The Artist’s I Ching

by Ruth Zamoyta

Beauty infuses David LaChapelle’s artwork—his paintings as well as his writings, most recently the second printing (posthumous) of A Hymn of Changes: Contemplations on the I Ching. This poetically written guidebook can be used as a tool for divination and personal growth, but it can also be used to guide artists in understanding and using their craft. In the very first paragraph of the Foreword, LaChapelle relates a transcendental moment of his youth when he became awakened to his calling: artistic production:

As early as three years old… my time was spent watching the sun rise over the sensuous curves of glaciers and sink into the Pacific with the lingering smell of fir trees carried by the thermals from the forests below.

When he returned to his childhood territory of Mount Olympus in Utah as a young adult, LaChapelle looked out over the same scene and thought to himself, “Nothing I could ever do in my life could match this.” He immediately determined that he would paint the pictures of the I Ching. “Never in my life has an inspiration come so directly and with so little warning.”

The I Ching is an ancient Chinese instruction manual to be used with a method of counsel using dice or yarrow sticks. Although to some the I Ching is dismissed as a parlor game, its essence is a wisdom that has permeated the globe over many millennia. When one’s desires and perspective are in disorder or unclear, one clutches the first thing that promises enlightenment, as a man who is being carried away by rapids would reach for the first limb or stone to anchor him. The I Ching presents a comprehensive ordering of nature. The random cast of the dice is a troubled soul’s invitation inside:

Inasmuch as the I Ching may be a code of universal structures, it is a language which names the very subtle and often hidden patterns in our lives…The repeated contemplation of symbols, which speak of fundamental energy transformations, begins to act as a feedback system which helps reorganize the psyche around these core images.

The changing of the symbols with each throw of the dice invites us to transform our understanding of ourselves, and to act. LaChapelle noted that as he sat down to write A Hymn of Changes, he threw Retreat with five changing lines, which produces Decrease. He took this to mean that before writing, a period of withdrawal from the world is necessary. The image of Decrease is a lake beneath a mountain. “The waters of the lake are able to distill the essential qualities of the environment and reflect them in a way in which the universal can be made approachable and within the grasp of our daily experience.” The act of reading the random throws is in itself an act of creativity, which always results in greater knowledge of one’s needs and desires. There can never be a mistake.

The trigrams (different combinations of three solid or broken lines) are “the essential alphabet of the I Ching.” The eight trigrams are the building blocks of the 64 hexagrams which are used in divination. When the artist reads LaChapelle’s interpretations of the trigrams, he or she immediately notices that they represent important elements of art, as well as life:

The Creative: We hover in the heavens, in the “seat  of possibility and freedom,” our creative impulses moving, growing unhindered.

The Receptive: Daring to “touch the pain as well as the joy of life,” we are manipulated and inspired in all our elements. “Every mood, every emotion, every thought plays within our bodies, asking a new response and new expression from our form.” We are strong enough to withstand such penetration, but pliant. We must give continually, in order to have room to receive more.

Arousing: The quickening of Creation, the communion of Creation and Reception of Heaven and Earth. Movement, action that is fearsome but inevitable, and to which we surrender and are “carried into unexpected territory.”

Keeping Still: Consistency through change. The mountain represents Earth’s touching the heavens—art as vehicle through which transcendental significance is carried to the world. The mountain keeps stable despite shifting moods and events. To produce a coherent work, an artist must possess internal strength and integrity, but must beware of rigidity.

Wind: “Wind moves unseen across the Heavens and touches the four corners of the earth.” Its gentle persistence penetrates rocks, pollinates, and clears away chaff. “The Wind is the breath of the planet and the movement of our own life force.” It is an inhalation as well as an exhalation.

Fire: Also described as Clinging, Perception, Clarity, Dependence, “Fire clings to that which it burns. Light is created by the dissolving of forms. All of the visible world is bathed in light. This is a part of an eternal paradox; in order to see form, form itself must dissolve.” The sun dies to produce life. Fire consumes boundaries. Submit to it, and we will be exposed in perfect clarity. Our self will have an outlet, and we will let others in.

The Joyous: Also Expression, Lake. “Looking upon a lake we see both the passing wonders of the sky and the mysteries of the Earth.” Lake is about boundaries. Too much inlet or outlet results in flood or drought, upsets the balance of expression. The Lake can be seen as a balance between the artist’s expression and the observer’s impression. Art is a collaborative event. If an artist portrays too much of herself in her works, the viewer cannot identify. The observer must be vulnerable to the artist’s message. He cannot read too much into the art, or he will shroud its original beauty. “Finding our balance within, we can reflect higher truth and merge our depths with the forms of the Heavens.”

The Abysmal: Also Danger, Emotions. Water settles in the deepest, unknown, hidden places. To seek it requires courage, acceptance, adaptability. Water is the basis of life, a model for a relationship: bound yet fluid. It is the symbol of emotion, changing with the tide. To avoid being swept away, water tends to flow in streams. This is the need for an artist to embrace the most terrifying truths, and to impose form on passion to make it accessible and influential.

Repeated use of the I Ching method conditions us to be open to change, to “the movement of life.” Guards are dropped, one becomes vulnerable. Vulnerable to what? For followers of Chinese philosophy the answer is “To Tao.” This is one precept of the I Ching that I find myself resisting. It is the core difference between Eastern philosophy and Post-Enlightenment Western philosophy: the idea that there is an “unseen matrix of the world” to which we must submit if we are to find, in LaChapelle’s words, “belonging, guidance, and purpose.”

I am reluctant to yield self-determinism to allegiance to a universal order. To me, the self is central and superior to the world order. To me, the self creates it. I like to think that “belonging, guidance, and purpose” are our own creations, self-directed, and that the matrix is merely a presentation of reality not to which we should align ourselves but which we should observe and understand, and on which we superimpose our own freely created life. LaChapelle claims “There are times to let go and trust the greater flow.” I believe that the self ordains the power and direction of the flow; when she lets go, it is a conscious act not of surrendering, but of seizing, of overcoming ambivalence. There are many drives in many different directions, all self-imagined, one chosen. We step in, the matrix adjusts.

For the artist, submission to substance, beauty, and inspiration is creation of substance, beauty, and inspiration.

Artists change lives through their art, but LaChapelle went a step further: he healed through direct dialogue and engagement with people searching for direction. He eventually created more than striking, penetrating visual art and beautifully written books of wisdom; he created friendships with hundreds of people whose lives he changed through his extraordinary power of counsel. His interpretation of the hexagram Grace reminds artists that the greatest attribute of art is its ability to reflexively open, enlighten, and satisfy the creator’s own spirit:

The clarity of Fire dances upon the majesty and stillness of the Mountain. This is emblematic of the beauty or Grace of art: the purpose of art is to still the mind and take the viewer to the edge of their own soul. Art alone cannot do your inner work, but it can inspire and set the stage for profound spiritual contact.

No doubt A Hymn of Changes will be used widely by divination groups, but it is equally suited to use in writers’ workshops, at artists’ retreats, or by individual creative spirits looking for clarity or impetus. Poets, writers, painters, sculptors, mixed media artists, musicians, composers, dancers, actors, architects, designers, tattoo artists, and any other creative spirits who have been influenced by the I Ching, or who are looking for new tools, should read this “hymn” by a man who was at once an artist and a healer.

—Ruth Zamoyta

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