by Kristin Serafini
17 October 2007
acrylic and pencil on gallery canvas
60″ x 15″
gift for Michael Booth on 16 February 2008
Without warning, on 15 August 2007, the junta currently ruling Burma (Myanmar) removed fuel subsidies, causing the prices of diesel, petrol and compressed natural gas to shoot through the roof. The doubling of fuel prices and the increase of natural gas prices by 500% caused a rise in food prices and further economic distress for a population already ranked among the 20 poorest nations on Earth, according to the United Nations.
Late at night, often while painting, I like to listen to the BBC World Service on my local NPR radio station. I heard how people took to the streets. At the beginning of September 2007, Burma’s Buddhist monks joined the protest, peacefully walking in long columns down the streets chanting verses of lovingkindness. Thousands of monks and nuns marched and prayed for the people of Burma. They also refused alms from the military by turning their rice bowls upside down, a sign of deep disrespect. These peaceful actions infuriated the Burmese military, who beat, imprisioned and even killed some of the monks. They eventually raided monasteries, forcing many monks into hiding.
I was very moved by the bravery and peaceful conviction displayed by the monks. Through the rain and the mud and the poverty and the violence, they marched, sometimes in kilometer-long columns. through the radio, the image of the marching monks came into my head and started to look like three long, narrow canvases, lined up horizontally on what would have to be a very long wall. Down a hallway perhaps, or in a gallery or museum. In the middle of so many other projects, though, I couldn’t come up with an immediate reason to paint them. So I just kept thinking of them.
Sometime in the middle of September, I was on the phone with Michael Booth. I was in the car, waiting to pick up Gabriel from working at a client’s office in Clayton. I think the sun was just going down. Michael was in his office, looking at the blank wall and telling me that he would really like to hang a stack of 3 long narrow paintings over his couch. And these paintings should have golden yellow, magenta, orange and brown in them. Um, okay. That’s enough of a reason to start the monk series. No, I hadn’t told him about the idea for this set yet.
Shortly thereafter, I made a beeline for Artmart, and came home with three 60″ x 15″ canvases. Of course now I couldn’t just imagine the saffron stream of monks; I had to actually find out what they looked like. Ah, Google, glorious, glorious Google. Someday an art historian will be sitting around writing a Ph.D. thesis about how the gigantic image dump that is Google has influenced the visual arts. In this case, I was able to pull up dozens of pictures of Burmese monks: marching, praying, eating, running for their lives…
One photo taken on 24 September 2007, and published on the New York Times website showed the monks marching three and four deep down a crowded city street through the pouring rain. On either side of the monks, civilians stood holding hands, trying to protect the monks from the military. I loved the determination of the monks and the protection offered by the people.
I started out by painting several rainy washes on the canvas. It took a long time to build up just the right amount of dreary dampness. I wasn’t really sure how to incorporate the civilians without getting into way too much detail, so I started sketching in the monks first. Then we had my parents over for dinner. I explained all about the project and my dad suggested the idea of silhouetting the civilians in the background. I was already wanting a way to create a more meaningful involvement between the viewer and the marching monks, instead of just exploiting the image for its gorgeous excuse to use lots of orange. This idea allowed the viewers to effectively become the row of protecting people on the other side of the street. Maybe people will start to ask themselves what they are doing to contribute to peaceful solutions when they stand in front of these paintings.
I finished this first painting on 17 October 2007, and it sat on our mantle over the fireplace, perfectly matching our living room, for four months. I had a lot of other art and book deadlines so I didn’t immediately start the next one in the series.
On 16 February 2008, Gabriel and I drove up to Michael’s cabin in the woods on the Principia College campus to celebrate Michael’s 32nd birthday with waffles and poetry readings and a toasty fire in the fire place. I knew my sister Katie was going to call later in the day and ask Michael to officiate at her wedding this coming August, so I thought Sangha I might be an appropriate birthday gift.