Sojourn Magazine, Fall 1999, Volume 3, Issue 4 
 

My Heavy Bag of Tools: An Interview with Flory Chowe
My story begins and ends with my bag of tools...The process of doing sculpture has created me...When carving you progress chip by chip--slowly...Nothing meaningful is done overnight. Flory Chowe
I was born in mainland China and moved to Taiwan when I was thirteen years old, then to the United States after high school. My Flory Chowe with her bag of tools. Photo provided.dad was an official in the Chinese government, but also a writer and a scholar. He surrounded me with books. Since I was nurtured that way, I also wanted to be a writer. 
     I received a scholarship to a Catholic University in Florida, where I majored in secondary education and minored in literature. This was tough for me--especially English literature. Most of the students had read so many books. I would go to the library and read synopses to catch up. I felt that I could not express myself well enough in English, and my Chinese wasn't that good either. 

TRADITION 
I was married immediately after graduation. My husband was Chinese, and had lived in America since his teenage years. He had little Chinese indoctrination, and seldom spoke Chinese. His father was educated in Belgium, and was involved in diplomatic circles as Taiwan's ambassador to the Vatican. 
      My father was a Confucian scholar, so my background was much more instilled with tradition. He was very responsible to his job and his country, and my mom was totally involved with home and family. 
      In my marriage I had such devotion and one-mindedness carrying on the Confucian tradition of my family without ever examining or questioning it. I never had any independence. Do you accept what is passed on to you without ever reexamining it? I did. I was 100% wife, 100% mother, 100% daughter-in-law. I took food to my husband at work, entertained his company people by cooking gourmet Chinese food, mowed a three-acre lawn, took care of a garden, kept the house spic-and-span, and then dressed up to entertain houseguests. Afterwards I did more dishes, mopped the floor and cleaned up. I took care of our three children, trying to nurture them into whole human beings. I read them poetry to go to sleep, played them music, taught them Chinese writing, took them swimming, and so on. When my husband's father was sick, I took care of him. Yet, there was such a feeling of loneliness inside me. 
     I wanted to do something for myself, so during the last two years of my marriage I went to a New Jersey YMCA twice a week, in the evenings, to draw and paint. That was the beginning of my art. I was still very starry-eyed. 
 
SHATTERED ILLUSIONS 
Around the sixth year of my marriage, I sensed something was going wrong. My husband was seldom home. He was always busy and working overtime. Often, I would wait up until two or three o'clock in the morning, worried that he might have fallen asleep while driving. Little did I realize that he was having an affair with a co-worker--an Italian woman who also did babysitting for us. Everybody knew but me. 
      This affair went on for two years. Buddhism says that stupidity and ignorance are stumbling blocks to everything. Unless you clear your mind, you can't resolve any problems. It was this way for me. I was living a good traditional life. The marriage counselor asked my husband, "Are you having an affair?" He said, "No," and added, "She is a perfect wife." The counselor said, "Well, what's the problem then?" There was nothing the counselor could do. John's boss and partners said, "You can't do that to Flory. You'd better send Anna back to Italy." They had a farewell party for her and  wanted me to sing at her party. Since I didn't know the whole story, I did sing for her. 
    An affair gets hottest when it is forbidden and when people are separated. The more the fruit is forbidden, the more attractive it becomes. A wife is not attractive because she is there every day. At some point, Anna came back to the United States. The night my husband told me he was in love, I guessed who it was. 
    I was deeply hurt and wanted to get away, so the next day I left for art school--the Art Student's League in New York City. I realized that there would be no way for me to raise three children, physically or financially, as an art student. I also knew that for the children, security is of foremost importance. My husband had a comfortable lifestyle, and the children had playmates and security with him. They knew Anna, their babysitter, well, so I asked and they both consented to care for the children. 
    Shortly after I settled in school, I swallowed my hurt and pride and called John. I told him that this breakup did not concern only the two of us; it would have lifelong consequences for the children. Would he reconsider? If he was willing, I'd come home and we could start over. John informed me that Anna was pregnant, and they planned to get married. 
     What did I do? Why was this happening to me? I was doing 100% of everything. This betrayal caused me to ask very deep questions about what love and filiality are. I began to question everything I was taught. 

