Twenty years ago, in 1994, I came to Sri Lanka to establish a garden of peace for children caught up in the civil war. This enterprise expanded so that by 2006 there were three gardens in the east of the country at Batticalao, a children’s garden in Hambantota and, in Colombo and Negombo, two studios teaching the arts of the Garden Path. These days the entire enterprise has retracted to its original base, the Butterfly Peace Garden and the Monkey’s Tale Center in Batticaloa, both of which now face an uncertain future due to shrinking economic resources.
In moments of uncertainty I am tempted to believe our muse is indeed a mischievous spirit. Maybe she is trying to teach deeper lessons about success through failure and her school is the school of hard knocks, or as some would have it, the Stupid School. She will keep us there like a dunce cornered in confusion until a new kind of faith and determination rise out of the ashes of doubt. She wants us to open our eyes to the prophetic view, which transcends that of mere profit, by growing large of heart with deeper understanding of the role change and impermanence play in our lives.
There is no way around it. Sooner or later we have to make peace with ourselves as an unpredictable process of flux and flow in the flesh. We are a river and no one steps into the same river twice. While reconciliation has psychological, ecological and political layers, it begins with the individual’s epiphany concerning our common humanity and emanates out from there.
Looking around today we see a world in upheaval. Everywhere we turn there is confrontation and conflict. This war is inside us. It is outside us. It is all around us. We cannot escape it because there is nowhere that is unaffected, either directly or indirectly, by political upheaval, social unrest, economic injustice, population pressure and environmental degradation.
Running to and fro in shadow, from inner shadow to outer shadow, we seek security, social status, monetary reward, momentary relief from madness and, if possible redemption. In the frenzy to escape, we lose touch with one another, our roots and our soul. Garden Path Centers of Contemplative Art were once a place to come home to, a refuge and rest. One by one they have disappeared.
Step-by-Step Studio in Colombo will close its doors at the end of October 2014. Such a sad loss, not only for the two artists that ran it so effectively, Chaminda Pushpakumara and Nalaka Ranasinghe, but also for the street kids, wounded soldiers, survivors of domestic abuse, adolescent prisoners and families of the disappeared who benefited from their service teaching Mystery Painting, a practice which disarms our image arsenals and sows new seeds of understanding and peace among rivals in an unruly world.
This exhibition, The Image Ark, offers 22 paintings from Step-by-Step Studio in its final days, a fragment of countless images loosed upon the flood during the years Chaminda and Nalaka maintained it and other studios from which it evolved. The show is dedicated to them, to their teacher Master Kularaj at Monkey’s Tale in Batticaloa, and to many unsung Sri Lankan artists who practiced painting with them.
Both Chaminda and Nalaka are experienced tuk-tuk drivers. They are masters of heavy traffic, chaos and change. Tuk-tuks are three-wheeled motorized vehicles used in Sri Lanka as taxis, oft emblazoned with clever sayings and words of wisdom. Once such wisdom provides this rush hour illumination: “Yesterday is History. Tomorrow is Mystery. Today is a Gift. That is why it is called the Present.”
The Image Ark is their gift to you.
Artist-in-Tuition Step-by-Step Studio Colombo, Sri Lanka