In the late 19th century, Southern California attracted misfits, idealists, and entrepreneurs with few ties to anyone or anything. Swamis, spiritualists, and other self-proclaimed religious authorities quickly made their way out West to forge new faiths. Independent book publishers, motivational speakers, and metaphysical-minded artists and writers then became part of the Los Angeles landscape. City of the Seekers examines how the legacy of this spiritual freedom enables artists to make creative work as part of their practices.
Long before land art became a movement in the 1960s, it was practiced in rituals honoring deities, or as blessings for the day. As with Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas, the ephemeral nature of Earth art and other site-specific works calls attention to the impermanence of art itself, highlighting the importance of the generative creative process over its result. California-based artist Day Schildkret's MorningAltars is a project that returns us to the original purpose of land art before contemporary artists like Robert Smithson redefined it.
Technically, his practice is similar to rangoli, the Hindu tradition of using household staples such as rice, flour, and flowers to make patterns on the floor. "I am deeply influenced and inspired by the idea that I am doing something that people have been doing for thousands and thousands of years," Schildkret tells The Creators Project. "So in a way, this art is a portal to something very very old. That blows my mind."
Ever since he was a kid, Schildkret has been building his own version of Earth art in order to "still exist in wonder and collaborate with the magic of the natural world." Over time, he realized he was applying the same seven-step process to his ritual, which he's since been teaching to others. It begins with wonder, discovery, and a clarifying exercise, followed by creation, blessing, separation, and finally, connecting to other human beings through the practice itself.
"My intention is to step outside into a bigger world and create small, impeccable beauty," Schildkret explains. "I get to employ my curiosity, treasure-hunt, collaborate with nature, and make something that is meant to change. Every single altar has deep meaning woven into it. Each piece has a blessing that inspired it. [T]hey are created to be destroyed. The intention is to experience that every day."
Though his own practice is based on a tradition that goes back much further, Schildkret says he grew up influenced by contemporary masters of land art such as Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long. After Schildkret's career took him to Broadway, he realized he needed the vast expanse of a natural environment to feel alive, so he moved out West less than 10 years ago. "I came to California to explore my inner world, but as soon as I got here, I was enchanted by the outer landscape," he says. "The ocean, the redwoods, the deserts, the mountains is what makes California so unique and magical. The wild world wooed me outside to witness how alive and vibrant our earth really is and how alive I became when I was outside, too."
While delving into his practice of Vipassana meditation, Schildkret began exploring California, which eventually inspired his daily art-making ritual. "MorningAltars is the child of my undying devotion with nature, my desire to create beauty as spiritual activism, and my practice of mindfulness, blessing, and meditation," he says, adding that "art and beauty-making is a way to become deeply bound to and intimate with this epic land and landscape here."
"Something is missing from our modern lives," Schildkret believes. "In our mad-dash to pursue a better life for ourselves, we have forgotten our connection to a greater story. Disconnection, anxiety, and stress are our companions as we struggle to make meaning of these times in their ever quickening pace. As our modern culture demands bigger and faster as better, this ancient and creative practice offers the opposite truth: That the magic and meaning of our lives can be found in the smallest of things."