About James Cook


Personal Essay on Multi-Culturalism in Art

Being an Assistant Professor at this small liberal arts college for the past 7 years has afforded me opportunities to develop courses which bring some multi-culturalism to our students. In addition to the art studio courses, (which include sculpture, bronze casting, and environmental art), I teach Contemporary Art History and Indian temple art and architecture. The faculty here is encouraged to develop courses for our Spring Term which are unique. In years past I have offered a Philosophy/Religion course covering esoteric literature of the major religions, which also has a contemplative practicum componant.

Last Spring I offered a course entitled Art of the Himalayas: The Art and Architecture of the Kathmandu Valley. To prepare for the field research, which comprised five weeks of the Spring Term, the 13 students and I met regularly during the Winter Term as an ad hoc class. We then traveled to Nepal, where the students pursued independent research projects at different locations (Lalitpur, Baktapur, Changu Narayan, etc.) in the Kathmandu Valley.

Because I had been to Nepal in 1997 on a Fulbright Research Fellowship, some important resources were more readily available for the students. For instance, Professor Mukunda Ariel fromTribhuvan Universitys Nepalese Culture and History Department, who is widely regarded the foremost authority on Nepalese culture, lectured at temple and stupa sites and provided research consultation for several of the students. My own research there has entailed relationships with many Newari artists whose work is specifically commissioned for worship. The sculpture and paintings executed by these traditional artists is of the highest caliber. The students and I went to several of their workshops during our stay, and were generously invited to two traditional Newari dinners in their homes. I also worked with Judith Amtzis, Academic Co-ordinator for the Cornell-Nepal Program at Tribhuvan University, and with her counterparts here to facilitate making connections with relevant agency and NGO representatives, academics, and professionals over there. Although none of the students had been to Nepal (or Asia) before, most were able to generate very respectable papers and project reports on their research topics.

I feel that it is important to deepen communication and relationships which have been established. I have arranged for Lok Chitrakar, one of Nepals best poubha painters to teach a full studio course to art majors at Elmira College this Spring, 2001. He will live on campus while teaching his course, and will have opportunities to exhibit his work at regional venues. Lok is a wonderful artist and human being, which I believe will stimulate an interest amongst our students in Nepal and Asian culture.

My abiding interest in South Asian culture is reflected in the travel and research done during the past decade. I have been for extended periods to India and Nepal for the purpose of studying temple architecture and sculpture. These visits have generated over 3,000 photographic images of architectural detail and art work within temple walls. I utilize these images in support of my own research and academic art lectures.

In 1997, when I was in both Nepal and South India on a Fulbright Research Fellowship, my investigations were directed toward the traditional artists who work in metal according to liturgical and formal secular texts. Their ideation, (the formulation of sculptural imagery), and their material processes, (including techniques of the bronze-casting, clay mixtures, wax manipulation,etc.) are codified from inception to finished bronze sculpture. I observed, assimilated, and recorded the respective processes of the artisans in the two major loci of traditional artifactal metal casting activity on the subcontinent: in Tamil Nadu in South India, and in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal.

Since that time, my research has been in two general areas:

  1. all facets of the processes of traditional artists or icon-makers in Nepal (the Newaris) and in South India (the sthapathis), and
  2. the comparative study of the traditional iconic form and the contemporary art object. Regarding the former subject area, I have been using digital video documentation since 1997, which serves both as primary tool and expressive vehicle for my lines of inquiry.

Last summer I traveled to an international interdisciplinary conference in Calcutta, India, organized by the Society for Indian Philosophy and Religion, to deliver a paper entitled, Icons for Worship, Local Concentrations of Immanence.

In Nepal the Newari artists, who practice traditional bronze casting techiniques, are located in and around the city of Patan, about 3 miles south of Kathmandu. Patan and the city of Kathmandu (in the Kathmandu Valley) will be the pertinent locations in Nepal.

Although I am an artist working within our contemporary context, the image making processes of traditional cultures informs my work. There is a philosophic basis in my work, stimulated by an on-going cosmologic inquiry and interest in the specifics of our human response to the dilemma of unknowingness. The extensive philosophic development of Buddhism and Hinduism has four primary lines of inquiry:

  1. How the sthapatis maintain their adherence to traditional canon, (and the variances amongst artists and from region to region),
  2. The methodology shared by thesthapatis in South India and those in Nepal, and their differences,
  3. What these traditional techniques of prescribed process and ritual identification may offer contemporary artists working in a more pluralized framework,
  4. To view as precisely as possible the entire working process of the sthapatis during the fabrication of bronze sculpture in order to preserve it and to convey to artists and scholars this highly specialized activity.

Both aural and visual information will be gathered, as well as transcriptive data from memory and note-taking. The type of information gathered will be drawn from the traditional metal casting process carried out by the sthapatis , specifically concerning the liturgical iconometry and image formulation and the material techiques entailed in the development of a bronze sculpture.