 THE STRENGTH TO GO ON 
I was forced to leave my children. This would be painful for any woman, but I feel that my salvation was the strong character of the family I came from. Many times the Chinese were overwhelmed by the bombing, and the soldiers wanted to run away. My father Flory's Mother and Fatherwould set the table right in the middle of the open skylight while the bombing was going on. To stabilize the soldiers, he would say, "I'm here. Everything is okay." He was gutsy. My mom had become a spy. My father's army was ill-equipped and there was malaria, so she went back to Shanghai--which was occupied by the Japanese--to get contributions of money to buy medicine and mosquito nets for the soldiers. The Japanese could have arrested and killed her. Father, sister and Flory 
     Although I was gentle and docile, these strong characteristics were in me too. I didn't cry or complain. I wanted to be an artist, and I made a decision to go forward and not look back. Of course, I missed my children terribly. I had visiting rights with them for the first year, but then I was told that the children were being torn between two families. I wanted things to work out for them, and decided to take the back seat so they would have a better life. They were told, "Your mother doesn't want you. She abandoned you." That's the only story they knew. Flory Chowe, photo by J. Idarius 
     You ask me why they did this? I asked why too. For reasons mostly unknown, human beings tend to do a lot of foolish things. The stepmother was very insecure, and couldn't believe John would divorce me and marry her. She feared that someday the children would all come back to me. This painful experience has made me dig down deeper to think about human relationships and true realities. 

LEARNING THE CRAFT 
I was close to thirty years old when I began to study sculpture at the Art Student's League. A lot of my schoolmates were half my age. But I had a vision, and I worked very hard. At the end of my fourth year, I won the coveted McDowell traveling scholarship. In twenty-eight years, this award had never been won by a sculptor--only by painters. 
     I left for Europe, made quick trips to centers of art, and soon realized that I couldn't become a sculptor by just looking around; I must work. I decided to go to Carrara, Italy, to the quarry where Michelangelo had gotten his marble. My scholarship gave me enough money to stay and work there for a couple of years. I rented space, watched the carvers, and learned the best way to carve; what is good stone and what is a cooked stone, and more photo providedimportantly how to move large pieces. The renowned sculptor Jacques Liptchitz was there at the time. We asked him, "Maestro, can you teach us to be good sculptors?" He said, "You can learn whatever the foundry casters and artisans can teach--how to handle stone, how to carve it and how to cast, but the rest can't be taught." That was a good lesson. 
     In Taiwan I had gone to the best girls' high school. We were studious and outstanding students, and were accepted at the best colleges and universities. At our reunion, I saw that most of these women were professors now in fields like computer science, chemistry, biology, and so on. It was like listening to broken records. I told them, "You guys all ended up doing the same things you were good at from the beginning. Am I glad that I broke the mold. At least one of us is a stone chiseler." 
     I could never have dreamed of doing this, because people who work with their hands are looked down upon in Chinese tradition. Handwork is considered labor, not art, and the Chinese remember very few of their sculptors. Yet sculpture has turned out to be my salvation. It was a tough road, but now I am really thankful. My photo by J. Idariuswhole life has changed. I have become a good craftsman, and I am proud to be able to deal with all facets of mechanics and materials. 
    When I came back from Europe I had a one-woman show in New York City. I also remarried. My new husband was a construction manager and worked on government projects--building housing, hospitals and schools, etc. Through him I was happy to have learned much about the mechanics and construction of things. From that time on I have devoted myself totally to my work. 
 

