Sunday, June 7, 2009

Earth Artist: Cynthia Johnson Bianchetta

One of the first things I respond to when I meet with Cynthia Johnson-Bianchetta is her beauty. I know this is probably not "politically correct," but it is a real reaction on my part. She is lovely, and that loveliness is something one feels to be true both of her physical presence and her spirit. It's something that others feel as well: charming men flock to her orbit, women respond to her Mama Bear warmth and artists of all kinds sense a gracious mentor.

Trained as a dancer and fine-art photographer, Cynthia came to Big Sur in 1984, to study healing work at the Esalen Institute, which she began with Stan and Christina Groff's holotropic breathwork. She’d spent the past three years creating the first international museum for film photography and video in San Diego, the Museum for Photographic Arts, as Assistant Director and Curator, and had been offered a position directing the Weston Gallery in Carmel.

Prior to her arrival at Esalen, she had experienced a deep spiritual opening in the midst of some powerful life changes. Like many others, her first thought when she saw the property’s magnificent green lawn rolling down to the cliff’s edge was, “I’m in Paradise.” So, in a state of fear and curiosity, she began a 25 year journey, becoming the gifted artist of today.

Through Christina Groff, Cynthia met her husband, photographer Daniel Bianchetta. “It’s been such an honor to have had such amazing teachers,” she remarks. She studied somatic movement with a variety of instructors, notably Gabrielle Roth, Anna Halprin, and Emily Conrad. “I see movement as a spontaneous meditation, a key part of our experience of being embodied,” she says. “Its subtle emphasis on the mind-body connection can bring forth untold creativity from our depths.”

In the early '90's, Cynthia co-founded Esalen’s Creative Arts Center, or "Art Barn," at the time a run-down structure recently vacated by a potter and batik artist. “We’re all artists at heart, and we need a space for this in our community,” she thought, and continued in this vein by working to create the dance platform next to the Art Barn, now a well-used performance space. Today, the highest enrollment in Esalen’s workshops are in the arts.

Many trips to rock art sites in the South West with her husband added another dimension: As Daniel photographed ancient petroglyphs, she saw her shadow fall across a rock in the morning sunshine, and began dancing with it. So began her “Earth Dances,” and more dovetailing of visual and performing arts. She built “Earth Altars” in the ruins and filmed herself dancing, or digging up bits of torn photographs buried in the earth, a primal woman finding shards of images in the dust.

“On a core level, dance is my way in to my creativity, which starts in my body,” Cynthia says. “When you’re moving, things move!” she adds. In addition to her own work as an artist, she has taught photography and painting in Big Sur and in Santa Fe, New Mexico. These days, she finds herself drawn more and more to her latest passion: painting with fire. “Listening to my creative voice has now led me to working with hot molten wax and blow torches,” she laughs, “a real girly thing to do!”

The 4,000 year old art of encaustic painting seems the perfect medium for her. (Ancient Greeks and Egyptians painted their mummies this way.) It is informed by the Earth: beeswax from bees, pigments from plants, painted on panels of wood. She uses mixed media to enhance encaustic’s translucent, sensual texture, bringing the everyday into the realm of the sacred in her work. For her post Basin Complex Fire show last fall, Smoke and Ash, she created a series of paintings using ashes from the fire. All the elements are present in this alchemical art form: Earth, air, fire and… water? “Tears of joy,” she smiles.

“Follow your bliss,” as Joseph Campbell said, and Cynthia remembers attending his annual birthday party at Esalen for many years. “To have a life of creativity is within the grasp of us all,” she says. “And for me, bliss is creativity. I mean, what more is there? That is the spiritual path. And if we get out of our own way, the source of inspiration can move through us and work with us.”

Cynthia has donated proceeds from her work to Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and, in last Fall’s Smoke and Ash show, to the Coast Property Owner's fire relief fund. She has a new studio in downtown Carmel, and her paintings are currently on display at Carmel’s Gallery North.

Starting this week, (and coinciding with the anniversary last year's fire) you can view her one-woman show in Big Sur, which includes encaustic paintings from the Smoke and Ash exhibit. Her work will be up for the Summer at the Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar Restaurant. (Please check back here for information on her opening reception.)

“My work has to be connected to something that has meaning for me, and delivers a message,” she says. “I want to keep listening with ease, and let these paintings speak for the Earth.”

25 years ago, Cynthia first heard this poem from a fellow seeker at Esalen. It's one of my favorites as well, and oddly appropriate for a woman who paints with wax:

Last night as I lay sleeping I dreamt,
marvelous error (blessed illusion)
that I had a beehive
here in my heart
and the golden bees
were making white comb and sweet honey
out of all my old mistakes.
-—Antonio Machado

Smoke and Ash, Encaustic, portion of 2' X 8' Painting
Charred, Encaustic, 4' X 6'

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