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  • Travis Lee Ratcliff


This interview was done in the lead up to the release of ART OF THE MOMENT. The documentary was shared online and in print by Tricycle Magazine. Many of the ideas that were fundamental to me and my directing work felt present in this film and managed to be discussed in this interview.

What is “Art of the Moment” about? Art of the Moment is a short documentary about the Austin based Dutch painter Gert Johan Manschot. Johan has studied meditation for many years in the Zen Buddhist tradition. As a young man he had a spiritual crisis that led him to seek a quiet life in a monastery to find a peace and stillness that he was missing in himself.

When he returned to the world outside the monastery he continued to practice meditation and eventually took up painting. As a lifelong collector and lover of art, Johan found a way to fuse his meditation practice into the process of his art making.

Before he paints he sits in meditation before the canvas. After time passes something erupts from inside of him and he is moved to paint. In a furious moment one or two large kinetic strokes of paint are cast on the canvas. The painting is born and finished in those moments. Johan’s work is very much in the tradition of Zen painters but also fits well within the landscape of contemporary minimalist and abstract art.

In our documentary, Johan shares his reflections on his art and his life. We show his practice of working and film Johan working on several canvases at his barn studio in the hill country outside of Austin, Texas.

How did "Art of the Moment" come about? One of the highlights of living in Austin is an annual open studio weekend in East Austin. Every year homes, galleries, studios, and venues open up all over east Austin as artists show there work. Unlike a lot that Austin has to offer, the East Austin Studio Tour, is one of the rare events that is more for the local community than for outsiders or tourists. Each year is always packed with revelations and inspiring work by the vibrant voices that base themselves here in the east side of our city.

My creative partner, Brody Carmichael, met Johan Manschot at this studio tour several years ago and heard his story. Johan talked about the role Zen Buddhism played in helping him through a personal crisis, and how his art work has become a process oriented approach to combining meditation and artistic expression. Brody and Johan became fast friends and in the following year Brody produced an excellent short documentary about Johan’s work to accompany a gallery opening in Dallas. That documentary became the structural skeleton and prototype for this current iteration of the project, several years later.

Brody introduced me to Johan and I had the pleasure of studying meditation for many months at his weekly meditation group. Brody and I felt like there was still a lot of value in revisiting his previous project and going deeper in some ways with how we could commit his work and story to film.

In Art of the Moment I feel we’ve achieved our goal of demonstrating the process of his work while also balancing the gentle narrative of what Johan went through that brought him to his unique perspective in life. I think the result is a quiet film, a reflective film, and something that aspires to capture the vibrancy of personal feeling and energy that Johan has brought to his thinking and that somehow leaps off of his canvases.

As an artist, Johan is working in both an immediately contemporary capacity and a tradition that is ancient, storied, and highly traditional. For centuries there have been Zen practitioners who used the techniques of painting that Johan explores. Johan told us Zen masters would often be able to be identified by the energy the infused into their work. While the object of a simple black circle on white paper might seem anonymous and simplistic to our eyes, amongst those who are fluent in the language of the Enzo the energy of the teacher shines through their markings.

In Johan’s work I found that he took many of the powerful spiritual ideas of these traditions, but combined them with the sensibility of contemporary minimalist and abstract practices. His impulsive but deliberate style of approaching the canvas is Pollock-esque in that it is a working method which absorbs the whole of his body. His work demands a special kinetic energy be infused into his bold, swift, gestural painting process. The result is a performative quality to the work that is unique and leaves an embodied impression on the canvas. It contains his identity in a way that is different from the Zen painting tradition, but still in harmony with its aspirations.

It was seeing Johan at work that initially inspired Brody to recognize that only in the moving-image-medium could the full expression of what this work is be revealed to an audience. The canvases speak for themselves and stand on their own, but there is an added special quality to observing Johan practice the work. Filming his working process at a high-speed frame rate gives us a special insight into the state of mind and heightened headspace that occurs in this “moment” when a painting is born from his meditation.

As filmmakers did meditation influence you at all? I think meditation has had a profound impact on the way we see the world and this project in particular. Brody and I have both been meditating with Johan for a while now, and prior to my meditations with Johan I would visit the Shambala Center in Austin and have meditated there for several years.

I think without our modest experiences with meditation it would have been hard to find the right cinematic language to communicate Johan’s worldview. There is a quietness, a patience, a discipline, and a solitude that is demanded out of the tone of the film.

This is something that one might be able to understand abstractly without a first-hand experience of meditation, but would find quite difficult in capturing formally without some kind of embodied experience of what that actually means and feels like. In meditating we found the physical sensation of what we want to give to the audience. We found a stillness we wanted to put on screen.

We work primarily in a narrative capacity as filmmakers, but have done documentary work over the last several years on the side for both commercial and personal purposes. I definitely think as we move forward back into narrative filmmaking we will be bringing meditation into our process oriented approach to filmmaking.

