John M. Soderberg spent the first 18 years of his life in Central and Southeast Asia, and circled the world eight times before graduating high school in Bangkok, Thailand. Gil Gillenwater has travelled much of his life, and among many other countries, extensively studied and explored in Tibet. Both, in their own way, have been fascinated by, and explored, the human experience.
John became one of the earliest members of Gil’s Rancho Feliz Charitable Foundation, and they have worked together on numerous humanitarian projects and charitable efforts. After Gil’s latest immersion in Tibetan culture and sacred landscape, he told John of his experiences and invited him to sculpt the highest female in Tibetan Buddhism—the goddess Vajrayogini.
John had been moved for some time to work in that direction, and Gil formally commissioned him to sculpt her. They worked together for three years designing this sculpture and all of the elements involved, as John sculpted her. In the truest sense of the word, Vajrayogini evolved. This evolution began in the early lives of John and Gil, in their explorations, interests and growth, and continued through their design partnership. Following, in their own words, is an introduction to this creation.
John M. Soderberg: “I was six or seven years old when the Dalai Lama came to Kashmir. He came, with his court, to see the film about the Christian holy-man Moses, “The Ten Commandments,” with Charleton Heston. I was living at the time with my family on a carved wooden houseboat on Lake Dal, in Northern India, and we also went to the movie, at the same time. I still vividly remember his face as he smiled at me in the gardens outside the theater.
In the 1940s, the king of Afghanistan commissioned my father, a civil engineer from Cal Tech and UCLA, to build and direct the first engineering school in that country. My parents travelled across Asia two years after the end of World War 2, and after several life-threatening adventures, arrived in Kabul. I spent the first five years of my life there, where I sculpted in mud and clay, and from the age of four, painted with my father’s oils.
The Afghan Institute of Technology was running successfully, so my family then moved to New Delhi, India for six years. We spent much of that time travelling and exploring from Sri Lanka to Madras, Calcutta, Srinigar, Assam, Nepal, and Kulu Valley in the north. International attention was on India in the late ‘50s, and I met President Eisenhower, Prince Phillip, Prime Minister Nikita Krushchev, others, and had tea with Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru in the palace, at age seven. The art of India marked me deeply. From the classical art of Europe to the carvings on the ancient forgotten temples my brothers and I found and explored in the jungles and forests of India, to the intricate sculpture in the bazaars, and the story-telling paintings of the Ramayana, I discovered my passion. Every Sunday in New Delhi, Tibetan gypsies would show up in front of our home and spread out a blanket on the driveway. From bulging sacks, they would pull out pots, jewelry, ceremonial knives, and sculptures in jade, wood, and silver, and arrange everything in rows on the blanket. I would spend hours holding and studying the art.
When I was eight years old, my family and I rode on horse-back from northern India up to the foothills of the Himalayas, and the glaciers. We rode for several weeks, sleeping in small dak bungalows in mountain meadows. We rounded up our horses in the mornings after breakfast around a fire, and rode on. The beauty was immense. Two months later, I stood alone inside the Taj Mahal, next to her marble resting place, at midnight with a full moon.
When I was 11, we moved to Thailand. At 12, I began studying teakwood carving with the country’s leading master, a Buddhist monk. Every weekend, we would set up in old-town Bangkok near the 90 feet long reclining Buddha, and carve all day on Buddhist angels, dragons, and mythical or traditional figures. The master would speak as we worked of his childhood, of Buddhism, and of art. My high-school was The International School of Bangkok. We had over 90 nationalities represented, and for a time my girlfriend was a Cambodian Buddhist.
I studied various martial arts from age 13 or so. I studied with Koreans, Japanese, Americans, and Thais, and made my first black-belt by age 17. It was an important time in my development, as an artist and as a student of humanity. From the earliest time I can remember, I have been fascinated by people, and have been drawn to philosophy and psychology. I have been most led to those essential human elements which serve to unify people over the superficial barriers which too often separate them. The evolution of my art has been to document and explore the essence of humanity, and this led me to service-work in the early 70s.
