In 2021 Artsy ran an article by Salomé Gómez-Upegui titled “Why Contemporary Artists are Embracing Spirituality in Their Work”. 1 In the article, Gómez-Upegui explores the growing interest in contemporary artists to involve spirituality in their work and creative practice. Gómez-Upegui ultimately makes clear that while this movement cannot be pinned to a singular explanation, many artists are using their artwork to “reflect on personal beliefs, religious or not.” For Kimberly Neff, a contemporary artist from Philadelphia, creating art is directly intertwined with her spiritual practice. Neff describes herself as an adherent of the Pachakuti Mesa Tradition, a type of cross-cultural shamanism founded on practices that encourage harmonious relations with the inner self and the universe.2 In the same way that interest in the sublime guided the decisions of abstract expressionist artists such as Rothko and Newman, the Pachakuti Mesa Tradition has guided Neff’s choices in artistic subject matter and materials and gives context to her work.3
The Pachakuti Mesa Tradition is founded on principles of movement, change, and transformation. The Tradition emphasizes the intrinsic connection between ‘spirit’ (what is unseen) and ‘matter’ (the physical/tangible existence of things), where “matter is the dense form of spirit. Spirit is the subtle form of matter.” In this dynamic, the shaman is admonished as an “agent of change”.4 This dialogue between the seen material and the unseen spiritual is a core element of Neff's work. ‘Matter’ translates into a practice that prioritizes using a range of materials to create mixed-media paintings. While her earlier practice focused on acrylic paint, Neff broadened her material use to incorporate spray paint and non-paint materials like cloth, wires, and paper. Neff attributes the ease with which she tries new mediums to a love of trying new things and a dedication to stretching her technical abilities. While in her current practice, she has taken up watercolor as a primary medium, any material Neff includes is grafted into her process of quick mark-making and creating color blocks.
In Cherry Blossoms (2021), the thirty-six by thirty-six-inch canvas is an array of playful mark-making of pinks, purples, whites, and golds. Fluid, spray-painted white swirls dance onto a lilac background where the canvas underneath peeks through. Dollops of pink and gold onto the white lines, which are framed by a border of rosy pink on the upper left corner and right side, covered by happy squiggles and swirls of light pink. Joined with the title “Cherry Blossoms,” the painting gives off a thoroughly “spring” tune. Plops of pink onto white lines become reminiscent of buds on branches, the corners of blossom pink foreshadowing trees lined with flowers. Cherry Blossoms (2021) is a prime demonstration of Neff’s propensity to incorporate bright and playful colors in her pieces. Significantly, a thin, vacillating vertical black line breaks up the center-right of the canvas, pooling into a black triangle, complicating the rest of the soft color palette.
Whether winter involved stark white snow and ice, or the barren brown ground and bare trees, the advent of Spring brings sighs of relief from the earth and its inhabitants. Like the Pachakuti Mesa Tradition’s Shaman is an “agent of change”, spring, by definition, is a season of change. Budding trees and bright flowers once more proclaim that what looked to be dead and gone was only hibernating. Warmer weather appears to breathe new life into people as well. Suddenly runners and cyclists are seen dotting the roads and sidewalks. Birds are chirping, bees are buzzing, picnics and sunbathing and friendly greetings are readily available. Spring, for all of its freshness, is a short time. And the further north you go, the shorter spring seems to be. Winter lingers, and after a blink of flowers and colors, summer has settled in, and the world is green. There is a sense that if you do not pay close attention, you could miss it.
