“First Impressions” by Alan Samuel (WAC — Contributed)

Local artist Alan Samuel presented his exhibit “A World in Color,” a photographic series featuring shots from the artist’s five-week excursion to Nepal in 1995 during Losar, the Tibetan New Year, last Sunday at the Westhaven Center for the Arts. The exhibit will run through Feb. 24.

A 40-year student of Buddhism, the self-proclaimed “Bu-Jew” grew up in a Jewish family but turned toward the Eastern religion as an adult to connect with a spiritual base he felt was missing in Judaism without leaving his Jewish faith practice altogether.

Samuel said he made the eastward sojourn at the behest of Lama Lodru Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist from India and resident lama or “teacher” at Kagyu Droden Kunchab Center, a house of Buddhist study and practice in San Francisco.

Samuel and Lama Lodru met by happenstance in 1980, about two years after Samuel had moved to Humboldt County from Southern California to practice dentistry. They met in Willow Creek at “some hippie ranch,” according to Samuel. He fell under Lama Lodru’s wing quite readily and the two became good friends. The trip to the East, now 24 years ago, further solidified their lifelong connection.

Local artist Alan Samuel discusses one of his pieces in “A World in Color,” a photo exhibit on display at the Westhaven Center for the Arts in Trinidad that is running through Feb. 24. (Robert Peach — The Times-Standard)

Samuel said that he went on the trip with 20 rolls of film, which he used to take pictures of daily life on the streets and from within the monastery enclosures of Kathmandu, Nepal, and Sikkim, India. When he came back from the journey, he noticed that very few of the pictures he took were out of focus.

“And then I wanted to enlarge them,” Samuel said. “And then when I enlarged them I’m seeing more detail. I kept thinking I’d lose detail and even now … I keep seeing new things all the time.”

He found willing subjects in his photographs. “Old Monk” shows an elderly monk resting in the sun inside Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, India, on the morning of Losar. Another, “Losar Dancers,” shows women dressed in vibrantly colored ceremonial garb performing a traditional dance as part of a three-day festival. In “Ritual Bread,” local villagers are pictured frying dough in a makeshift bakery in the courtyard of Sikkim’s Rumtek Monastery. Two young monks dressed in deep red robes blow air through long, golden horns on occasion of Losar on the roof of the Rumtek Monastery’s ritual hall in “Echoing Horns.”

Samuel also included landscape images in his gallery. One reveals a vision of Kathmandu’s popular Buddhist shrine, the Bodhi Stupa, in silhouette at sunset, captured upon Samuel’s arrival to the East and aptly titled “First Impressions.” Another shows Lama Lodru leading a caravan of retreatants across a bamboo bridge in the wooded highlands of West Sikkum, India, to a “sacred cave” where Buddhist master Padmasambhava, attributed with bringing Buddhism from India to Tibet, meditated. It was in this cave where, according to the gallery notes supplementing the photograph, Samuel and the rest of Lama Lodru’s cohort chanted a “deep and unfamiliar manta … in praise of Padmasambhava,” creating a “sound (that) reverberated through me like nothing I had ever experienced.”

“They want you to take pictures of their shrines; they want you to bring it back,” said Samuel of his human subjects.

During the talk, one person observed how Samuel is able to photograph his subjects as they really are, without the pretense that sometimes comes with having one’s picture taken.

“It seems to me that when I see your pictures they’re there and you’re not in them and I think that’s a gift,” she said. “The people are themselves when you take them because you’re not there.”

Samuel nodded and said that he acts as a mirror image for his subjects.

“You just get out of the way,” he said, noting that in Tibetan Buddhism the practice of bringing that which you visualize into your heart helps to create an honest reflection of what you see.

He said that he sees in his photography a means by which to contribute to social well-being and would like to focus more on his art now than dentistry.

“Buddhist teaching says that any benefit you get from this you give back to everyone,” Samuel said. “It’s not about me at all. We get hung up in this thing called ego. I’m just supposed to be doing this. I’m trying to give up on things I want to do with dentistry and just concentrate on this to give back because it’s about giving, it’s not about receiving.”

His audience seemed to get the picture.

Arcata resident Steve Catton, who has been to India a few times and who studied religion in college, came to the exhibit presentation in light of his affinity for Buddhist culture, and he enjoyed seeing familiar pictures and colors that Samuel has, he said, “captured well.”

“This is really like a real homecoming to be able to show this exhibit and share it with people,” said Carlotta resident Sal Steinberg, a longtime friend of Samuel’s.

Steinberg, a Reform Jew who is a member of Temple Beth El in Eureka, said that he has some of Samuel’s photography, including the aforementioned “Bridge to the Sacred Cave,” in his personal collection at home. He said that there is a Jewish saying which finds resonance with Samuel’s art: “All the world is a narrow bridge.”

Like Samuel, Steinberg is a self-ascribed “Bu-Jew” who has spent time exploring Eastern religions himself, at one point spending time at an ashram in Oakland, where he engaged in Hindi chants that got him in touch with himself in ways that he had not experienced as a lifelong Jew. Steinberg said he sees Samuel doing the same thing in his photography.

“Alan’s getting in touch with his heart and his power,” said Steinberg, who has watched Samuel grow through his art, “and that’s the most wonderful thing of all.”

Robert Peach can be reached at 707-441-0503.

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