22 Jan Jan Novotny on Creation, Symmetry, and his Upcoming Sentinel Series
Jan Novotny is an Edmonton-based photographer whose work features mesmerizing and highly-detailed mandalas created from images of the natural world. In his own words, “mandalas represent different things to different people”, and I found this very much to be the case. When examining one stunning image with my partner, I was sure I was looking at a mandala composed of moss; he claims to have seen pyramids. Regardless, the compositions are patently breathtaking and are sure to ignite the mind and soul.
Lina: Hi Jan! Thanks for speaking with me today. I found your mandala collection to be incredibly unique and unlike anything I’ve seen before from the art world. In fact, many of the mandalas have stumped me in trying to understand what they are composed of. I guess that’s the point. Do you ever intend to reveal the real images behind the artwork, or do you prefer to leave it to mystery?
Jan: I don’t think showing what the images were created from would serve any purpose — it would actually defeat the purpose of this work, which is to open our minds to the wonder of creation, wonder that often disappears once we give name to what we perceive. Our perceptions create our reality, and that reality can be very fluid, it changes with our inner state, therefore each one of these images can represent multiple things. It was my intention to create something that cannot be put into a specific box, that doesn’t have a name, that lack of categorization forces the viewer to perceive the image with what Shunryu Suzuki called “beginner’s mind”.
Lina: As a follow up to that, do you have any goal or expectation of what the viewer should take away from the art? Or are you comfortable leaving it entirely open ended?
Jan: The images can reach into the subconscious and frankly it’s none of my business what goes on in there, what goes on in other people’s minds.
Lina: I definitely can appreciate an art form that allows the viewer to create their own meaning, and thus learn some deeper truths within themselves. If you don’t mind sharing, what does the mandala represent to you?
Jan: As far as I know, mandalas are universal in all spiritual traditions: Aboriginal, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Paganism, Hinduism, Taoism and all the others — there must be something to them. What I think is that they are mythological representations of the underlying symmetry and interconnection of the universe.
Lina: You talk about using the mandala as a tool for spiritual and personal reflection. What do you think it is about symmetry and perfection within the natural world that provokes such contemplation?
Jan: There is something about symmetry and the perfect shape of the circle that draws us into the beauty, mystery, and wonder of existence, it somehow makes us ponder why anything exists at all.
Lina: I’d also like to talk about some of your work from the past. Like you, I also have ties to Eastern Europe (my parents were born in Moscow, and came to Canada right after the fall of the USSR). What were some of the themes of your earlier photography? Moreover, do you seek to preserve your heritage in your modern work?
Jan: Oh boy, I have been doing photography since I was fourteen or so, that’s well over half a century. My focus has changed numerous times, but I have always been attracted to somehow record and explore the human condition, our follies and hardships, but also joys and connections. Funny, both of us are here because of the USSR. I left Czechoslovakia after half a million Soviet troops invaded us in 1968 to keep us under their control — actually, my most-viewed show was kind of a photo-diary documenting the Prague Spring and the consequent Soviet invasion. That traveling exhibit was mounted in 2018 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the crushing of the Prague Spring, or as we called it “socialism with human face.” As far as preserving my heritage goes, I just am, as all of us just are, what was, was, my heritage and past created who I am, but ultimately the past is gone, we live now and need to fully connect with what is now. All of us have a human heritage and we should somehow use that fact to bring us together instead of our separating us. Unfortunately, heritage has at times been used in dividing ways, there is a connection there with nationalism, something I really don’t like.
Lina: I definitely agree that over-identification with any category can take you into dangerous territory — hello USA! In your bio you refer to several life-changing experiences at The Sentinel that completely changed the trajectory of your artistic career. What prompted this shift?
Jan: Artistic career? There is no such thing, it’s just a part of my life and my life has evolved at the Sentinel. I have always been curious about a bunch of things, but the most intriguing question has been the nature of consciousness, what it is, where it comes from. It really has been a life’s journey for me. Through a bunch of coincidences, I came across a four-day workshop at the Sentinel that I felt could help me with my inquiry into consciousness. It’s really not possible to describe that experience outside of saying that it has been transformative for me, that the way I look at life has changed. What I actually should say is that the way I live my life has changed. During the workshop I got to know the Sentinel owners, Gillian and Richard, and came back a few weeks later to do some more work with just the two of them, and that has been even more impactful for me. I am 71 now, and have been fortunate to have had a colourful life full of learning, but the few days I spent at the Sentinel have been kind of a crucible that pivoted where I am going, it was a kind of a jolt, not a gradual transition, it’s been a dynamic transformation.
Lina: I think so many of us are yearning for the kind of dynamic transformation you’ve had! Do you believe that embarking on a spiritual journey, like you did, is integral to one’s progress as an artist? Would you recommend that other artists pursue similar paths?
Jan: We all are on our own journeys, and I can’t advise anyone — the only thing I’d say is to paraphrase so many teachers: be yourself, just the way you are, not the way you’d like to be. It sounds simple, but it’s actually extremely difficult, as we first have to discover who we really are underneath all those layers of stuff piled up on us by our experiences and our genes.
Lina: To finish off, what is one piece of advice you’d like to share with our community?
Jan: Be kind to all, yourselves included.
Lina: Thank you Jan! On behalf of the Sentinel, I’d like to thank you so much for not only your time but your invaluable contributions to the spirit of this sacred place.
Jan Novotny’s photographic collection “Mandala Natura: The Sentinel Series” will be available in the Sentinel online store in 2021.