Talks with Tolkien artists: sandzen

31 min read

Deviation Actions

MirachRavaia's avatar
By MirachRavaia

This issue of Talks with Tolkien artists is with a very interesting person about a very interesting art form. Joe Girard, :iconsandzen: - sandzen offers great insight into Tolkien's literary genius as a writer, and gives tribute to him through his "Lord of the Sand" zen gardens:

1. Hello! You are an accomplished writer, film-maker and much else, so I suppose it's a bit unusual for you to be approached over fan-art, but here it is  For the beginning, could you brag a bit and tell us something about yourself?

Something most people learn about me pretty early on is my world records at Pokémon Puzzle League. I have the gold, silver, or bronze score in almost every game and minigame within the larger game. My friends and family used to joke that I’d sold my soul for my ability to play. As such, I happen to be one of the best Tetris players, as well. In the early days of The New Tetris, I held some records, but they’ve been surpassed.

2. What brought you to deviantArt and what was your experience on the site so far?

A bottomless respect/jealousy for visual artists, and a passion for modernity. Well, that’s what kept me here. When I met my partner, 14 years ago, she had an account for her photography and illustrations. I had an earlier account where I posted some really bizarre/abstract Microsoft Paint art, but it wasn’t until I began working for the Asian boutique, East Wind, where I discovered zen gardens, that I started to feel like I had something worth sharing. Then I discovered the poetry community here, and that sealed the deal.

I’ve never quite understood the folks who hate on devART (many of whom seem to be active members); for me it’s been a wellspring of inspiration and motivation. I’ve seen work on here that far exceeds (on an entertainment level) most of what gets published in professional journals and books—whether that’s poetry, photography or illustration, or what have you. The most applicable critique I could self-apply would be the way the nature of the site encourages me to create more for myself, than for larger audiences. I’ve since learned that professional artists are discouraged from posting their works here at the art school level around the globe, the idea being that you should have your own site, for the sake of professional appearances. But devART is still the best site for bringing artists of all stripes together, and I can’t help but see any opposition to that as inherently malevolent, whatever you might say about the site’s design.

I distanced myself in recent years, to see if it would lead me to take on more ambitious projects, at the risk of more immediate satisfaction, and I’m glad to say, that worked for me. Call it a sad reality of capitalism, perhaps. I’m also guilty of pulling myself in ten artistic directions at once, and devART stokes that impulse. Getting away from it has allowed me to zero in on much grander, and more cohesive visions, and to prioritize how I want to improve more select crafts. But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss it dearly. If I ever find the time again, I’d like to strike a better balance.

3. How did you enter Tolkien's world for the first time, and what impression did it leave in you?

I was assigned The Hobbit in grade four. It was the first year of what’s called the gifted program in Canada, a special kind of schooling seemingly designed to torment and pressure cook the impressionable minds of children who score well on flawed tests. At the height of its ambition, it serves as a way to bring bright youngsters together, but it’s really a luck of the draw thing if the class chemistry clicks or if sharp divisions emerge between different factions—so, probably just like regular school, with slightly harder reading and math. The Hobbit was the highlight of that horror. I struggled to understand everything he was describing, but it seemed like the kind of thing I wanted to do, explore another world in my mind. My first fantasy world my older brother and I worked on that year: a world where all the people were walking, talking eyeballs, ears, noses, or tongues. He drew the pictures and I came up with the legend. But, being children, we let that languish, and a couple years later I started work on a fantasy series, and I’ve been working on it ever since. I recently wrote out what I consider a rough outline of the 7000-year history of this universe, some hundreds of pages with an encyclopedic approach, and some think I should develop that into its own kind of Silmarillion.

Incidentally, how I got back into Tolkien, and ended up reading everything available of his (right up to The Story of Kullervo), was by listening to The Hobbit on audiocassette in the late 90s. With my condition (dyslexia), that was infinitely more illuminating, and drove me into the arms of the Unfinished Tales, and on and on. The Lord of the Rings was the last of his works I read (before new publications came out, like Kullervo), and I would strongly recommend that approach to the uninitiated. In fact, if I ever lost my memory, I would want to rediscover Middle-Earth in perfect sequential order. How have they not published that?

