Visual Artist, Martial Artist

Kirk McNeil is a Tai Chi student here in Santa Cruz, California. A metal sculptor and a blacksmith, he discusses some of the obvious and not-so-obvious links between his practice and his art.

Visual Artist Martial Artist

About five years ago I was 51 years old and feeling every minute of it. Age, injury, gravity and several decades of intense manual labor had taken their toll. I could feel myself getting stiff. After a dive trip in the Channel Islands where I really didn’t feel as strong swimming as I like, I started going to the local Pool/ Community center for lap swims a couple of times a week. At the desk I picked up a flyer announcing Tai Chi classes there, at the center with a class starting in a couple of weeks. Several friends and acquaintances in the blacksmithing community had been very vocal in their praise of Tai Chi as exercise and meditation.

A few weeks ago in class Ted referred to the bow stance as a reflection of the legs making a bow form. That day I got this picture in my head. Making the piece helped to empty my head as much as a few hours of practice. More to come.

The year before I had made the decision to start making the large scale sculptures which came to me. After all I was 50 winters, and I wanted to make forged work on a large scale. As an artist and blacksmith, I was wondering if  my body would be up to the work, and  I knew that in years to come it definitely wouldn’t be.

This time I decided to take the class.

After a few months I stopped doing laps regularly, but continued with the Tai Chi. Learning a whole new way of moving was just the beginning. There were classes where I moved in pain. Levels of pain I expected to live with the rest of my life. After I learned the basic mechanics of the Yang style short form that was being taught. I found the experience got deeper.  The pain although still there, was less. The more I got from it, the more I found to learn.

As long as I have called myself a blacksmith I have dabbled in bladesmithing. Lately I have begun to produce some semi-passable blades.

I never finished them though.  I always felt that if I didn’t know how to use it properly. I had no business making it.  Then in the course of my Tai Chi studies I discovered that there is a Tai Chi sword form! I planned to start finishing some of the blades I had knocking about and learned this form as an expression of my craft. I started calling it my bladesmithing ? Visual Martial Art?.

My Tai Chi teacher, unfortunately about this time had stopped teaching the sword form due to disability, which made it impossible for him to demonstrate the form.

I asked him for referral to someone else who teaches sword here in Santa Cruz. So, I made a venture deeper into Martial arts. At the new (to me) school I soon leaned that there are as many forms of Tai Chi as there are schools.

After a few weeks of struggle with the new form, I was brooding a little before class, and the teacher inquired as to how I was doing. My response was “I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m a visual artist, not a Martial artist.” He said “How do you know? What makes a martial artist?”

That question has stuck in my head ever since. What makes a martial artist? I know clearly what a visual artist is. I have absolute physical proof of my creativity in the form of forged iron sculpture. The evidence of the ART in the martial arts is not as obvious. I have acquired physical skills, ways of moving which enhance my work in the studio and all parts of my life. Recovering the strength in my legs after crushed heel bones from a fall 20 yrs ago is huge. I never thought I would get it back. Flexibility in my shoulders also injured in accidents.  I have found a wellspring of energy which I had no clue to.  I have begun to experience internal Chi flow. Less tangible are the mental skills I’m gaining.  I have developed a deeper focus on problem solving.  Attaining the empty quiet place in my head which allows creativity to flow.

In my practice, and class time I find creativity in applications. Putting together movements from the form in new and interesting ways. Here the martial side of the arts blends with the ART side. Creative flow is the result. I have begun a new body of sculptural work based on moves and postures in the form, which has me very excited.

Now, I have actually begun to learn sword. More boring repetitive exercises. My Favorite!

One Response to “Visual Artist, Martial Artist”

  1. J. Andrews says:

    This essay offers a thought-provoking perspective for me. Thanks for writing from your own personal experience.

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