BUDDHIST UNIVERSITY 
I did stone carving for a full five years, and missed my children terribly. The images I carved were about mother and child, family, security, warm wind, and love. Later I realized that reality is forever changing. There is no bottom line. That started to change the direction of my work. 
    I enjoyed going to watch modern dance, and noticed that the movements and interplay of the dancers made patterns of changing colors and forms. From this inspiration, I made a black and white Earthstore Bodhisattvachest of drawers and painted it inside and out. I had a one-person show at So Ho in New York City around this theme of folding and unfolding images. When the audience moved the drawers, their different associations created a variety of patterns. 
   In 1978, I was invited to set up and run the sculpture department at Dharma Realm Buddhist University in the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Talmage, California. My husband and I sold our house in New Jersey and bought forty acres of beautiful land at MacNab Ranch. 
    For three years at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, I didn't participate in the meditations or lectures very much. I had never had a very good impression of the Buddhists in China. A majority were women who blindly believed it was their fate to tolerate the intolerable so they could gain a better life next time. Buddhism in China had become superstitious and power-based. There is a Buddha, photo providedChinese saying: "The monks chant with their mouths but not their hearts." Since I was reluctant to become involved, I thought, "I will just teach and do my work." 
     Since I was teaching, I started to carve again. I named my Buddhist carvings "still quiet light." When you have bright light, you see clearly, and when you see clearly, you have peace. When you are still, you can function and see better. 
   I designed two hands, coming together, for the doorknob of the Buddha hall--a beautiful gesture of mutual love and respect; such a great greeting to welcome each other by touching hands. Too bad the design was not used. I also designed an entrance gate using this concept. The Venerable Abbott Hsuan Hua had asked me to come up with a design for the entrance, using certain criteria; it had to be Buddhist-related and something never seen in the world, past or present. This was a tall order. I designed two wedge-shaped stucco structures of abstracted hands that I felt would go well with the surrounding stucco buildings. The traffic would come and go through the palms of these hands and the Buddha eyes at the center of the palms would serve as rooms for the gatekeeper. The Abbot liked the idea, but others thought it was too far-out. However, I was happy, and it did match the criteria! 
    Before I took leave from the University, I decided to set up a contemporary Buddhist show, and told the Venerable Abbott that I would organize the show by sending literature all over the world to request entries. I thought the sangha should be the jurors. I was not too sure myself what they would accept. He said, "Flory, all images are empty. They are formed through each one's attachments. So what's the difference?" That made a big gong go off in my head: "Wow! People form their own images, but all are empty anyway. We think, 'This is good, this is bad; mine is superior; yours is inferior.' This goes on and on, throughout the whole world." That was a wonderful thing to learn. 

My studio, which is deep in the mountains...
ALL-EMBRACING REALITY 
In a piece called "Sojourner," I forgot myself and just started painting with house paints on siding and six-by-sixes. Everyone is there. My dad is there; many people I know are there in faces drawn or cast in cement, placed inside and outside of three-dimensional boxes. Many mirrors were included. This work is very hard to photograph, because it changes all the time. People at the show would come and say, "I see Mozart." Others said, "I see Beethoven." 
    My work is about the connection and interconnection of all phenomena. Three-dimensional forms never look just one way, because they are influenced by light and shadow. They show the forms, and also have the ability to interfere with them. The black and white in my work show this constant interplay, and the mirrors reflect and also create constant change. 
     I recall a restatement of Buddhist and Taoist doctrine about the all-embracing reality: "There is no difficulty about the perfect way. Only we must avoid the making of discrimination. When we are freed from hate and love, it will reveal itself as clearly as broad daylight. Do not pursue the outer entanglements, nor dwell in the inner void. Rest in peace in the oneness of things, and all barriers will vanish without a trace. The more you strive to stop motion in order to obtain rest, the more your rest becomes restlessness. As long as you are stuck in dualism, how can you realize oneness? The object is an object for the subject. The subject is the subject for the object. Know that the relativity of the two rests ultimately on one emptiness." 
     People told the Dalai Lama that if he went back to Tibet after twenty-some years, people wouldn't recognize him. What do you think he said? He said, "If the Tibetan people have no need of a Dalai Lama, then the Dalai Lama doesn't exist." He is so simple. He didn't say, "Oh, how can this be possible? I am the living Buddha." 
    In reality nothing is purely black-and-white. Everything is multi-layered and interactive. There is no bottom line. That is what I am trying to express in my art. Where is the substance of reality, if the same reality is so different to different people? 

MY HEAVY BAG OF TOOLS 
    The beginning of my story and the end of my story as an artist is about my bag of tools. At home in my studio I have so many kinds of equipment and tools for welding, cutting, carving, modeling, grinding and polishing. As a sculptor, I explore and learn, and in that process I can never get away from construction. There is physics involved in working with these materials--marble, clay, wood, styrofoam, stainless steel, bronze, copper, ferro-cement and acrylic. 
     Most people see me as petite. They don't imagine that I work with all these hard and heavy materials. I figure that if I want something, then that is my price to pay. I have cut my hands and burnt myself all over from welding. I still have scars from hitting my thumb when carving marble. 
    The process of doing sculpture has created me. The materials inspire me and work with me. I have to deal with them, fumble with them and have patience. Things never go as you dictate. With carving, you progress chip by chip--slowly. You have to respect the materials. Nothing meaningful is done overnight. 
     The feeling for the solitary lifestyle was deeply imbedded in me. My studio, which is deep in the mountains, is a place where no visitors come--only the meter reader, the birds and deer. I love the solitude. 
 
