Portrait of an Artist – Blending Creativity with Hard Work at Karme Ling

IMG_2164These days, Jeff Sears is a familiar face around Karme Ling Retreat Center. Even though he is not a Buddhist, he has become an integral part of Karme Ling’s day-to-day operations. Whether he is helping to create a beautiful organic garden, hauling stones for dry stonewall building, or cleaning and repairing the retreat buildings, he has become a valuable addition to the Karme Ling community.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Jeff says that his position as Karme Ling’s handyman started as a case of mistaken identity. Some friends of his were working on the driveway at Karme Ling and they saw a white pickup truck and figured it must belong to their friend Jeff who lived just around the corner from Karme Ling. They asked the retreat manager, Lama Karma Lodro, if he knew Jeff. But the white pickup truck they mistook for Jeff’s actually belonged to Karma Lodro. Nonetheless, they had piqued his interest in their friend, and one day Karma Lodro decided to knock on Jeff’s door, introduce himself, and ask him to come and work at Karme Ling.

IMG_2156This was in 2012, and Karme Ling was sorely in need of help. The three-year retreat had just ended, the retreatants had dispersed, and there was a lot that needed cleaning, painting and repairing in the two buildings after the three-year, three-month closed retreat. So Jeff started out doing the repairs on these buildings, and he did such a great job that the temporary position morphed into a regular part time job. Now he does just about any kind of work that’s needed, including gardening and landscaping.

Jeff is a working artist and is married with a 16-year-old daughter and two grown sons. While he is not religious, he says he feels very comfortable at Karme Ling. “As an outsider I don’t really know what goes on at Karme Ling [in the retreats], but I do see a lot of people creating things. People are often making tormas or in Rinpoche’s case, he’s constantly sewing. Lama Karuna is making a beautiful organic garden. The emphasis seems to be on creativity.”

Jeff said that ordinarily in the world, people run around trying to make a lot of money, but maybe they should stop and create something with love.

“I think that Karme Ling is a joyful place. I enjoy coming here to work because the people are sweet and welcoming. Also the people here really care about me. I’ve had some difficult medical issues that Lama Karuna and Lama Wuu Fang have helped me with. A year and a half ago I sustained a head injury, after slipping and hitting my head on the edge of the sink and then on a tile floor. From that point on I saw fireworks constantly behind my eyes and when I closed my eyes at night to sleep, I saw weird, flashing lights. I haven’t been able to sleep well since the accident and I had terrible migraines. The doctors would not listen to me, nor were they able to help me.

“Then I met Lama Wuu Fang at Karme Ling. He listened carefully to my symptoms and then worked on my ears and gave me some herbs. I felt immediately relief! For the first time since the accident, when I closed my eyes I saw black; it felt normal. I no longer saw the disturbing lights. It was as if he readjusted my inner vision– like getting a new pair of glasses. And the headaches went away too.” Lama Karuna also helped Jeff a lot by treating the arthritis in his hands with acupuncture, making work much easier for him.

IMG_2147Jeff spends about 20 hours a week on average at Karme Ling and he thinks it’s a perfect fit for him. Jeff said, “I wasn’t looking for a job. On our taxes I’m listed as the homemaker for my family. I’m a very hard worker but I hate formal jobs, so this activity at Karme Ling is perfect for me. I happen to love digging in dirt and hauling heavy stones around.”

IMG_2163Jeff’s Background

Jeff is from Ithaca, New York and he and his wife feel like they have come full circle being back in New York, because several years ago they decided to quit their full-time jobs and travel. So one day about 17 years ago, they pulled up roots and moved to Puerto Rico. When they got there they had only $2,000 in their pockets and a crappy car, but decided to have a baby. In retrospect it may have seemed like an odd choice, but everything worked out very well. Now their child is 16 years old and Jeff’s wife, who holds a Masters degree, is working for the Dept. of Agricultural in partnership with the New York Watershed.

Jeff has two sons from an earlier marriage: the eldest is 29 and lives in Rochester studying engineering; the youngest is 27 and is in the Coast Guard in Hawaii.

