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Artist opens portal to Bhutan in Armstrong
A pair of red, ruby slippers — a tip off to what you are about to absorb — sits on the floor as you enter.
Inside, Buddhist prayer flags hang from the ceiling, as a huge spinning prayer wheel, used for centuries by monks to accumulate wisdom and good karma and to purify the bad karma, takes up the centre of the space.
Framed wooden windows, highlighted with intricate spires and back dropped with delicate fabric, show backlit portals into a fascinating land and its people.
It’s true, Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas —make that, Armstrong — any more.
To enter the Armstrong-Spallumcheen Art Gallery right now is to enter a kind of Oz, however, it’s instead steeped in the mountainous kingdom and Buddhist culture of Bhutan, a landlocked state in South Asia, located at the eastern end of the Himalayas and bordered by India and Nepal.
“The south-central part of the country is what I loved the best, but the whole country took me because it is so untouched,” said Keith Richards (not to be confused with the Rolling Stone.)
Based in Kingfisher, east of Enderby, Richards is a woodworker, boat builder and photographer, who has captured a smidgen of the kingdom for locals to see and truly experience.
His installation, This Side of There, is a revelation and a portal into what he experienced when he visited Bhutan in 2008.
“I couldn’t photograph inside the temples of Bhutan, so this is an ancillary view,” said Richards, who visited the Asian kingdom along with Armstrong beekeeper James MacDonald to be a part of an international beekeepers conference. (After applying, and obtaining a special visa, Richards was hired as the conference’s official photographer.)
“They deal with the spiritual level, and so I saw their ways of the world through portals. That’s why I named the exhibition This Side of There. I used doorways and hallways as a portal to what I saw.”
Besides capturing the daily lives of the Bhutanese people, along with rural vistas to villages teeming with symbolic artifacts and murals, Richards also visited one of the most stunning, and nearly unreachable, temples in the world: The Taktshang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest) monastery.
“It is hundreds of years old and is built on the side of a mountain. It’s at different levels, which limits the amount of people allowed to go in,” he said. “The ambiance was of a different dimension. Of all the places I visited, this one floored me. It literally knocked me to my knees.”
Besides the obvious beauty of the nation, Richards was most captured by its spirituality and motivation for a simple, but human concept, happiness.
And if you look at Richards’ photos, most captured with a digital camera using ambient light, the faces looking back do seem to be those of a prosperous and happy population.
It’s a land where the gross national product is happiness (the kingdom even boasts a minister for just that purpose), where ancient agricultural and organic methods are practised to much success, and young Buddhist monks work tirelessly, not for materialistic means, but in achieving peace and harmony, said Richards, adding a small part of the country is closed to foreigners in order to preserve its virtually unspoiled landscape and culture.
“The monarchy there is really progressive. Bhutan is well placed in that it is not attractive to big resources, but is still putting together a dream for the world. It’s globally hit upon rather than individually,” said Richards. “It’s timely with social networking and other ways that are connecting us. The way they see the world is not capitalistic, but they are finding something lined with values that we all have deep inside.”
In viewing Richards’ exhibition, his pursuit of excellence, at all costs, is also evident.
Besides the hours spent editing thousands of digital photographs, the master carpenter spent just as much time in his workshop making the framed wooden window-like “temple” as to fit in the space at the Armstrong gallery. Then there was the special fabric imported from Texas and LED lights ordered from New York used as the print material for his photos and to back-light the work, respectively.
Not to be missed is the spinning prayer wheel, which he constructed, weighing in at approximately 500 pounds, with internal bearings and a carbon bike brake so a person standing in one spot can spin the wheel and see the photographs displayed on its exterior. The top of the wheel features a delicately pleated fabric overlay, which Richards said was made by his sister, along with all the other fabric sewn throughout the exhibition.
“She was such a help,” said Richards, who adds that his kind of personality is often accused as perfectionism. “I see my work as a transcendental experience. It’s the process of getting all the parts and putting them together. I use the pursuit of excellence as a tool of getting there.”
Richards, who originally hails from Jasper, has been receiving requests to show his work in other spaces, including in his hometown, but says he is planning to put together a much bigger exhibition that will have more of a narrative flow.
Richards is also quick to point next door, to the main part of the Armstrong gallery, where Vernon clay sculptor Gale Woodhouse is also showing her work.
Titled Earth and Fire, Woodhouse says her sculptural pieces, which include shell-like objects, bird nests and other natural elements, are about getting a sense of place from the ground and in the geology of the earth.
“It’s an emotional and spiritual grounding of my place showing the detail and minutia of the landscape,” she said. “And it works beautifully with what Keith has done.”
Both Richards’ and Woodhouse’s exhibitions have been the most popular ever seen at the Armstrong-Spallumcheen Art Gallery, with visitors coming in daily to peruse the art, said gallery administrator Sherry MacFarlane.
Both exhibitions have also been extended due to their popularity with Richards up for viewing until Saturday, Nov. 17 and Woodhouse’s until Friday, Nov. 16.
Hours at the Armstrong Spallumcheen Museum and Art Gallery are Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is by donation.