Ma Deva Padma: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became an Artist

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As an artist, it is essential to experiment. Change your surroundings periodically to refresh your self-expression and creativity. If you reside in an urban area, take some time to visit nature’s beauty, such as parks, where you can lie on the grass, smell the flowers, and enjoy its calming effect. On the other hand, if you live in the countryside, visit the city to explore and experience new influences that can stimulate your creativity. Van Gogh was influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, and Georgia O’Keeffe found that the desert was where her creativity bloomed. Don’t be afraid to explore unfamiliar materials, subjects or influences. Artists are pioneers who venture where others fear to tread. May the force be with you!

As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ma Deva Padma.

Padma, born Susan (Bernard) Morgan, was raised in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and attended the New England School of Art and the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. While on her spiritual quest, she traveled to India and became interested in Buddhist, Tibetan, and Islamic art. She is the creator of The Osho Zen Tarot, Tao Oracle, and The Sacred She Tarot Deck and Guidebook. She lives and works with her stone-sculpting husband, Ashika, at their Embrace Art Studio in the bushland of Victoria, Australia.

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Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

My life as an artist began as soon as I could hold a crayon. In fourth grade, my painting of a witch silhouetted against a bright full moon was painted on the local dry-cleaner front window and won first prize in the town’s grade-schoolers Halloween art contest. By 1960, my parents noticed my flagging interest in ballet lessons, and for Christmas that year, Santa gifted me with an easel, canvases, pastels, and a John Gnagy paint set. At age fifteen, I was commissioned to paint galaxies and the Aurora Borealis on the walls of the local Milky Way Café. After graduating high school, I briefly attended The New England School of Art and The Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. But my impatience to create my way made me a terrible student, eager for release from the confines of being taught how to be an artist that I thought I was! I quit school for good. In 1969, I entered an art contest and won a Volkswagen Bug. It was a nationwide art competition called “Wink Paint Your Wagon” contest sponsored by the Canada Dry Corporation. For the next couple of years, I worked in the art department of two different “underground” papers Boston After Dark and The Real Paper. Then, I became an advertising and fashion illustrator for Environmental Graphics Group in Harvard Square. From the late ’60s into the early ’70s, I freelanced designing rock club posters and murals, exhibited my paintings, illustrated articles for magazines, designed clothes, and made anti-war posters.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

By 1971, I was becoming less and less fulfilled by making art. I needed something to relieve an encroaching sense of pointlessness. Depressed by an increasingly hectic lifestyle, I searched for something to provide meaning and purpose to my existence. My search for alternative experiences expanded by experimenting with psychedelics, learning yoga, and attending group therapy workshops. As I consumed Ram Dass’s book Be Here Now and the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, my attention was drawn toward higher states of consciousness, meditation, and finding a teacher to guide my spiritual quest.

In 1973, I bartered painting a huge Arica symbol on canvas in exchange for attending their forty-day intensive in Boston. Later I moved to New York City to participate in the advanced training at the Arica Institute. Oscar Ichazo, the founder of Arica School, invited me to paint meditation symbols and “yantras” he designed for contemplative visualization practice. In the spring of 1975, a friend invited me to join him on a “spiritual holiday” to India. He wanted to “check out” Indian guru Acharya Rajneesh, whose book he’d been reading. That journey culminated in meeting the mystic and becoming his disciple. It profoundly affected the course of my life both as an artist and, more importantly, as a more conscious human being.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I didn’t lift a paintbrush between 1975 and 1981. Living in the ashram, I followed my guru’s guidance that creativity was my meditation and should be expressed freely as divine. I did a thousand and one things but never once created out of competition or comparison. During those years, I focused on becoming aware of the self-centered tendencies that had driven much of my art-making career. This self-reflection was necessary for personal growth. In retrospect, I consider the hiatus in my art career to be a blessing in disguise. During that period, I had nothing to prove to the guru to elevate my standing. Despite the personal identity of a gifted artist that I had built up for years, my ego eventually surrendered, letting that persona go to respond (rather than resist) to the changes life held in store. In India, I learned to view change not as threatening but as an opportunity for developing resilience, resourcefulness, and self-awareness.