IMG_2122On a warm day last week I happened to be walking by the retreat cabins and spotted Jeff pushing a wheelbarrow piled high with rocks. The midday sun was scorching hot overhead, but Jeff seemed oblivious to any discomfort. He smiled and waved and asked me if I wanted a tour of the garden he was planting with Lama Karuna. This garden is an impressive undertaking, the first of its kind at Karme Ling. Completely organic, there is a huge greenhouse and several raised outer beds. Jeff started the plants from organic heirloom seeds in his own home and transplanted them about about a month ago to the greenhouse. They’re growing tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, Chinese greens and vegetables, herbs, and beans, to name a few.

Jeff said that he had a nursery business in Puerto Rico that provided organic vegetables to restaurants so he has had a bit of experience with gardening. After living in Puerto Rico for three years, Jeff and his family moved to Hawaii. There he worked for a man who owned 16 acres of tropical rainforest that had become overgrown with invasive species like Koster’s Curse, a perennial shrub that creates serious damage in many tropical regions of the world.

Jeff’s job was to take out the foreign undergrowth using a chain saw, pick ax and weed whacker. It was quite an arduous undertaking, but once that wild growth was removed, they were able to create a tropical paradise on the land by planting fruit, hardwoods, bamboo, vanilla orchids, chocolate trees and pineapple. Basically Jeff turned a large weed patch into a botanical garden and then helped to maintain it for 8 years.

IMG_2136He was able to put those impressive skills to use at Karme Ling when Lama Karuna asked him to help the manifest the garden she had conceived in her imagination. Together they have made it a reality and are expecting a huge yield of organic produce this summer.

Jeff’s Art (see extensive slideshow below)

For a practicing artist, a part-time job with flexible hours is perfect. And while Jeff has had no formal training as an artist, he has been making art for many years. He says he has always had an affinity for working with natural materials and these days he is making animal puppets out of bones. These skeletons are made with bones that he finds or that people give him. Jeff is a vegetarian, so he only works with found skeletal objects. These pieces live in shadow boxes and are comprised of mixed media—bones, glass, metal and paint. The largest piece is a 3-headed dragon, six feet long. The smallest is a scorpion 6-inches long. He creates the eyes out of flame-work glass. Besides the sculptures, Jeff also makes jewelry.

“I’ve shown these at the Mercer Gallery in Rochester and also at various events and shows in central New York State through a program based in Rochester called ‘Future of the Finger Lakes.’ People either seem to love or hate the pieces. They are quite dramatic and some are even disturbing. My next show will be in connection with the Stagecoach Run Art Festival based in Treadwell, New York. My work will be on display in my home from July 6th-7th.” (During this event, many artists open their homes, studios and galleries to the public along the route of Old Stagecoach Road, now County Route 14, that ran from Unadilla on the Susquehanna River to Catskill on the Hudson.)

Buddhists may find that the skeletal pieces remind them of impermanence but Jeff didn’t have a conscious intent to create memento mori. He said, “I never intended to make art but these ideas come into my head fully formed. Once I have the idea, then I seem to stumble upon the materials I need to make the thing–it’s like they find me. If I don’t create the piece, then the idea won’t leave me alone until I finish it. Then when I finish one, another idea comes and I go through the same process until completion. I don’t seem to have a choice.”

He continued, “I’m not interested in selling them or making money from them. I started producing sculptures on a regular basis about 15 years ago, but even before that I always had to create things. I think that creativity is an essential part of being human. People need to bring things into being.”

For Jeff, working at Karme Ling is just an extension of his life and provides many opportunities to be creative.

For instance, he said that Lama Karuna wanted to create a peaceful space near the vegetable garden. “She asked me to do this. So I looked around and saw that there were a lot of rocks near the maple tree. I had to move some of them around, but for the most part the rocks seemed to know where they wanted to be and with only a little help from me, they formed a spiral. Then next to that, I planted a flower bed with Tibetan rhododendrons, azaleas and several varieties of spruce.”

In this way, Jeff finds working at Karme Ling enjoyable–not like a normal job. “It’s a beautiful thing,” he said.

— Mary Young

Photos courtesy Amy McCracken and Mary Young

Here is a slideshow of Jeff’s artworks:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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