In Philadelphia and Washington D.C, spring is synonymous with the blossoming of cherry trees. Every March/April the two cities wait in bated breath for the trees to bloom. The trees were a gift from the Japanese government to the united states. In 1912, three thousand and twenty cherry trees of 12 different varieties were planted on the edge of the Potomac River. Fourteen years later, one thousand-six-hundred trees were given to Philadelphia in honor of the one hundred-fiftieth anniversary of American Independence, and from 1998-2007, one thousand more cherry trees were planted.5 The cherry blossom is unofficially Japan’s national flower6, and the Japanese government with Japan Cherry Blossom Association give cherry trees as symbols of friendship. Cherry Blossoms are significant throughout Japanese culture and can be found in paintings, film, poetry, and literature. The blossoms, one of the loveliest and the shortest-lived flowers, embody the duplicity of renewal and the fleeting nature of life; beauty and mortality.7
Neff’s describes Cherry Blossoms as playing with notions of joy and unjoy. Mimicking the free-forming spirit of unexpected delight one feels spotting the first dandelion of spring, and the blooming trees of pink and purple and white that speak to new life, Neff’s work subtly references the delicacy of these moments and of life itself. The “unjoy” of a lingering black line amidst the vibrant pastels does not rewrite the joy, leaving a sense of foreboding. Rather, much like the Japanese consideration of the cherry blossom, the momentary nature of beauty allows for a closer consideration of it.
Neffs artmaking practice is meditative, connecting personal emotional experience to wider human existence, connecting to another aspect of the Pachakuti Mesa Tradition emphasizing the interconnectedness of everything. “ Everything responds to and is in interdependent relationship to everything else. The shaman is a mediator of these interconnections and interdependent relationships.”8 Touching on her own spirituality and experience, Neff’s work looks to personal emotions as a connection to the human condition. Each piece is created in moments where she is emotionally connected, then left alone for meditative space. After considering the piece up to weeks after creating it, Neff then decides if any final touches need to be added. Black and Gold Dragon (2021), is a thirty-six by thirty-six inch work made from acrylic paint, spray paint, gold foil leaf on canvas. Once more Neff employs quick movements and gestural mark-making. Her composition gives the impression of an abstract landscape. The canvas is divided between black on the right and white on the left, giving a soft impression of imagery of the Chinese yin and yang symbol. This notion of yin and yang, light and dark, black and white, brings ideas of opposites and balance, Harmony, and the range of good and bad experiences throughout a human lifetime. The white falls down like a waterfall onto a mound of teal. The gold lines appear to be falling upwards. Neff describes this work as presenting “a landscape of darkness and light that echoes the human experience.”
Neff’s recent work extends her use of the material, incorporating mixed-media and experimentation with watercolors. Neff's flexibility in material invokes her beliefs around the integration of the material and the spirit, and why creating art is so closely linked with her personal spirituality. But like the abstract impressionists, Neff’s personal expression also connects to those looking at the work. Invoking imagery and emotion that are familiar to the human experience, Neff draws connections between our own inner life and the physical world around us.
1. Gómez-Upegui, S. (2021, August 2). Why Contemporary Artists Are Embracing Spirituality In Their Work. Artsy Editorial. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-contemporary-artists-embracing-spirituality-work
2 The Pachakuti Mesa Tradition. The Heart of the Healer Shamanic Mystery School. (n.d.). https://heartofthehealer.org/shamanism-pachakuti-mesa-tradition/
3 MOMA. (n.d.). Moma learning: Abstract Expressionism. MoMA. https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/abstract-expressionism/the-sublime-and-the-spiritual
4 The Heart of the Healer Shamanic Mystery School. (n.d.). What is shamanism. The Heart of the Healer Shamanic Mystery School. https://heartofthehealer.org/what-is-shamanism/
5About the Cherry Trees. Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia. (n.d.). https://japanphilly.org/cherry-trees/
6honoca. (2022, February 8). The beauty and history of Sakura, Japan’s National Flower. tsunagu Japan. https://www.tsunagujapan.com/the-beauty-and-history-of-sakura-japans-national-flower/
7JAL editorial staff. (n.d.). What do Cherry Blossoms represent in Japanese culture? - japan airlines (JAL). JAPAN AIRLINES (JAL) Official Site. https://www.jal.co.jp/ar/en/guide-to-japan/experiences/cherry-blossom/what-do-cherry-blossoms-represent/index.html#:~:text=It%20symbolizes%20both%20life%20and,reminder%20that%20life%20is%20fleeting.
8 The Heart of the Healer Shamanic Mystery School. (n.d.). What is shamanism. The Heart of the Healer Shamanic Mystery School. https://heartofthehealer.org/what-is-shamanism/