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Art professor shows his 'Buddhist spirit'

December 8, 2003

Photo of Professor Lewis deSoto's sculptureThe 26-foot-long, inflated Buddha on display at the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art in Staten Island, N.Y., and Ewing Gallery at University of Tennessee may look familiar to SFSU art students and alumni. The face is a self-portrait of art Professor Lewis deSoto.

Titled "Paranirvana (self-portrait)," one of the two cloth sculptures was featured recently in a New York Times article on the Staten Island exhibit, "The Invisible Thread: Buddhist Spirit in Contemporary Art."

"The only model for an ethical life (Buddha) had to offer was his own stripped-down life, and he encourages others to imitate it so they, too, might become Buddhas -- awakened beings -- in a process of self-transformation that, almost accidentally, generated universal beneficence," art critic Holland Cotter writes in the Nov. 7 issue. "Something like this idea is suggested in a huge, air-filled fabric sculpture by Lewis deSoto, which depicts the reclining Buddha simultaneously dying and entering the energy stream of nirvana."

The image is based on a revered stone image in Sri Lanka.

A 49-year-old Napa resident who joined SFSU in 1988, deSoto teaches photography classes and has exhibited extensively in the United States and abroad, with installations at museums and galleries in England, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

He made "Paranirvana (self-portrait)" in 1999 when mourning the death of his father. By including his own face on the sculpture, deSoto says he is relating the Buddha's "peaceful" death to his father's, as well as his own in the future.

The sculpture is inflated with an industrial fan each morning, keeping air circulating and, in essence, the Buddha breathing. At the end of each day, the fan is turned off and the breathing stops, symbolizing a serene state of dying.

deSoto's sculpture is on exhibit in New York through Feb. 29, 2004. For more about the show, visit The Buddism Project Web site. It is on display at University of Tennessee's Ewing Gallery through Dec. 18.

"Paranirvana (self-portrait)" will also travel to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., from Jan. 21 to March 14, 2004, the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art in March, University Art Museum at UC Berkeley from June to August, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego from September to November.

-- Matt Itelson


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Last modified December 8, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs