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find: Visual Arts Canada

Otto Donald Rogers  

painter, Canada / Israel.

The Light of Unity, 1991, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 36 inches.

From the catalogue (with an essay by Otto Donald Rogers) and exhibition: "New Paintings", Canadian Art Galleries, Calgary, Canada.

Excerpts from an interview broadcast on the BBC world service, February 1992.

I grew up on a prairie landscape in Western Canada, where we had a 2000 acre wheat farm.
One of the most potent things in my childhood experiences was the horizon line, and later on this horizon line became a kind of symbol for the unknown, because one would always wonder what is on the other side. So my work has been powerfully based on landscape, but not in a particular place or time.

This is the way in which the Bahá´í teachings have influenced me in a powerful way because they have given me the courage to pursue a more metaphorical approach to the making of a work of art,

but using the landscape as a kind of common fundamental basis for that exploration because in the landscape I place a lot of geometry which doesn't have any specific relationshiop to a part of the country or a scene in the traditional sense... there's a kind of a pull betwen the two elements, the landscape and the geometric form...

when I found that religion teaches its spiritual principles by means of metaphor... ...then that gave me a lot of confidence to pursue the same direction in art, because I felt that art was a reflection of religion...

Do your paintings come from one inspired idea or is it a long process of evolution?

It's a long process of evolution. Each picture really makes it possible for the next picture. I never plan a picture in the beginning. I just begin the work and I set up a relationship of two or three elements or sometimes four elements and then I start to measure the qualities that they seem to attract in each other, and then I try to build on that...

...I think the principle of diversity is so important, because you notice one quality has this distinction, another quality has that distinction, and you begin to compare the two. And really the art comes in the comparision, not in the black of the ink or the white of the paper...

How does your Bahá´í faith affect the way you perform your art?

One's life and one's profession is really to partake in something that is sacred. One of the Bahá´í writings says that to pursue your profession is to rely on God, which is a very freeing statement which I don't think I've heard anywhere else: to pursue one's profession is to rely on God. So the whole act of creating art is one of sacredness.

I think in terms of offering a kind of supplication, because I'm holding up very raw materials and I'm trying to create a physical composition which will attract spirit to itself. This is a very difficult and very delicate balance but I feel confident in it because this is basically what creation does. It holds itself up and reflects itself, as a mirror would - the attributes and qualities of God.

As an artist I tried to determine what was the most significant principle I was engaged in when I was making works of art, and I came to the conclusion after many years and a lot of paintings that the most important principle of all was unity, because there was a tremendous desire to seek order, and unity seemed to be the cohesive thing that created a holistic approach to the work.

...when I first discovered the Bahá´í writings and discovered that unity through diversity was the major theme of those writings I was of course very attracted. So I started to investigate them.

Balcony Sunset - Holy Land, 1991, acrylic on paper, 22 x 30 inches.

From the catalogue (with an essay by Otto Donald Rogers) and exhibition: "New Paintings",
Canadian Art Galleries, Calgary, Canada, 1991.

Do you see art as a profession or an act of worship?

The Bahá´í point of view is that all work when performed in a spirit of service to your fellow human beings is an act of worship. When someone tries to make an object or perform a service to the very best of their capacity they are in effect worshipping God...

Do you see a work of art then as almost an illustration of spiritual power?

Yes I really do. I am concerned that in our century we have tended to separate everything from everything else, and to put different labels and call one thing art and another thing religion, and I think this has caused a lot of confusion... far as I am concerned anything which has quality and expresses the attributes of God, which anything of high quality would, expresses perfection and beauty and proportion and harmony. If those expressions are there then that to me is a sacred object, an object of religion, if you like, but not in the traditional sense of iconography.

Excerpts from the BAFA newsletter, June 1992, page 7.

Catalogue: "New Paintings" and Essays by Otto Don Rogers
Reviewed by Sonja van Kerkhoff

Otto Rogers' introduction states that this is a catalogue that is aimed at addressing the broader issues of art as well as documenting an exhibition of his paintings completed in Israel in 1991, and shown at the Canadian Art Galleries in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Ten small full colour reproductions accompany text by the artist. The images, full of subtle tonal gradations, express a sense of the meditative through the use of simple abstract elements.
His non-figurative language demands that we see or read these works in general or more universal ways. Some of the titles point towards this way of interpreting his paintings with titles such as, "Announcement in the Land" and "The Light of Unity"...

The simple arrangement of form against form, tone against tone evokes an overall effect of dignity and contemplation...

The text by Otto Rogers is refreshing in its personal elaboration of his spiritual beliefs with constant direct reference to various aspects of the Bahá´í teachings. He states that practising a profession is identical with an act of worship and that the Bahá´í teachings encourage the study of art. He adds that the production of images in in the first instance, is an educative process and that attempting to share each discovery made with his students (He taught in the Fine Arts department at the University of Saskatchewan from 1959 - 88) led to a consolidation of his own thinking.

"The principle of an unseen force animating the work of the artist was easily accepted by the majority o fthe students. Anyone who has been inspired knows that in every work something occurs which transcends the limitations of the moment. Even students who may not have felt their early work to be inspired nevertheless, acknowledged that a spiritual connection to the physical material is necessary and that attachment itself can 'paralyze'."

He mentions however, that many discount the influence of religion on modern art and says that this is understandable when "religion has been eclipsed by obscure man-made theology, ritual, dogma and division."

He cites the Russian Constructivists as aiming for the utopian ideal and the Impressionists as another school that aimed to free art from dogma, giving it new life by the painting of light itself. Rogers quotes the Russian painter, Wassily Kandinsky as someone who sensed the uniqueness and the spirit of this age: "We have before us an age of conscious creation and this new spirit in painting is going hand in hand with though toward an epoch of great spirituality" (From Kandinsky's, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, first published in 1911).

He then quotes the New York critic and writer, Hilton Kramer's to illustrate that the origins of abstract painting were responses to a sense of spiritual crisis and "a rejection of the material universe; (where) what is yearned for is some heavenly or utopian existence elsewhere - an existence that abstraect painting is envisioned as prophesizing and abetting..." (Art View- Kandinsky's Spiritualism, in The New York Times Weekend, May 10, 1981.)

Roger's sums up this line of thought by mentioning the British ceramicist Bernhard Leach and the American abstract painter, Mark Tobey as two major "artists who recognized Bahá'u'lláh as the source of this new spirit..."

Rogers also writes about the great variety of art movements and styles, citing these as an expression of the principle of unity through diversity. In summing up Rogers states that the aim of his exhibition and this essay is to "contribute to a new state of mind essential to the rebirth of hope and for an art that elevates the spiritual condition of human life."

Throughout the essay it becomes obvious that the Bahá´í Writings are a very important source of inspiration in his art and what makes his essay so refreshing is that in his own words, he describes his own realizations and responses in light of this inspiration...

This booklet is beautifully presented and plans are in process for German and Italian translations...

Excerpts from the BAFA newsletter, June 1992, pages 7 and 8.

  • Announcement: His travels in Russia, BAFA newsletter, March 1993
  • Announcement: about his catalogue and essay, BAFA newsletter, September 1992
  • Interview and Review: compiled by Sonja van Kerkhoff BAFA newsletter, June 1992
  • Letter: for the Arts Forum East, BAFA newsletter, September 1991

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