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'We Sit' offers contemplative poems and paintings

BEMIDJI—An artist and a poet walk into a coffee shop.

That's not the beginning of a joke. It's how a newly published book, "We Sit," came to life. Artist Marley Kaul and poet Taiju Geri Wilimek, both of Bemidji, share their talents in the contemplative book to be launched with a program at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 29, at the Watermark Art Center.

Kaul's 20 egg tempera paintings and Wilimek's 20 poems grace the book, that has been in the works for about two years. "She brought some poetry over for me to look at," he recalls, "and I found they're very powerful, so after joking about it we said, 'You know we should do something together with this, and how about writing a book, how about putting a book together.' So we started working on it, meeting once a week at Dunn Brothers, to go over all these things. We decided to do it, and this is the result."

Kaul and Wilimek have known each other for nearly 30 years. He is a 79-year-old retired art professor and, at 65, she continues her work as a licensed independent clinical social worker.

Three years ago, after Kaul was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, Wilimek paid him a visit.

"Since she is in social work, she is very aware of how to deal with people who are wondering about their longevity," Kaul said. "So she started talking to me about meditation. She told me for years that she thought my work was meditative. When she saw the kind of order that I had made in my studio, where the tubes are lined up and it's usually quiet and serene, she said these are all about meditation. Then she tried to explain meditation from her standpoint, which revealed to me that it's not freeing your mind of everything, but simply to focus, and to focus on one thing, and to see where that goes."

Wilimek also has faced health challenges. She was diagnosed with breast cancer 20 years ago. She's been writing poems for years, but got more serious about it after her cancer scare. Her work reflects that long period of healing, enabled by the study and practice of mindfulness meditation and the teachings of Zen. She is an ordained Buddhist monk, and Taiju is her given Buddhist name.

"We both had this awakening that comes with this medical diagnoses that forces us to reckon with our mortality," Wilimek said. "We were jolted into recognizing the brevity of your life. That whole experience of reckoning with the brevity of life and mortality was something that was an awakening experience for both of us. We had a rapport with that."

The introduction of "We Sit" explains the artists' relationship and motivation:

"Each of us has been, for many years, interested in the dynamics of life and death, as they arise every day. For artist and writer alike, once a focus has been established in a given work, the 'subject' takes on a life of its own."

"She worked on her own, I worked on my own," Kaul said. "We didn't collaborate in that sense. I'm not illustrating her poems, nor is she illustrating my paintings."

He completed the first two paintings for the book at Thanksgiving and Christmas time last year, but then got busy and did the last 18 between January and July.

"I pushed myself really hard," Kaul said. "I worked sometimes 6-8 hours a day. I felt a sense of urgency."

Kaul is thankful for the experience of working with Wilimek on the project.

"She's an amazing teacher," he said. "She's taught me so much about observation. She very much is one who can concentrate on something rather minute and deal with that, even if it's something that's very ordinary. She's taught me how to look and spend time with it through meditation."

The feeling is mutual.

"I've always recognized Marley as a fine human being and brilliant teacher," Wilimek said. "He made uncertainty interesting and fun. He was my mentor who along the way was 'demoted' to a deeply valued friend. The subject of our project is indeed serious, but we did a lot of laughing along the way. He has an amazing sense of humor. He has painted his way through the experience of awakening to mortality. It is extraordinary."

The launch on Saturday will include a reading and presentation about the artistic process that went into developing project, with a question-and-answer session to follow. Books will be available for purchase at the event.

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