4. What creates the image of Middle-earth in your mind? Is it more influenced by the books or movies, or maybe other artists, and did it change over time or remained the same?

The Jackson films (including the Tolkien Edit of the The Hobbit films) rest at #4 on my top 1000 films of all-time list (…). I just did my annual watch-through, and it’s pretty astounding that, in this near-post-GoT world we’re in, those films hold up majestically, and with proud self-assurance. Mortensen imagines, in one of the featurettes, that remakes of the franchise are inevitable, but I seriously have to wonder if there’s a point in recasting Gollum, Gandalf, Galadriel, or numerous others, frankly. I almost feel that to surpass the characterizations by Serkis and McKellen and Blanchett you almost have to change the tone of the entire project.

I wish I could say that Tolkien’s words painted clearer pictures than they do feelings and philosophical perspectives, but, for almost ten years, the image that lived closest to my heart was the John Howe art for The Two Towers, which my older brother brought into the house. It scared the daylights out of sensitive little me, as did my brother’s descriptions of the Nazgûl. The films do a good job of not skirting around the issue of Tolkien’s sense of abject horror, but nothing from the films thrilled me in quite the same way as those illustrations (with the possible exception of the “I am no man” sequence).

Howe’s aesthetic was then deeply reinforced for me thanks to my near-equal love of Yoshitaka Amano’s art for the Final Fantasy VI game.…

So, it isn’t so much an issue of changing, or staying the same. It’s an issue of accumulation. Which visions of Middle-earth have jived with my inner eye, and which haven’t. I’ve dispensed with those that haven’t. The upcoming television series may work for me, and it may not. But what I’m hoping for is not another trip down Jackson/Walsh/Shore/Lesnie/Major/Henneh/Selkirk lane, endless as my respect for them may be. I’m hoping for a gentler, sadder, softer vision. My favourite story of all Tolkien tales is Narn I Hîn Húrin, which, for me, is one of the five most gut-wrenchingly sad tales ever told. The effect that GoT has had on global audiences will be hard for the producers as Amazon(?) to ignore, and that’s going to be the sharpest of double-edged swords in the wrong hands. Fingers crossed.

5. Some of Tolkien's books can be hard to read, being more of history annals than fiction. Do you enjoy the scholarly side of studying Tolkien's world as well?

I’ve probably answered this implicitly, but I want to be clear: that became my favourite part. The overarching dramatic form of Middle-earth is ingenious, of course, especially for anyone who’s studied Joseph Campbell. For many years, my partner and I only had to say “Of Beleriand and its Realms” for one of us to double over at the ridiculousness of Tolkien’s attention to detail, or my pure love of it. But you don't really go to him for his Mamet-level dialogue, or his Chekhovian dramas.

I’ve also worked for libraries much of my adult life, and the problem that a lot of men have generally with reading fiction is many writers don’t write as if they believe utterly in what they’re saying. They tend to express this as some variant of “It’s just a story. It’s not real.” My dad once said to me about his family-famous status as one who had not read a book in his life, "Why would I be interested in something that never happened?" Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, has spoken out against mankind’s love of stories, but perhaps never so succinctly as this, “Biology enables, culture forbids.” Many narratives leave room for you to wonder what the author actually thinks about existence or morality. I think this can come across as a pointless cop out, or worse, a deliberate attempt at incepting you with some ideology you’d rather protect yourself against. I think men can sometimes struggle to understand the applicability of an unreliable narrator, or parody, or even just an author with an open mind, who can see things from multiple perspectives (like, say, Ursula K. LeGuin). That straightforward clarity of vision is where Tolkien really shines. None of his characters who suffer inner conflict delude themselves on the nature of this conflict. Sméagol is cozened and warped by a barrage of psychological warfare. Saruman is open about what he sees being his logical calculus for succumbing to the dark side. Aragorn openly frets over his bloodline, and submits to the humility he sees coming with it (I've often wondered if Tolkien imagined Aragorn becoming less humble as Elessar, but the kneeling to the hobbits at the end seems to speak to that). Denethor might be the most deluded character, but we only really know him as a man addled by grief and self-pity. And it’s never unclear that the larger story is a tale of the hope of the beneficent versus the decay of the malevolent.

