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Two local artists to exhibit work at Wordslingers 2008

Betsy Graziani Fasbinder
Special to The Union

In the wild, many species of animals draw their sustenance from the same crystal clear pool. So, too, in art. Artists may draw their inspiration from the same source but they will interpret that inspiration with their own unique voices.

In the case of Nevada county artists John Mowen and Grace Kelly Rivera, both have found the rich pool of the mystic poet Rumi to be a vital source of their inspiration. Both artists will be exhibiting their work at LiteratureAlive!’s upcoming Wordslingers 2008 event on Sept. 13, featuring America’s premier translator of Rumi, Coleman Barks.

Puerto Rico-born Grace Kelly Rivera has lived in Nevada county for 24 years. Born on the day that Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco (the inspiration for her name), Rivera is known as a serious artist. She studied figure drawing and painting at the Art Students League and National Academy of Art in New York. Multifaceted, Rivera practices other arts as well, including perfumery, theater, and flamenco dancing, which in turn influence her visual art. Rivera’s paintings include colorfully clad flamenco dancers to smoky jazz musicians, but perhaps the most touching and beautiful of all of her work is that which is inspired by the writings of Rumi.



“Rumi kept calling to me as I came across it,” Rivera says. She was given a small volume of Coleman Barks’ translation of Rumi poetry called ‘Birdsong.’ “I read them over and over, not understanding completely at first, but understanding enough that I wanted more.”

Rivera explains that Barks’ translations have a certain precision that appeals to her, but elaborates that “the words are the tip of the iceberg. Under them is a fathomless, bottomless ocean.” In her attempt to plumb the depths of this ocean of inspiration, Rivera uses much more than paint. Her creative process extends into the way she chooses to live her daily life, feeling an obligation to live as “cleanly” as she can in relationship to both her habits and to her work as an artist.




To the good fortune of all who see her work, the result of Rivera’s process is a moving and beautiful collection of paintings and drawings. At once both humble and profound, Rivera describes both her purpose and her hopes for the viewers’ experience of her work. “I’m exploring the relationship between the muse and the vessel-the artist,” she explains. “I’ve begun to find a visual language to explore the mystic language that is often so challenging.” It seems that an important aspect of Rivera’s work is to remove herself, her ego from the process. “What I’m trying to do is speak to the heart’s deepest intelligence. Ideally folks that want to penetrate Rumi’s poetry gravitate to this work.” Rumi’s poetry has crystallized into something quite clear for Rivera: “How to really be alive is the message of Rumi.”

Rivera envisions exhibiting ten or more large-scale Rumi-inspired paintings at the Wordslingers 2008 event. Rivera explains that these pieces will express the different stages of love, the heart’s journey, both human love and the love of the divine. The works are hauntingly beautiful images that linger in the hearts (and even the dreams) of those who view them. When she hears comments about the “beauty” of her work, Rivera comments, “So much of the current art scene is about shock. It’s time for beauty again.”

The works that John Mowen will exhibit are simpler and more obviously linked to Rumi and to Coleman Barks specifically. Mowen carves Barks’ translations of Rumi’s prose on small boulders of soft stone, such as alabaster or soap stone, each hand selected for their mystical, translucent, watery quality.

John Mowen co-owns Nevada City’s Mowen Solinsky gallery in Nevada City with local photographer and long-time friend, Steve Solinsky. Mowen has been a practicing artist for many years. Many of his works are large-scale sculptures of simple shapes that he reports have a calming effect on those who view them. But like Rivera, John Mowen found that Coleman Barks’ translations of Rumi’s stories and poetry had a profound impact on him and on his art.

“I’ve read a lot of translations of Rumi,” Mowen explains. “Coleman’s translations [have made Rumi’s poetry] very accessible for the Western mind so we can really grasp what the gift of this poetry really is. Rumi, via Coleman Barks, has made the concept of the Divine accessible to everybody.” Inspired by Barks’ work, Mowen contacted him and the two have developed a personal relationship through letters and e-mail. About twelve years ago, Barks gave Mowen permission to use excerpts of his translations in his art.

Talking with Mowen, it becomes clear that carving these pieces is more than just a craft. Through discovering the words and recreating them as art objects, Mowen deepens his understanding of his own spirituality. “To me it means seeing God in everything. We’re all right there with it,” Mowen explains. “The experience is priceless. It’s taught me how to celebrate, how to grieve, how to deepen in compassion and in patience.” The simple, lovely carvings are subtle, but Mowen describes his glee when he finds that visitors enter his gallery and find themselves reading poetry for about an hour. “Friends are made in a moment,” Mowen says. He explains that “Words on a rock are just a humble venture into creativity. Another way to bring the work into the world.”


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