By the mid-’80s, my love of illustrating and painting was reborn, resulting in creative opportunities to communicate a newfound respect for life, the preciousness of love, and the blessing of meditation. I was invited to create seventy-nine unique artworks for what would become the Osho Zen Tarot. The project took 4 years to complete, during which I provided accompanying commentaries for each illustration in a book with Osho’s quotes. This project was a gift that allowed me to express my gratitude to Osho himself. Following the publication of that deck, utterly inspired, I began working on sixty-four paintings that illustrated the Taoist classic called I-Ching. Later, that collection was produced as a card deck and book, titled the TAO Oracle. By then, I was ready to leave India and venture into the unknown of a world that had changed dramatically since I exited from it so long ago.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Departing from India in 1997 was simultaneously daunting and exhilarating. I was no longer a youthful artist, brimming with enthusiasm. I felt more like Rip Van Winkel waking up at fifty years of age, facing life in a world that I didn’t recognize — decades of living without building a reputation or developing an excellent CV confronted me with how out-of-touch I was with the demands of the material world. I needed to find a place to acclimate to society and was offered a space in the home of dear friends (and fellow creatives) in New Zealand. The peaceful ambiance of their home provided the ideal environment to concentrate on writing the TAO Oracle. As experienced book designers, they assisted me in creating a proposal to pitch that project to publishers in America. After NZ, I planned to return to the USA in hopes that my lack of credentials in middle age would be overlooked. I longed to make a living by creating beautiful art that reflected what I had learned during my years of spiritual development.

Shortly before leaving New Zealand, my artist friend Ashika, whom I met in India, invited me to visit him in Australia. His exquisite stone sculptures were exhibited at an Asian art and antiques emporium in Melbourne, and he felt the owners might be interested in showing my art. Art collectors highly regarded Ashika’s Zen sculptures, and they sold well there, so he figured they also would appreciate my art.

He urged me to bring some canvases for gallery owners’ consideration. We met, and they agreed to showcase my art because it fit their aesthetic. That breakthrough opportunity kick-started my learning about the art market, the world of competition, and what it meant to produce works that exceeded my known ability. The challenge of meeting high standards and deadlines felt like hurdling Niagara Falls. Each new piece had to meet the gallery’s criteria and exceed my expectations.

Creating art that communicates meditation as a theme was challenging because of the demands of the art market and the art dealers’ preference for popular subjects. Serene full moons or depictions of seated figures with closed eyes were not very interesting to buyers unless they were antique Buddha statues. Contemporary art buyers were looking for visually stimulating decorative artworks that utilized flashy techniques, which were a world away from depictions of Buddha nature. My dilemma was: either create works guaranteed to sell or ignore the galleries’ brief and produce art that had little to do with the market trends. My integrity was at stake. I concluded that there was no choice but to express my love of life and the natural world in unique and unimaginable ways.

I worked to create a timeless quality in my paintings. I experimented with mixing bronze, crushed pearl, and metallic powders into various acrylic mediums to build up the surface and create an impression of ancient craftsmanship. I painted on multiple materials, such as canvas, folding screens, silk, art board, and interior walls. The effect was contemporary yet timeless, showcasing this artist’s skill and maturity.

The gallery had a requirement that each canvas should be displayed in a handcrafted, custom-built frame. This resulted in my early shows opening with me several thousand dollars in debt and uncertain if anyone would be interested in buying my work.

I decided to explore some new alternatives to painting on canvas and stumbled upon a few secondhand screens in the gallery storeroom. It might be interesting to try painting on them.

I had never painted on gold or silver leaf and found it challenging and scary. Getting the paint to stick was difficult, and there was no room for error because nothing could be erased. Even the slightest finger mark would affect the fragile surface patina. Since these secondhand screens were quite expensive, I arranged to reimburse the gallery for their price, which was as much as $2,000 per screen in some cases. That amount would be deducted from my percentage once the art is sold. I knew that if I wrecked it, I would own it and be in debt!

Gradually, I relaxed into feeling fragile while working on fragile surfaces, and once my work started selling, I became both a creator and observer of the artistic process.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?

The art business mandated that artists have no contact with their buyers unless at an opening or by request. These creations were my children, expressions of my inner truth, and not knowing where they would end up or who owned them bothered me. This inner conflict exposed the need to find a new way of working and stop compromising myself solely to be successful. Changing my relationship to the protocols of the art world was the best decision I could have made. It revealed this profound understanding that when the heart leads the spirit soars.

Ashika and I longed to open our own studio and live surrounded by the nature that inspired us. We left the city and started promoting our work in art magazines. We then had the privilege of selling our art directly to the people who loved it. A following was created through ads we placed in fine art magazines, and the public responded. The Asia Art Society of Australia published an article on me, the same year that Ashika’s work was featured in the highly regarded landscape and architecture magazine InDesign. We married in 2001 and that same year the National Gallery of Victoria displayed both of our works at the entrance to the exhibition Spring Flowers, Autumn Grasses: The Spirit of Nature in Asian Art.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