So, through his agonizing histories and geographies and biologies we get an unavoidable quest for truth. An early attempt at moral science, perhaps. Does Middle-earth pass your test for what feels like a true world? If so, then you can begin to extrapolate true meaning, and apply it to your life. Essentially, it performs the same job as a myth or a religion, but without the arch “You Must Believe” essence of myths and religions. Despite the zealous fervour of some superfans, Middle-earth is a fantasy you can play with.

6. Who is your favourite Tolkien character and why?

Jeepers. That’s a doozy.

I tend to think the most on the suffering of the tragic cases. Sméagol, Túrin Turambar, Denethor, even Fëanor or Frodo.

I’ll answer from the writer’s perspective: I think Sméagol is his grandest conception. Dramatically, he’s the most mercurial and interesting, the ultimate trickster. But unlike many trickster figures, his trick is somewhat on himself, as we watch his inner war unfold. He’s the most unclear: is Gollum a fragment of his shattered mind? Or a kind of alien growth within his mind, borne of the ring’s innate evil? Or something else, like a projected subconscious dream of Sauron’s, a representation of Sauron's all-consuming desire to reclaim the ring? It’s a question that is unanswerable for a character who is always believable and works. Why does he work? Well, Gollum works like a mirror, reflecting darkly on Sméagol’s naïve aspirations, while at the same time, they both mirror Frodo’s struggle, and shade in the hidden torments that lead the resilient hobbit to make his own pathetic 11th hour choices. And if you jive with Tolkien’s moral vision (centred, self-assured self-application leads to growth, inner duality and subservience to force and power leads to decay), it’s pretty spectacular that he was able to envision a character who embodies everything he would stand or caution against, and not only made him sympathetic, but even introduces you to him in the Lord of the Rings as someone worthy of pity.

7. Are there some topics in Tolkien's works that you are particularly passionate about?

I’ve never liked the term “world-building”, because the way most people use it, it’s like when someone says, “I know everything there is to know about music: I listen to the radio.” Tolkien himself was wowed by the response he got from fellow science-types, who would write in to him to ask exactly how the Oiolairë flowered, or whatever. He never saw the series getting to that level of detail. I think for him it was enough to know who god was, who the gods were, the music of the Ainur, the story of creation, and the order of creation, and then he used that as a kind of mirror-template upon which to conceive the way all the other rivulets of story and theme could course along. In other words, I like anything in his work that shows how he conceived and built this world. His logics as a writer, his moral compass, his purpose as a myth maker. I like how when you go back to his earliest works, there’s the drive to create unity between his writings, but not the conception for how that was possible. Once that moment of inspiration occurred (the birth of Middle-earth as a self-contained reality), I imagine it infused the whole rest of his life with purpose, which I find beautiful to imagine. So I guess my answer is a bit meta, but that’s the most wide-reaching part of it for me.

On a related note: I love how he approached the issue of multiplicity. Like, does all of fate really have to do with two hobbits wrestling on a stone platform above a lava pit? Well, yes. But the issue of how that turned out, has to do, in one way of other, with what many, many other people were up to. Indeed, what all of history was up to, until that moment. How the ring came to exist has its history with Sauron, which couldn’t have happened without Morgoth. Aragorn wouldn’t exist without Isildur, who also helped create Gollum by dying. Shelob and Ungoliant. Galadriel and Eärwen. Frodo and Bilbo. And on and on. The interconnectedness is at once organic and properly dramatic. As a science-minded fellow, I would say that most myths and religions live and die by how well they test against our science of the day. Tolkien created a myth where everything flows out of an evolving relationship between everything with everything. Even the different races tell us things, broadly, about the way he regarded biological evolution. The further you delve into his mechanics, the more ingenious the gears seem to turn. His geometry is tear-jerkingly beautiful in its simple elegance.