What does "process oriented filmmaking" mean? My sincere belief is that the act of making a film is a significant art-act independently significant of the film that results from the process. The two are interwoven and interdependent.

As filmmakers we often take a brutal and utilitarian approach to the way we make our films. This is a tradition born out of the commercial studio system through which the process of making films was standardized in America and internationally.

While many of those production practices are useful, important, and valuable in ensuring that the film reaches its potential and avoids egregious technical errors, it is also clear that there are important and artistically significant ways in which this process can be adapted or altered in order to enhance the artistic integrity of the finished film.

By colonizing the act of making the film, and allowing the community of artisans who work in the film’s production to be active participants in a creative dialogue, I believe that the act of making the film can be a process of discovery and revelation about the subjects and stories we’re trying to tell.

The power structure of a film doesn’t have to be a dictatorship. It can, I hope, be a laboratory of invention, discussion, and exploration. We all have roles to perform on a motion picture set, but that doesn’t need to preclude engaging in the mystery of discovering what the film is together.

For Brody and I, the act of working on the film with Johan, meditating with him, staying with him at his barn studio, were all a part of considering the film we were making and allowing the action of making it, the process of making it, to take on its own shape and become its own meaningful journey.

I think the result is a different film than one in which we began from a fixed position of certainty about what it is we were trying to accomplish.

Efficiency is good, but if it becomes an end that serves the destruction of mystery, ambiguity, and the film finding its own identity through the process of making it, then I think efficiency can become a defect rather than a feature of any filmmaking process.

What do you want an audience member to take away from this film? I hope they consider the speed at which we live our lives. The rapidity that is at the foundation of our modern world and economy.

Johan has found a way to live in which stillness and reflection have taken on a primacy that very few of us allow them to. These primal forces are available to all of us and are waiting for us to re-discover them, but in lieu of the rest of modernity vacuuming up our time and energy we lose sight of our natural faculty for intentionality and quietude.

If they take away a little sense of his peace and stillness, maybe they’ll develop a curiosity about how they can foster it in their own lives. I know that contemplating his work has done so for me and helped encourage me to build a space in myself that can contain more stillness and mindfulness.

Is there any lesson you feel you particularly walked away with from the film? Editing the film over a period of months, there was a statement that Johan makes that resonates with me above all others. “You cannot grasp anything.” He says it with an earnestness that comes from a lesson he must have learned many times over many years. Its a moment of intensity that always stands above the rest for me when I think about the many things he said in our interview.

Filmmaking can be a frustrating endeavor. There is failure and collapsed opportunity at nearly every step of the journey. In considering Johan’s statement, I am increasingly trying to remind myself that the grasping is futile. We can only do our best work where the universe allows us to move forward, and give up futile grasping.

“You can only wait until it comes to you. The better you are in waiting, the easier it will be.” I think about that a lot these days. The skill isn’t in becoming a better “grasper” so to speak. It’s becoming more comfortable with the waiting, the sitting, and the space we find ourselves in.

Why did you choose to shoot the film in black and white? This was one of the insights that my creative partner and cinematographer Brody Carmichael had from the time when he first produced the original documentary profiling Johan’s work. Brody’s a brilliant cinematographer and extremely skilled in thinking about visual language. He recognized that in placing the entire film in a black and white context several advantages were immediately gained by the film.

Firstly, the audience is brought into the world of the canvases themselves, which are all black paint on white canvas or white paint on black canvas.

Secondly, the paintings themselves pop out and emerge as distinctive living elements when the entire frame is in black and white, but would otherwise recede into the background of any shot had we introduced color into the visual vocabulary.

Thirdly, the black and white image is a less activating force than color images. We’re brought to that special space of contemplation, stillness, and quiet mindfulness by absorbing these images without the distraction of color.

We did consider doing this project in color at the beginning of principal photography. We shot the project on Brody’s Varicam LT, which has a spectacular representation of color and skin tone, so in a way it felt like we might be discarding one of the key advantages of our toolset. All of those reservations however immediately vanished as I began seeing the richness of these black and white images.

I’m sure there will be some who are unable to connect to the film because they haven’t traditionally watched much black and white photography, but my goal has always been an accomplishment of depth not breadth in our impact on an audience.

Are you worried that a subject this contemplative will not connect with an internet age audience? I don’t ever try to make films that reach a wide audience. I think doing so is a recipe for uninteresting filmmaking. The film that aspires toward universal appeal will ultimately satisfy no one. In the internet age there are many who feel overwhelmed by content. So many who feel that time is moving faster every day and simply want it to stop. Those who connect with these sort of feelings will hopefully find our film, and, I hope, connect to the tone and feeling that we have tried to cultivate in telling Johan’s story and showing his work.


director's notes


travis lee ratcliff

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