all kinds, including that of one sense to another."18 Surely this describes Winston Leathers and his art.

1 Geri DePaoli, "Meditations and Humor: Art as Loan" in The Trans Parent Thread:
Asian Philosophy in Recent American Art
, exhibition catalogue (Hampstead, N.Y.: Hofstra Museum, Hofstra University, 1990), p. 23.
2 Quoted by Hugo Munsterberg, in Zen & Oriental Art (Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1993), p.15.
3 Ibid, pp. 15-16.
4 Diane Lemieux, "Winston Leathers (1932 - )", unpublished paper, 1998, p. 1.
5 Cosmic Variations (Winnipeg: The Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1974), np.
6 Quoted in D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, Series 1 –3, (London: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1949-1951), p. 212.
7 C. Roberts, Mark Tobey, p. 43, quoted in Munsterberg, p. 143.
8 Cosmic Variations, np.
9 D. T. Suzuki, Mysticism, Christianity and Buddhism, p. 32, quoted in Munsterberg, pp. 37-38.
10 Omori Sogen and Terayama Katsuji, Trans. John Stevens, Zen and the Art of Calligraphy (Akana: 1990), np
11 Document titled Winston Leathers, RCA, A Personal Calligraphy, received by author June 9, 1997, in the possession of the author.
12 Notes – (Mexico – 57-), p 1, with Kathleen Leathers.
13 Cosmic Variations, np.
14 Quoted in Albert Low, "Master Hakuin’s Gateway to Freedom", in Kenneth Kraft, ed., Zen Tradition & Transition (New York: Grove Press, 1988), p. 89.
15 Quoted by Munsterberg, p. 39.
16 I spent many glorious days at the Leathers’ cottage in Minaki, but I gained a reputation for knocking over the fire tongs.
17 Shub’ichim Hisamatus, trans. Gishin Tokiwa, Zen and the Fine Arts, (Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1971), p. 29.
18 Quoted in Munsterberg, p. 29

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Information: Jennifer Gibson, Curator, tel: 204.786.9253

The Winston Leathers: In The Moment CD-ROM is a co-publication of Gallery One One and Gallery 1C03 that includes information about other Gallery One One One projects.

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For information please contact Robert Epp