You can quibble, of course, and that’s why we have A Song of Ice and Fire. Actually, just one more note: I think Martin is doing a better job of incorporating a real sense of evolution into the mix. In LotR, when you surpass the War of the Ring, you get the sense that this was always meant to represent the closing of the Music of the Ainur, which really invokes the question, “Was the point of all time and history purely the laying waste to all of Melkor’s essence?” Like, if the dissonance that Melkor brought to the Music of the Ainur was consistent, then there should really be no moment of history untouched by that dissonance. All of existence should wrap up after the last person who was touched by that dissonance passes on. And when that happens, is it a good thing? Will all the good peoples of those days be thrilled at the prospect that their world is coming undone? So, despite its moral virtues, the overarching reality is still kind of bleak in a way.

To dial us back from grandiosity, I’ve been an environmentalist and a vegetarian for much of my life, so whenever those themes pop up, I get pretty jazzed.

8. Now, let's talk about the part of your work that might interest Tolkien fans (not that other parts wouldn't ). Sand gardens is a rather unusual form of art. What brought you to it and what does it mean to you?

The shop I worked for would get about a customer per hour, and I worked alone, so when I didn’t have any chores, I would play with the different things we sold, like the gardens, or the Buddha Boards, and read up on Asian culture and history from our book collection. Eventually, I started using the shop as a way to practice my photography, and the gardens were my first subject. Obviously, I took less time to refine the photography aspect than I did refining the gardening aspect.

Traditionally, the stones in a garden represent islands, and the lines represent waves. You’re not supposed to allow the rings from a smaller stone/island to overlap the rings from a larger stone/island. So, my gardens were an attempt to break free of those dictums. And to make them look more beautiful to the customers: which proved effective, incidentally.

Stealing from my answer to the last question, I think Zen gardens express the elegance of simple geometry. I’ve always been drawn to minimalism and geometry. But also parody and satire. So I guess in a sense I was introducing unserious concepts to a solemn art form. I also enjoy artists who’ll combine two unusual things to create a new effect, like Alex Colville or Charles Addams or Max Ernst. So I tried out a variety of concepts, like using the board to express iconic cartoons, constellations, and then moments from the world of Tolkien. Zen of the Rings or Lord of the Sand, or whatever you want to call it, just seemed like the best way to bring my fandom into the gardens beyond, you know, a Totoro face, or the Cliffs of Insanity. And I think that speaks to the rudimentary nature of so many Middle-earth moments, even in the way Tolkien himself drew them. That saga, better than any other I considered, plays really well into a geometric reimagining.

9. What's your creative process from picking the theme to finishing (and in this case also destroying, I guess) a sand garden?

I’d set the board in the traditional fashion, dragging out a canvas of straight, evenly-mounded lines as best I could, and then it was basically between whether I wanted to try weaving a new pattern around an old arrangement of stones (one of my favourite patterns is two stones tall and three stones across, evenly spaced from one another, like points on a Go board), or if I wanted to express something more unique to my past work, or something more organic/chaotic. I never liked doing anything that couldn’t be done freehand. But I also hate the way those, what we might call, hesitation marks show up in photos, so I did develop a few techniques for creating smoother curves.

I rarely started with the theme in mind. It was more like, let’s see what happens when we play. Of course, you don’t randomly end up with a No Face mask, or an Om or a Shirivasta.

Sometimes destroying them is a sad affair, but if you don’t play regularly in your Zen garden, you get dust bunnies, and there’s a lesson in that, I guess.

