Twenty years ago I was living in Seattle, Supervising a sculpting facility for a former Karate student of mine. I was teaching private Karate lessons, studying Aikido at Emerald City Aikido, and painting and drawing late into the nights. A student at the dojo was also the Sifu at Seven Star Women’s Kung Fu. We shared our martial arts backgrounds and she invited me to the open sparring class on Sundays, I quickly became a regular.
Seven Star had a great space on the second floor of an unassuming building in Seattle’s Central District. A spacious thousand square foot wooden floored work out space with a few padded columns, great natural light, and high ceilings. Every other Sunday for two hours Seven Star would host open sparing.
The focus was on Learning, not competition. People would choose a partner, agree on speed… slow medium or fast, and contact… none, slight, or harder. Either partner could stop if they felt the agreements were not being met. Each round was five minutes. Skills ranged from beginners to advanced.
By the mid nineties, I had taught as a Sensei for more than ten years in Seattle and New Mexico. And trained for nearly twenty years . I enjoyed the opportunity to help new and advancing students and spar with my peers.
As I arrived on this particular Sunday I noticed a very elegant gentleman dressed in an expensive beautiful black silk tai chi uniform. He was tall with hair as black as his clothing and a striking mustache. He was of indeterminate age maybe fifties but possibly sixties. He had quick and piercing eyes. I thought he looked like an interesting sparring partner; I had no idea…
I took all this in as I was saying my hellos and heading to the changing room. We formed a circle, introduced ourselves and Sifu Michele went over the rules. With a little disappointment I noticed mystery man was not joining us for sparring.
We all quickly paired off for our first round. One of the Seven Star instructors and I started off. We happened to be near the entrance where the guests tended to congregate. Often when sparring people tend to stay in the same area but not always. I love to move around use the room, those columns make great distractions as do walls and other fighters… So, I could not help but notice as we moved away from the front that we had a shadow. Mr. Mysterious was in close proximity as my partner and I moved around the room. Then round two, new partner same shadow. By the third round I was sure that it was me that Tai Chi guy was following and not my partners.
Who is this guy I wondered? I was briefly a little annoyed but thought, Whatever… I am here to spar. It was not as if I was worried… I had a black belt. All during the two hours no matter where I went in the space there was my shadow. Always at a respectful distance and never saying anything. Invariably nearby and intently watching.
After our last round we finished up in our ending circle exchanging thanks for everyones effort, as I turned around to walk over and introduce myself to my spectator he was walking straight toward me. He held out his hand and with the subtlest of accents said, “I am Sebastian, I am honored to meet You! I have never witnessed anything like watching you!” Surprised and not expecting that. I said “Hi, I am Patrick, Thank You! That’s very kind of you to say” He said, “No you do not understand. I have watched many martial artists from all around the world and I have never seen anyone move with such nobility and grace as you!” He added, “I was captivated by your movements I could not stop watching” “yes” I said “I noticed. Thank You. Maybe we should sit down.”
For the next twenty minutes, Sebastian, who said he was a Dutch artist, shared how transfixed he was by my abilities. As we talked further, I mentioned that I am an artist also and asked if he would like to visit my studio. He said of course. We arrange for our rendezvous.
At the time I was working ten to eleven hour days doing finishing work on marble sculpture, I had six assistants to manage, trying to cope with a crazy boss, going to the Aikido dojo four times a week and painting until 2 or 3 in the morning. Life was so simple back then.
I could not wait to get back to my studio… I was thinking of what he was going to say upon seeing my paintings. I considered my art as the place I really shined, much more superior in my opinion to my martial arts.
Sebastian arrives and quickly begins looking at my work. The next thing that happened was as equally unexpected as what he said just a couple of hours earlier. He said, “The man I saw moving with such Nobility is not the same person who is making this art!”
Screech!!… That moment was just like those car accident experiences people have… when everything shifts into slow motion. I was trying to pull myself off the floor… Without having that first experience with Sebastian I do not think I would have been able to muster up enough wherewithal to utter anything coherent but I managed, “Please explain”.
And with elegance and compassion, Sebastian expressed what his experience was looking at my work. He said it had nothing to do with my craft or my technical abilities he said I clearly had great expertise in execution and craft. It had everything to do with my subject matter, my stories, my thematic choices, and especially the lack of deep emotional content.
At the door on his way out, not more than ten minutes after he arrived, Sebastian said. “Patrick, I had to be as honest now as I was earlier. You have tremendous dignity in your movements more than I have ever seen before. Your inventiveness shocked, delighted, and surprised me. If you want to make great art you must bring what you know in martial arts to your artwork. You must stop being complacent.” And with that he wished me well and left.
To this day there is still part of me that believes that he was some type of angel. It was, after all, truly an unusual and trippy experience. I never asked any of the other participants if they saw him or knew him. He said he knew so and so. But don’t angels know other peoples names? He also gave me a business card, which I still have. If an angel can manifest a $500 black silk tai chi suit, I think they can materialize a business card.
I put down my brushes and stopped making art for a month. I spent every free moment in my studio just sitting and contemplating. Ultimately it was my body that gave me the answer. Not necessarily “my” body but our human form. A window opened for me. I could see that everything I desired to express can be said with the infinite articulation of the Figure. The most expressive and fluent emotional visual language is the human body. To this day the figure supplies me with tremendous subject matter, remarkable stories, great themes and the most meaningful emotional expressivity.
Angel or mere mortal, Sebastian was by far The most exhilarating sparring partner I have ever not fought.
The Planetary Ambassador for Creativity,