Giving meaning to the void

Posted 6/19/19

In the waking world, nothing has meaning until it has been assigned a purpose by the observer, says Andrew Shaw, founder of Port Townsend’s Silent Academy.

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Giving meaning to the void


In the waking world, nothing has meaning until it has been assigned a purpose by the observer, says Andrew Shaw, founder of Port Townsend’s Silent Academy.

“It is emptiness,” he said. “The world is filled with stuff but it is empty of any meaning until it is given meaning or relationship to something other than itself.”

It is no coincidence this philosophy aligns with daoist or zen principles as Shaw, 46, born in Nottingham, England, spent a year living with monks in a Buddhist temple in Ladakh near the Indian border with Tibet.

The meaning assigned to any object or situation is absolutely reliant on the observer, Shaw said.

“The sky is blue today,” he said during an interview last week. “I walked to work and it is an amazing day. Now, the chaps outside building a roof are in a foul mood because they are in the heat. It is exactly the same sky.”

When observing art, the exact same principle is in effect, Shaw said.

In addition to recently publishing a book through the Silent Academy (more on that later), Shaw also is working on a series of paintings part of a project known as “Archive of Sky.”

“These paintings are all abstractions of the sky,” he said. “They are not pictures of the sky because I really like the idea of emptiness.”

For each painting, Shaw takes a digital photo of the sky and extracts the hex code, a way of specifying color using hexadecimal values. He uses that to reconstitute the sky in painted form, he said.

“The point of that is the sky is empty. It has no meaning. It just is. But, we as humans with everything we see project codes onto things, whether it is behavioral or scientific or spiritual.”

With the paintings, Shaw is providing meaning with the use of a mathematical code.

“These paintings, some of them will be sold and then the larger ones I am going to hang in a very dark place,” he said. “The paintings are not the art. The art will be when people are invited in with their own light sources to look at the abstractions of the sky underground.”

The point of putting the art in a dark space acts as a commentary on codification perception and the emptiness the observer fills with their mind, Shaw said.

Shaw is also having a bit of fun at the expense of pretentious art galleries.

“I never really liked art that was exclusive and separated people from the experience. Everytime you go to an art gallery you feel you don’t know how to behave. Instead of saying, ‘How do I behave?’ You can’t see how everybody else is behaving and they can do what they want, or say, ‘This is bullshit. I am leaving.’”

It is such interactions, not the art itself, Shaw is interested in observing.

“Going down and painting the lighthouse doesn’t really interest me,” he said. “But, the relationship between you and the lighthouse does.”

Demystifying poetry

Similar to his goal for the “Archive of Sky” series, Shaw is moving to make poetry more accessible to those who may be intimidated by the traditional idea of how to create and interpret art.

“There is a debate in art, do you need technical skill to be a great artist? The answer is usually no,” Shaw said. “You can be a great technician but that doesn’t mean you have great concepts.”

He wants to assure those who are hesitant to write poetry simply because they don’t understand how a sonnet works.

“Don’t worry about that,” Shaw said. “Do you like the idea of being poetic?”

For those that do, Shaw has published “Couplets,” a book that seeks to simplify the process of creating poetry.

“I spent over a year writing and it is in the form of couplets because I want to make a device where anybody can write a poem and inhabit a space that makes them feel creative with a very easy, technical approach to writing.”

The couplets consist of two lines and the concept was inspired by the traditional structure of a haiku, Shaw said.

“I like the idea of making something out of nothing and then incorporating that space. The rules were; start with the word ‘imagine,’ don’t use any punctuation, think of a concept that is impossible and then delete the word ‘imagine.’ What you are left with is an impossible clause that is poetic.”

Doing that, anyone can write a poem, Shaw said.

“That was my motivation for it.”

That is how the Japanese haiku tradition began, as a vehicle for everyone, but it has become elitist over the years, Shaw said.

“Now we really get snobbish about haiku. People are terrified of haiku. It doesn’t really translate either. I thought, ‘If I can do one that is almost like a game, and people can have fun, it doesn’t matter if it is rubbish or not (because) they feel poetic. It is the sense of the poem. So I wrote a book like that to launch the press.”

While the exercise democratizes poetry, it also makes it highly unique to each individual, Shaw said.

“There is the fascism of the individual to say, ‘No, this is worth something. This is the way I am going to do it.’ Paint your horse. Don’t try to paint the horse that looks like somebody else’s.”

The experience makes validation of the system unnecessary, Shaw said.

“That is the idea of having experiential art, conceptual art. You don’t need to explain why you like it. You can just say, ‘I like it.’”

For more information about the Silent Academy, visit


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