This sculpture of marble...
This sculpture of marble laminated with stainless steel was commissioned for one of the most beautiful and costly buildings in Taiwan--with very expansive green glass and a Spanish-tile facade. The building needed a very strong sculptural form, and the architect suggested it be two stories high.
COMMISSIONS 
I have done quite a few commissioned works in both Asia and the US. My work in Taiwan is very new. The people there are still traditional in their views. 
     My work in China is a road back home for me. I have been invited to do a show of my recent work in Beijing and have worked on a golf course in Xiamen, China--a port city on the coast in the semi-tropical region of the Guangdong Province. That area used to be under Portuguese rule, and there are many beautiful Portuguese buildings there. I have worked on golf courses both in Taiwan and Xiamen for two and a half years. These gathering places gave me a chance to learn. 
    I have always admired the non-compromising conscientiousness of Japanese workers. In 1991, I was honored to be invited again to participate in an international sculpture symposium, held in Kikuchi, Japan. At the end of the symposium, all our sculptures were to be set up in the sculpture garden. Local masons helped to cast the bases. Before drilling the holes to anchor my sculpture, they cleaned the surface first, then sharpened their pencil to a clear point before marking with it. Then they started to drill --first with the smallest bit, then a bigger one. Two people guided the horizontal and vertical directions. It was hard for any of us to find any imperfections. 
    Unfortunately, the workers in China and Taiwan were not as concerned with quality as the Japanese. That made creating large commissions there difficult and completely exhausting. On the other hand, my work as an art consultant for golf courses has enlarged my scope as a sculptor. Landscape design is such a joy. Nature is "never twice the same." I have designed golf-course entrances, placed huge boulders around lakes, decorated clubhouses for New Year and Christmas celebrations, installed a carved marble piece that I made long ago in Cararra, and also created an installation of pieces carved by other sculptors. 
 
Where is the substance of reality, if the same reality is so different to different people? My work is about the connection and interconnection of all phenomena.
Flory Chowe, photo by J. Idarius
THE RETURN 
For years I had not been able to write my side of the story to my children about what happened before, during and after my divorce. The relentless bombing of Kosovo by NATO angered me so much that I was motivated to do something. The arrogance of the war and my ex-husband's arrogance both enraged me. How could John be so cruel to his vulnerable children, that he would denounce their mother and tell horrible tales of me abandoning them? I realized that some people justify their cruelty to others by simply demonizing them. 
     I had kept my silence for years, mainly for three reasons. First, I still harbored the pain of betrayal, and felt shame to have subjugated myself to John's power and demands. I finally realized fully that we did this to each other. I was part of the cause of what happened to my family. Second, it was against my nature to do to others what I do not admire. I don't talk behind people's backs. For a long time, I had felt reluctant to speak about the past or to write about it, even to my children. 
    Third, I felt that when parents fight with each other, children suffer the most. Since John and Anna had brought the children up, they had earned credit; for me to speak about the past might alienate the children from them. 
    I have since learned how important and necessary it is for children to know the story from another side. Through understanding, maturity and compassion, they might be able to resolve their deep pain and questions; then we can all be on our way to healing. 
     I wrote for two weeks, night and day, and could not sleep. All that anger and deep imbedded pain surged up, but I knew that to write with anger and resentment wouldn't solve any problems. It would only create more confusion. Finally I decided to use the format of a journal. I wrote a narrative description of the time, place and events without commentary. This was all written from my personal experience, with no criticism, no innuendo, no attacks, no blame--a straight journal from the point of view of the one who went through it. 
     My daughter asked me not to send the letter to her dad and Anna, for fear it would create a hell for all if I did. Since I chiefly wanted to relieve doubts and answer questions for my children, I agreed to send the letter to them only. 
     It mattered to me so much that it took years to feel right in my heart about writing it. I wanted to help my children to forgive, and also to appreciate what they had been given so they could embark on their own road to healing. Afterwards, I felt the pure light of relief. It has made me feel so much closer to them to recall our happy years together with so much laughter and joy. I had buried those memories along with the pain. 

Whether this benefits the children or not, they still have to walk their own road to discovery and to recovery. I have walked this road all these years just to understand and resolve many questions. Now, they have to do this for themselves. 


 Butterfly Woman  ~  Cover Artist: Flory Chowe  ~  From the Editor  
Rivers of Time  ~  Spiritual Midwifery 
 
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