10. You already gave one interview about writing, so I will just ask - would you like to add something to it here?

Our Poet of the Month: AugustHello guys, this is miserabel, newly in charge of the Monthly Member feature, which will pop up every second Monday of the month! :woohoo: If you know of a member of PoeticalCondition who could do with some more attention, then please note me about them and I'll check them out (and possibly feature them in a future blog)!
This feature is supposed to bring talented writers to your attention who haven't recently gotten a DD or DLD; in other words, the well-hidden gems of the deviantart literature community!
August's pick is:
:spotlight-left: :iconsandzen: :spotlight-right:
Go check him out, folks, it's worth it! Not only is his writing definitely note-worthy, he also gave very interesting responses to my questions and some epic advice for aspiring writers further down.
:star: hand-picked favourites out of their gallery:

:star: sandzen's favourites:

Tell us

I don’t remember anything I said in the one you’re thinking of, or if I still agree with any of it. But I don’t think there’s any one piece of advice more broadly helpful or time-tested than this: if you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write. Stephen King said that, and I’ve heard many a novice writer rebuke it…only to never get published. They say getting published is harder than meeting the pope. That’s a fact. Depending on your standards for what "being published" means.

Perhaps I’ll add this: write as a way to understand yourself. I’m not saying don’t be inspired, but if emulation is all you’re after, you probably won’t understand why you make what you make. When you look back on old writing, it’s the stuff that Tarantino calls “the truth the truth the truth” that will make your older heart sing. As a simple metric: if nothing you write embarrasses you sometime shortly after you write it, you either aren’t being honest with yourself, or you’re supremely confident in your humanity. In which case, how on earth are you a writer? Why aren’t you fighting sharks in a volcano aboard your time machine?

11. As a multi-talented artist, do you like experimenting with new art forms? Which have you already tried?

I just came through some years of tending to my dying mother, so I’m emerging from a creative dead zone. I was having the hardest time believing in any idea I’ve had for the past four years, and one night I wept over the sink when I was talking to my partner, and it hit me just how many ideas I’ve let slide through my fingers over the years. That’s probably what lead to one of the two enormous projects I’ve undertaken over the past year, the likes of which I’ve never tried before. The one was a poem-a-day project with a very unique point of inspiration. I can’t say more about that one, because the editing stage could go on for some time, and then I need to find a publisher. The other is a book of film analysis, which I’d like to make into a documentary series. I’ve done almost nothing else for the past five months, which means that besides the 500-page analysis, I’ve also watched the same movie about 200-300 times in that same period, so I’m a little stir-crazy, and I could probably use a shakeup soon with something fresh and exciting.

If I just list all the forms I’ve dabbled in, that could get boring. It’s a long, tedious list. I think it’s more interesting to say that I try to create things I’ve never seen before. The Zen gardens are a prime example. My parodies of old poems is another thing I've never seen done.

12. Do you have some tips and tricks you would like to share with the other artists and writers?

Well, my recent, prolonged journey through excruciating artist’s-block was not aided by my persistent self-crucifixion for the struggle. So, if you find yourself in a similar predicament, please take my partner’s wise words to heart, and be kind to yourself. If you think that self-torture will speed up your recovery time, that’s a hard no, I’m afraid. Being kind to yourself may not help you create the way you’d like, but it’ll ease you up to receiving the good ideas that are worth pursuing, in ways you should trust your instincts to sense are possible.

I also happened to read Sally Mann’s What Remains, a book of photos with an introduction about passing through the horror of her father’s similarly slow death. She talks about how his death just laid her out, useless, on the floor of her apartment for a year. If you’re like me, it can be hard to take comfort in knowing these things happen to people who are way more accomplished than you, because you don’t feel normal if you’re not creating. But that notion did become talismanic for me.

Oh, also, try never to be afraid of either tools that enhance your art or learning more about your art. The world puts a lot of pressure on artists to be brilliant right out the womb. Learn about techniques as much as you can, and when you see someone else doing something cool, why shouldn’t you put that into your own work? Modern civilization wants everyone to think that tools and tricks and techniques “belong” to the artists who “own” them, but it’s just an illusion, a byproduct of capitalism.