In May 2002, I was approached by the AustralAsia Centre to showcase one of my painted screens featuring chrysanthemum flowers. They wanted to use it on invitations and inside the banquet hall during the dinner organized in honor of the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Australia. The center believed that my work would perfectly blend both Eastern and Western aesthetics, making it an ideal choice for the event. This occasion embodied the union of supposed opposites where East and West merged in one beautiful expression. That union has always been a cherished dream of mine that manifested out of a lifetime of searching for peace within myself and in the wider world.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

After the success of my Osho Zen Tarot and TAO Oracle decks, I figured my card-creating days were done. But in 2007, I realized there was a third deck waiting to be born, and it would be neither Western nor Eastern but a celebration honoring the dynamic union of apparent opposites. I called her The Sacred She, who gives voice to the divine feminine principle that brings balance into our daily lives. For eons, this compassionate yin force has been suppressed and ignored. It is a guiding energy that stems from the heart of our being, which is universal regardless of gender. The Sacred She Tarot deck is based on the traditional structure of seventy-eight cards, a format that I have worked with and cherished since my teens. The cards are grouped into five elemental suits, each representing different aspects of our physical, energetic, emotional, and spiritual lives: they are Earth, Fire, Air, Water, and Spirit. The artwork in the tarot deck has been inspired by my lifelong journey that acknowledges the gift of life in all things great and small. By respecting nature and raising our level of consciousness, we become the agents of change we so desperately seek. The Sacred She Tarot is beautiful and thought-provoking. She is designed to support a timely and profound transformation that is taking place within every life on planet Earth.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Always stay true to your story, regardless of what others are doing, saying, or creating. Your unique expression deserves to be given form and expressed in a way that is authentic to you. Working from your heart is essential, as work created from any other source will eventually leave you feeling flat, disappointed, and unfulfilled. This doesn’t mean becoming a starving artist who creates in some basement is essential. However, if you live that life, respect yourself for it because you are part of a precious legacy of fellow creatives whose work has touched others and changed the world. A fraction of them are known, and most remain nameless, yet their work lives on in the hearts, minds, and lives of others even well beyond their lifetime.

2. If you are an artist at heart, surrender to the calling. To barter your gift in exchange for social acceptance is equivalent to serving a life sentence in the limbo of the status quo. Society tends to denigrate the odd, messy, fringe dwellers who are happy to be left alone while they do their own thing. However, the very existence of artistic expression enhances our lives with colors and designs that are out of this world. Art pushes us to break out of the box and express unimagined ideas that could change how people think, move, and live. This has always been the case since we left our handprints on rock.

3. There are no rules for self-expression. When you find yourself dry, and uninspired, rest and make space to clear your mind of preoccupations that have been driving you, using you up. In the spaciousness of relaxed non-doing, you will discover untapped resources within yourself; then, renewal occurs without fanfare. This is subtle and cannot be felt if everything around (and within you) is manic and you’re running on empty.

4. Establish routines that support your physical and mental health, rather than deplete. Nourishment of body, mind, and spirit is what stimulates inspiration. Respect your body; it is the home you dwell in. Without it, no art, no you.

5. As an artist, it is essential to experiment. Change your surroundings periodically to refresh your self-expression and creativity. If you reside in an urban area, take some time to visit nature’s beauty, such as parks, where you can lie on the grass, smell the flowers, and enjoy its calming effect. On the other hand, if you live in the countryside, visit the city to explore and experience new influences that can stimulate your creativity. Van Gogh was influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, and Georgia O’Keeffe found that the desert was where her creativity bloomed. Don’t be afraid to explore unfamiliar materials, subjects or influences. Artists are pioneers who venture where others fear to tread. May the force be with you!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

As human beings, we are standing at a crucial crossroad where our choices will determine not only our future but also that of the entire planet. We cannot go back, but we have the power to shape the destiny for generations. Let us approach this challenge with humility and compassion, recognizing our role in nature’s grand design. Let us creatively reimagine ourselves as compassionate, respectful, and intelligent stewards of this blessed planet. By uniting our physical and spiritual selves, the masculine and feminine aspects in every human, we can create a harmonious future for all life on Earth.

We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.

I am a 76-year-old, immunocompromised woman living quietly in rural Australia. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my husband and I have stopped going to restaurants and have chosen to live in nature, where we find inspiration all around us. In another lifetime, I’d have loved to meet Joni Mitchell. Her music has been an inspiration to me since the ’60s. Her creative expression continues to evolve even into her golden years. Joni Mitchell is a poet, painter, singer-songwriter, musician, mother, and a woman of great heart and mind. Her music empowered an entire generation and continues to inspire young people today. She stayed true to her unique self-expression and generously offered it to the world despite the pressures of massive success, heartache, physical debility, and criticism in the press. For me, she is at the top of the heap. I love you, Joni Mitchell.

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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Ma Deva Padma: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became an Artist was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.