Giving back with Buddha

Michael Welch

Photo By Larry Dalton

Visitors to the California Arts Council (CAC) Web site (at who follow the links to California Arts Day will find a remarkable depiction of the arts in California that looks like a woodcut. It’s a scene of swirling movement in a simple black-and-white scheme, with artists working at their specialties amid a stark but lively California landscape, with foothills in the foreground and mountains in the background. Sacramento artist Michael Welch originally created this lively picture 15 years ago on a commission from the CAC. Welch works as a graphic artist at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op and is working on art for its new Elk Grove store. So, if you shop there, you’ve seen his work already. If you went to psychedelic rock shows in Sacramento back in the 20th century, you probably saw it then, too. In the meantime, Welch has “kept himself in cornflakes” with a series of gallery shows—Solomon Dubnick and Shenandoah Gallery—and work in magazines like Sierra and Yoga Journal. His current project is to create 100 digital Buddhas.

What’s your message?

To be able to express who I am, from moment to moment, without having to censor myself. The message is just honesty. Personal integrity and honesty … and innocence, to be able to present myself. I don’t know what’s gonna come up—like this conversation: We have no idea where it’s gonna go, and I like that. That’s the immediacy in life that we’re losing.

How long have you been working with digital art?

That’s something that sprang up out of necessity. I had a daughter, which took a lot of my time, and the only time I had for my artwork was really late at night. There was never enough time to bring out paints and set everything up. I started messing around with the brush tool in Photoshop, and I found that it was fairly similar. I could under-paint, and [I liked] the immediacy of it.

Why 100 Buddhas?

The Buddha is like a touchstone to me. The ground is empty—not bad empty, just empty. Everything is essentially empty. We don’t have that much control over it, but our essence is OK. So, when I look into the images of the Buddha, it tells me that. And since I’m a visual artist, it tells me that in a visual way. Sometimes I’m that simple. I don’t need much philosophy.

I figured I’d just give some of that back. I’ve gotten so much out of them, I just made this commitment to do a hundred of them.

Are they all laughing?

The Tibetans have these wrathful Buddhas. I did that, and I did this tantric couple. I like that about the Tibetans—they also include the wrathful. It’s not like a Christian good-and-evil thing; it’s just acknowledged that there is this energy inside us that can be used to hurt people, or it can be used to venture onward. I think sometimes we need that force inside us. I think that force is essentially good. If people are afraid of it, I think it goes into the unconscious.

How did you get to do the CAC Arts Day poster?

That was just something I did for them a while back, and they used it for their catalog. I guess it’s been hanging around their offices for a while. This Arts Day thing was coming up, and they asked if they could use it.

I used to do this technique called scratchboard, which is kind of like a poor man’s woodcut, an easy woodcut.

When they printed it, it looked like a woodcut. It just shows music and art and dance. A pretty simple depiction of art in California.

You made the scene doing psychedelic art for rock shows in Sacramento as a teenager. What was that like?

I was really young, probably still in high school. There was a lot of music in Sacramento. It was huge. There was music everywhere. There were dozens of little clubs, and I had a light show. I hooked on with this company called Simultaneous Avalanche. A friend of mine and I did posters of them. We did Blue Cheer, and then also there was an off-campus newspaper at [California State University, Sacramento]. I also did artwork for it. C.K. McClatchy High School also had an off-campus newspaper. Those students were questioning. You don’t see that anymore. Not enough of it.

Do you find Sacramento’s landscape inspiring?

I think we’ve made a lot of mistakes with the way we design cities. It’s all designed around the automobile. We’ve got two rivers here, and if there wasn’t so much smog we could probably see the hills. But who wants to be stuck in traffic?

It’s a challenge, but challenge is good. It would be nice to hit a trail.