13. Could you tell us, which
- "Lord of the Sand" garden(s) you are most proud of?

I don’t really think of myself as an artist, usually, so I love the freehand work in It’s Raining Men. And The Hideous Face of Shelob has that 2x3 stone arrangement I love so much.

But I think I have to give it up for The Gates of Moria. Not just because of all the favs, but a) it’s the first one I think of when I think of that series, and b) I know just what people mean when they say they can tell who’s who just by looking at it. And there’s a lot of art I really admire where the artist took a recognizable character and interpreted them some other way, like making Miyazaki characters into Bento Box art, or those minimalist movie poster reimaginings, or even Pop figurines, honestly. And I kinda thought I pulled that off here just by picking out the best nine stones for that board.

- other visual art piece(s) you are most proud of ?

I made a 240-page book out of all my old related journal entries, poems, and photos to celebrate my 10-year anniversary, with my partner, Simone. Needless to say, she was completely stunned, and took it everywhere with her for some months. and Bookwright was how I composed it. I’m currently considering making one to commemorate my mom’s life.

- poem(s) you are most proud of?

Poetry is definitely the art form where I’ve explored and covered the most ground, so it’s hard to even give a shortlist of ones I’m proudest of. Pulling off a solid pantoum or parody poem is where I get the most personal satisfaction, I’d say. I performed The Werewolf Monologue to a rapturous crowd at my writer’s circle not long ago, and got no critiques, which was a first for our group, so that certainly had me glowing for a while. The subtext of Spacefeint, I recently learned from my therapist, turns out to have a lot of backing in the science of psychology, which actually surprised me; I had intuited it, purely. But as much as I love form, I’ve always wanted to write great free verse, and The Beautiful Suicide of Narcissus is probably still my reigning champion, personally.

<da:thumb id="362132137"/><da:thumb id="196777128"/><da:thumb id="498604739"/>

- picture or poem was hardest to create?

The hardest poem was definitely Come Home, which took an entire year to create. It's a pantoum, and I think I had the first stanza about a week after our one anniversary, and I liked it so much, I knew I wanted it to be perfect, so, whenever new lines came to me, it felt like lightning hitting twice, thrice, and so on. But if memory serves, I ended up redrafting parts of it over and over, and then finally committed something like every waking thought to it for some weeks leading up to our next anniversary. I guess I'm a bit of a Romantic...

<da:thumb id="333962469"/>

14. Would you like to thank somebody here? What key people in your life, (on or off of dA) have been inspirations to you, or has supported you, as an artist? You can also tell us why, if you want.

My partner, Simone has been my greatest critic, editor, inspiration, and audience. I write first for myself, second for her, and for the world, always third. But she knows how grateful I am.

15. Is there something else you would like to tell to the fans of Tolkien and your art?

Just that my perspectives on Tolkien's works are my own; I'm not pretending to be JRR's personal mind reader. I once had the honour of attending a class where everyone had been asked to study one of my books of poetry, and the kinds of ideas the teens had seen buried in my work were really stunning, and a clear indication of the old saying that people will see themselves in art. And I could tell that some of the kids thought I was being evasive and cheeky, but really, no, I know exactly what inspires me to create what I create, and what some of them were saying was 100% their own idea.

That said, I find dissenting opinion the most interesting, so if anyone reading this has other ideas about Middle-earth, I'd be glad to hear them.

Finally, a big thanks to you, Mirach, for having me. This opportunity to reflect on my passions, was a complete joy and honour for me.

Thank you as well for your time and answers!

Coding by Felizias Drawings by ebe-kastein Borders by PhoenixWildfire
© 2019 - 2021 MirachRavaia
Join the community to add your comment. Already a deviant? Log In
greenapplefreak's avatar
wow! I knew nothing about this artist but this artist creations are really interesting!! thanks for pointing them out!
Mellaril's avatar
Very interesting! I always loved the duality of Smeagol as well. Really impressive you held all of those gaming records!