I have always been gripped by the intention and truth present in the works of Akira Beard. His paintings are like tomes for the great spiritual teachers of the past, and also cleverly link contemporary culture with beautiful skills in portraiture. His work is relevant, moving, and powerful – truly spiritual, not upholding any outrageous or inhuman experiences but rather honoring the timeless power of what is here and now. I pursued an interview with him, which he answered from his studio in San Francisco.
Can you tell me a bit about your past: where you grew up, what led to you making art, etc.?
I was born on a military base in Tachikawa, a prefecture in Tokyo, Japan. I come from a mixed ethnic, cultural background where my father was an American G.I. who married my mother, a beautiful native Japanese. I’ve been creating since I can first recall. Before I could write the alphabet I’ve been drawing. Perhaps before I could even crawl. When I was three, my family relocated to Sacramento, where I lived for the next twenty years before moving to the Bay Area to U.C. Berkeley for a degree in Japanese so as to return to the homeland and spend the rest of my days there. How the course of our life suddenly changes…and I would drop out to arrive back on the artist’s path, moving to San Francisco and beginning a degree in Fine Art at AAU.
Was there ever a choice for you in being a professional artist?
Being an artist is inherit to my nature, becoming a professional artist however was an experience of becoming (choice). When I look back at various pages of my life, I had been creating all through out it regardless of who I was or where I was at. Leaving home after high school for example, making minimum wages from washing dishes and circulating through apartment couches of acquaintances in a ghetto with no ambitions in life other than to drink, get high, and watch bad movies with people that I shared little human attachment…I would draw every moment I found the space to do so. Every stage of my life, despite what was occurring, has been consistent in this way. After receiving a degree in art, still I had no ambition to become a career artist. Finding myself on a trip to Europe however would transform me for the first time to even ponder the idea of working with my art practice professionally. Upon returning to the U.S., I would begin the professional leap with teaching, exhibiting, and so on.
You’re as much a writer as you are a painter. Do you think that you can communicate more clearly though one outlet or the other?
Painting and writing being separate mediums, the commonality shared is they function to communicate, express, etc., and yet each has its limitations. They all relate in function, yet each has something to offer that the other can not. And so for my practice, beginning with painting, I found it limiting towards the completeness of what I aimed to express. Desiring a further direct, more intense expression that would be the antithesis of a symbolic nature with hidden meaning, I would begin to incorporate text into the work achieving a more literalness which I desired, with visuals that painting alone could not achieve.
Do you believe that art has the power to impact the world? How do you think your art effects people?
I do feel art holds the power to impact the world. I work with the intention of making a change that is uplifting, beneficial to the individual’s existential experience. Through the triggering of inspiration, awareness, and so on, I see potential in the practice of the arts to achieve this. And from my experience with results held in these regards, I feel passion in continuing to do so. The cliché saying that experiencing a painting is opening a window into ourselves – this is how I see my art affecting people. Often when I receive a response from a viewer, it is not necessarily in how they see my work; rather, how they see themselves. The beauty, and perhaps the motivation in reaching back to the creator (me), is that perhaps there was an aspect of themselves that had been before unseen or felt alone or even ashamed of sharing. Any type of actual change in the world can only happen from an internal one. Beginning with my own, and experiencing this in others through art, I am experiencing glimpses of the wholeness of this impact.
Do you think everyone is an artist or has the ability to be?
I have no idea what everyone else is. I feel all have the ability to be whatever they will to be. I’m more interested in an awareness of the intent in the exercise of this will to become whatever each of us desires.
How has your artwork changed throughout your life? What influenced you to take your art in a more overtly spiritual direction?
My art has always risen from an internal source, whether I was working with pop culture, existentialism, or spirituality. In this way, the art itself has merely been a reflection of the evolution that’s resulted from the chronology of self to culture to nature. It has never been an issue of what to paint next, but challenging myself in life and evolving from these challenges. The finished painting is the product of these challenges at their end expressing what was being explored. In this way, life itself influenced the spiritual direction. Thru experiencing ultimately, the emptiness that I have in my cultural/worldly experience thru relationships with all things (people, places, things). Art has served as a video camera merely projecting the process of my personal evolution perfectly, in Jungian terms from individuation to differentiation and a return towards individuation (self to culture to spirit).
Your art references Buddhism frequently (but also Taoism, Christianity, and many other spiritual traditions). Would you consider yourself a “Buddhist”? Do you come from a Buddhist family?
I am not a Buddhist, but I find relation and answers that I seek in its principles. More and more my mind and heart have opened over the span of my life, and this has led me to experience things more deeply and yet not identify with any single one as a solution. As one teacher explained, “Don’t mistake realization for understanding…go deeper with further realization, for it is bottomless.” (Ironically, being from a Buddhist teacher.) I don’t feel any one school has the ultimate solution so I have never felt a need to join. My family is not religious or spiritually inclined. They had no direct influence in my own spiritual inclination, but through being among them so intimately, they indirectly influenced my spirituality through the experience of who they are as people. Learning what is, by experiencing what is not.
How does the San Francisco art market respond to your spiritual artwork? Have you encountered any adversity as a result of your subjects?
