Two in Relation

An Interview with Max Gimblett and Lewis Hyde

Wisdom Collection

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Lewis Hyde is a poet, essayist, translator, and culture critic. Of his 1983 book, The Gift, David Foster Wallace said, “No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged.” A MacArthur Fellow and former director of undergraduate creative writing at Harvard University, Hyde teaches during the fall semesters at Kenyon College, where he is the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing. During the rest of the year he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Max Gimblett is an artist in New York City. He works with shapes—specifically, the quatrefoil, square, and circle. He draws primarily on canvas, and wood panels with gold-leaf gilding. His work is displayed in a number of prestigious collections around the world.

On a crisp November evening Rachel Hiles—Tricycle’s managing editor—and I met with Lewis and Max at Max’s painting studio on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Max has worked for nearly 40 years. Among the painting tables, cabinets, canvases, and religious artifacts and figurines, we spoke at length about their recent collaboration on the Oxherding series—a set of poems and drawings that present the classic Zen parable about the conduct of Buddhist practice. “Oxherding” showed at the Japan Society in New York City and is featured in its entirety in the Spring 2011 issue of Tricycle.

During the interview, I was repeatedly impressed with the clarity and precision of Lewis’s answers. He insisted that we were clear, not because he plays the nitpicking scholar (he doesn’t), but because he wanted make sure to deliver the apt response. Meanwhile, Max—with his lengthy, jutting silver eyebrows, and a glimmer in his eyes beneath them—exuded such warmth and enthusiasm at our visit that we grew a bit shy. We got over that quickly, though, and began the interrogation. —Sam Mowe

Sam Mowe: How did you two meet?

Lewis Hyde: Max and I were both at a study center in Italy in 1991. We just bumped into each other there. There were many people working on esoteric problems like the meaning of truth but Max was painting. I remember he came up to breakfast the first morning and he says, “I’ve been painting all morning. My loins are on fire.” And I thought, “Well, this is the guy I’m going to hang out with.” So we spent a month together. And we have visited each other regularly since then. Mostly I come to his studio in New York. I’m a writer. I don’t paint. But he puts a paintbrush in my hand, tells me I’m an idiot savant, and I believe him. Then we play.

SM: How long was it after you guys met that you decided to do the Oxherding series?

Max Gimblett: We started talking about Oxherding during that month [in Italy]. Neither of us can remember it what context it came up, but I did some initial drawings there.

LH: There are lots of people who have translated Oxherding into English and I got five or six English versions. I used them to make my own English version. Then later I thought I should really understand the Chinese, so I found a graduate student at Harvard who is an expert in classical Chinese poetry and had him be my tutor. I worked all summer on these poems so that I really understood how they worked in Chinese and began to translate from the original language.

Rachel Hiles: So you have the paper in front of you. What does the collaboration look like? Are you talking to each other? Are you giving each other feedback?

MG: Before, during, and after.

SM: You started talking about this project in 1991. You guys really decided to commit to the series. How did you know you’d chosen right?
LH: Well, I suppose, partly it’s because it’s a project that has both text and drawing. I’m a writer and Max is an artist. It allowed us to work in a parallel track on something that is, in fact, unified at the root. Beyond that, we both have an interest in Buddhism so you look for excuses to hang out together.

MG: We also both have an interest in poetry and writing. Oxherding is an absolutely essential Rinzai text, centered around koan study. So Rinzai Zen is very dependent on words and text.

RH: Were you working from Lewis’s translations?

MG: Yes, yes. I have most them in my drawer. I also had a Japanese version in The Three Pillars of Zen, Philip Kapleau’s book that I’m very fond of. I’m not fond of a lot of the Oxherding drawings that I see. The drawings done by white guys mostly have been deplorable. They’ve been terrible sets of drawings. Guys leaning up against the door, sitting down, hopeless.

LH: Stick figures.

MG: Yeah, hopeless. If you’re in the West, you can’t be in the East. And if you’re in the East, you can’t be in the West. So a Westerner making his way to the east, it’s a long way to go. The guy who translated The Secret of the Golden Flower, Richard Wilhelm, was a friend of Carl Jung’s. Jung wrote to him and said “Richard, come home, you’re getting ill in the East. Come home.” Richard was going too far into the East. He was getting lost. So the drawings I do are the drawings of a Westerner.

SM: One thing that strikes me about the show is that it’s this mix of abstract and representative images. The ox is there only sometimes. It makes me think of Lewis’s translations—you know, you’ve talked about how the syntax of classical Chinese opens a space to enter into. I’m wondering if abstract and the representative images function that way, you know, create a space for the viewer to enter into. Does that make sense?

MG: It makes sense—but I mean it’s answered by the unconscious. My glory comes from the unconscious. What I did was I drenched myself with Lewis’s texts. I read them hundreds of times. I slept with them under my pillow. I read them and read them. That’s the way I do a text. It absolutely enters into me and becomes one with me, and then the thing springs out. But it doesn’t spring out like every time. You have to tear up a lot of good paper. But when it springs out you can recognize it. Of course, sometimes you can’t recognize it. Sometimes Lewis would come over and give me his opinion. Then some got shafted and torn up and some got redone and it took seven years. In the middle of it, it was relatively painful. I was blocked. I didn’t think I was going to be able to do them. I went and saw two Roshis and I asked them for advice. So this wasn’t easy. It wasn’t light. It was very deep.

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