Artist's Statement

Making these sculptures is a spiritual journey as much as an aesthetic experience for me. Scouring the coastal areas and inland forests of Long Island’s North Fork, my wife, Vishakha Desai, and I are searching weathered wood that has an unusual spark of life within it. It’s the modern notion of “found art” and environmental art.” Nature has shaped the pieces with powerful forces – harsh winds, surging waves, stony beaches, insect invasions, burning sun. Once I get a promising piece back to my studio, I do not think of myself as an “artist” working on an “object,” but rather experience a dynamic partnership with the unusually shaped pieces. At every step of the way – finding the ideal balance point, attaching a base, cleaning the surface, applying organic paint for preservation, burnishing and using natural waxes – I am working collaboratively with the wood. My mantra is – do what Nature tells you to do and do nothing against Nature’s original intent. I came to weathered wood sculpting in the Chinese scholars rocks tradition quite by accident. There was an “aha” moment when three passions came together – hiking along coastlines, creative tinkering with found objects, and revering the great traditions of China. As I work, I am moved by several Chinese philosophies (especially Daoism) and by the notion that I am taking an old Chinese aesthetic approach and applying it to a fresh medium. I even share the Chinese preferences for certain tactile qualities in rocks – balanced but unusual shapes, deep indentations, bumpy surfaces, intriguing holes. But I want to emphasize that my sculptures are not an effort to copy scholars rocks, nor to make old wood look like scholars rocks. I am seeking inspiration not replication. And, unlike those who created Chinese rocks, I do not use tools to shape them to my own vision; rather I preserve existing forms and let the wood speak for itself.

Along the way, I discovered that photographing glacial rocks was a close bedfellow of my sculpting. Why? Because the camera, especially when using macro lens for closeups, reveals the remarkable art already imbedded in the rocks, letting nature speak for itself. Training the eye to see art missed by others is a crucial part of the experience, whether sculpting or photographing. And so, I regularly visit a wonderful beach called Rocky Point, photographing small segments of rocks, confining myself to a limited area less than a quarter mile long. The experience is always different because the rocks speak differently depending on the season, the weather, the time of day, the moisture in the air. The fact that the giant boulders make for dangerous walking tends to focus mind and body (so far I've managed to come away with just a few scraped knees and zero damage to camera and lenses). And when I juxtapose rock photographs and wooden sculptures, they often seem to speak to each other, usually leaving me smiling at the results.

Looking backwards over my seventy plus years, I realize that my life has had a blessed but unconventional teleology that eventually took me to the world of creative art-making. Most people have seen me as scholar of Asia and China, former president of the Asia Society, author of several books on China (see biographical section). And then, in 2005, I published a psychological autobiography, A Fractured Mind, revealing the fact that I have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, formerly called multiple personality). The book elicited widespread praise in most quarters (as well as a few outspoken critics), and my life was filled with considerable turmoil mixed with new possibilities. As for the art, I originally saw it as hobby, a way to find peace and satisfaction in sculpting and photographing, a retreat from the outer tumult. But soon, I became totally absorbed by my newfound pursuits and I had an epiphany -- my life as an artist was not taking me away from China, but rather into a profound exploration of the inner world of Chinese artists (wenren, "cultured people) who had produced incredible works over thousands of years. And, perhaps more surprising, I discovered that my lifelong struggle with dissociation turned into an asset when making art -- I suddenly realized that I had a team of inner identities who could cooperate when I was sculpting or photographing. I invented a new term -- "cohesive multiplicity" -- that has resonated among artists, musicians, psychiatrists, and especially those with DID. I hope that visitors to this website can sense cohesive multiplicity in the images of my art, but also see how it has impacted my other activities with the DID community (see biographical section).

Robert Oxnam