It’s hard to tell since the spiritual aspect of my work is more recent. Up until a little more than a year ago, I had been working on a cultural exploration for the previous seven years. The response to the work in the market place was more successful, likely due to the audiences relation to the subjects of all things cultural. Like a holding a mirror to a crowd that sees the appearances of themselves in a new fun, sexy way, they responded. With spirituality however, it has been more challenging in that the reflection is what is behind these appearances. Ineffable for sure, it is very challenging to myself to make this visible both to myself and more challenging to others. So far, the response has not been as abundant as it was with the cultural works in this way.
What do you think of the Visionary Art movement and artists like Alex Grey, etc.?
Not to sound, crass, but I don’t think of the Visionary Art Movement really. More and more, I think of most things less and less, haha. Just being honest. Guess this why I identify with things such as Taoism where the practice is to abandon something each day, as opposed to accumulate something more. I do however find Alex Grey to be a great inspiration as a contemporary artist. His art is powerfully complete in its creation with its layers of experience, vulnerability, awareness, creativity, transmission. I say complete because hearing him talk about who he is and his art, the two come together in a beautiful synthesis that inspires myself in adding such a contribution to the world as is the nature of his doing.
Who has influenced you as an artist?
I have several influences. Too many to name but here are many (haha): Emerson, Thoreau, Rumi, Dr. Dre, Lao Tzu, Michael Jordan, Guns N Roses, Chogyam Trungpa, The Wu-Tang Clan, The Buddha, Christ, Nietzsche, Richard Pryor, Ayn Rand, Leonardo, Picasso, Rodin, Frida Kahlo, Shaolin Monks, Ex-Lovers, Friends, and the constancy of interactions with new people that allow me a glimpse of their world.
Do you define painting as a spiritual practice? How so?
Generalizing, I define all things in their nature as either a spiritual or a material practice (or both, meeting somewhere on a spectrum). In material, I see any practice/relation as one that serves to benefit/develop one’s ego. The spiritual practice is one that is the antithesis to this. In this way, painting specifically can be spiritual…or it can be material or somewhere in between. For myself, it has evolved into a spiritual practice. The aim at one time was to benefit myself in the practice, and more and more it has led towards the purpose of benefiting others.
What do you think of the state of the contemporary art world? What do you think about conceptual art and artists like Damien Hirst?
I don’t place too much thought on the contemporary art world, however it can’t be helped in that I am involved and so it is brought to my awareness in my limited experience of it. I say limited, because I do not go further than this experience through, say, conversation of the topic, reading up on it, etc. Attending Miami Art Basel Fair recently, for example, as both a participant and observer, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of spiritual nature throughout the vast exhibitions of contemporary works that are promoted and held as the current cream of the crop. Not to say that there isn’t any, rather the imbalance of materialism and spirituality in this experience with the consistency of others is apparent to my awareness. As for Damien Hirst, there was a time when I surrounded myself with ideas of art and artist and so Hirst being a icon in the art world I was inspired by his works, but don’t spend time thinking about where/who he is in art, as an artist these days. I’m rather selective and very limited in what I focus on, and so choose something such as swimming over learning about the contemporary art world.
What advice can you give to those who wish to lead a spiritual life while enmeshed in the United States? Do you think our culture can be spiritually restrictive?
Having recently been traveling to various parts of the U.S., I feel the culture differs geographically. In one area it can be restrictive in that one may not feel allowed in the openness of spiritual ideas that are more personal, but in others you can find communities that support and nourish these same spiritual practices. Culturally, society is extremely imbalanced in its development and support structure with the ego/materialism as opposed to spirituality regardless of geography. Being afforded the liberties that we have in America, however, it is a possibility and ultimately a responsibility that one has towards one self in pursuing or not pursuing. I feel it is vital due to this imbalance, that if one is devoted to a lifestyle that is not within convention, to have a strong support group of like-minded individuals. I have mine, and it nourishes my spirit on the spiritual path.
How is the aesthetic of your artwork relative to your message? What is the significance of drawing on lined notebook paper?
The aesthetics of the artwork serve as the vehicle in the driving of what is being expressed. They are the words that hold the meanings, and so those words are chosen with intention towards what is being expressed, and not necessarily as merely the artwork itself. The colors, the subject, the edges, the font, etc. work to mirror the nature of what is of motivation to bring from a place of inner inspiration outwardly into a composition. Working on lined notebook paper for example relates to the commonality of our daily being. Like the notebook paper that we wrote on in school…it functioned as a resource to capture something and nothing more. With art, and especially as a professional, it is easy to get caught up in so many filters such as making work on paper that will be archival, or creating a perfect sanitary polished presentation, and so on. In this way, the methods or the filters can take priority over the nature of the expression. Using the notebook paper in this way, supports as one of the elements in celebrating the focus of the expression alone as the prioritized purpose.
What is your opinion of the New Age movement and of New Age belief structures?
It’s tricky trying to bring spiritual ideas to a broad audience through the mediums of media and marketing. I definitely have my New Age speakers that I come back to time and again, but I can’t help but feel that the potential of the awareness that it promotes gets tangled or even lost at times in its integration with capital means. Regardless, I acknowledge the energy and intention of the movement itself and do support all that it aims in creating a more balanced lifestyle for the modern person through spiritual resourcefulness.
Any closing thoughts?
These were great questions!