After high school, I flew to America in the late 60s for college in Washington State. Due to extreme culture shock, and late-60s shock, I dropped out of college, and ended up painting in oils for a year on the street in Berkeley, California, during the People’s Park riots. After several near-death experiences, I figured it would be safer joining the Marine Corps, and going home to Southeast Asia. The military, in its wisdom, instead sent me to Arizona, where I taught martial arts and worked in electronics with a missile battalion. I became involved with service-work, doing drug counseling, and helping others through delayed stress syndrome from combat in Vietnam.
After my Honorable Discharge in 1973, I worked as a machinist, made sculpted jewelry, (including a bracelet for Elvis Presley,) and painted. I expanded my volunteerism, becoming involved with charitable groups in Phoenix, which focused on women and children in need.
In 1976 I committed the rest of my life to professional bronze sculpture and have continued to expand my service involvement. I have used my work to benefit numerous organizations including Amnesty International, Rancho Feliz, Free the Slaves Organization, one of the Paul Newman Hole-In-The Wall-Gang camps for seriously ill children, domestic abuse shelters, Big Brother, Big Sisters, The Advancement of Women for Northern Arizona University, community service clubs, and other causes. In 1998 I received my Ph.D. in Humane Letters, and a year later I was Knighted by a Swedish Count for service-work and art achievement.
I have sculpted numerous historically influential figures including Christ, Moses, Merlin, Norman Vincent Peale, Gil Gillenwater, Billy Graham, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Sacajawea, St. Catherine of Siena, Stephen Biko, Poseidon, various corporate founders, inventors, and others. I have sculpted several Asian-themed pieces over the years, but for some time have felt a strong pull to sculpturally explore the influences of my childhood. I have begun this process with the bronze “Vajrayogini.” It feels very good to come home.”
Gil Gillenwater “I am a life-long resident of Scottsdale, Arizona. I am a yoga and meditation practitioner, an outdoorsman, a traveler and a black belt in Kenpo karate. In addition to this, or should I say because of this, I am also a philanthropist.
My interest in Buddhism and Eastern thought came directly through my fascination with the human mind. As an existentialist, I have always been intrigued with consciousness and our unique ability to create realities through the study and power of our minds.
My quest led me from positive thinking, to hypnotism, to Hinduism and eventually to Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa and his “Shambhala, the Sacred Path of the Warrior”. (Little did I know how prophetic the words “Shambhala” and “Warrior” would be in my life.) Discovering “service to others” as an ego-diminishing, fast-track to awareness, in 1987 I founded the Rancho Feliz Charitable Foundation, Inc. I have since devoted a major portion of my life to service. This is my chosen path to enlightenment. In 1993 I took my Bodhisattva vows from the Dalai Lama. In 2006 I founded the Guardian Warrior Foundation, Inc., a self-funded charity established to support Rancho Feliz and to promote its concepts on a global basis.
In 1999, I was a recipient of the Hon Kachina Award, Arizona’s highest honor for volunteerism. In 2000, I was one of five members throughout the United States chosen to receive the National Association of Realtors, “Good Neighbor Award”, likewise honoring volunteerismMy interest in Buddhism led me to Tibet in 1994. Obtaining some of the first permits to enter the forbidden Pemako region, my brother and I smuggled a 12 foot paddle raft into southeastern Tibet. Here, with two companions, we made a “first descent” attempt down the world’s highest, remotest and wildest river, the Yarlung TsangPo. This was my first of three ventures into the revered Beyul Pemako region – the “Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus”, the Shambhala of Tibet. It was here that I was introduced to the female Buddhist meditational deity – Vajrayogini.
Vajrayogini is represented geographically spread out over the Pemako region (as further explained in the description). Her practice is especially associated with the use of sexual energy to obtain enlightenment. As a man, I have always been fascinated by the female energy and the intuitive and compassionate energies it has to offer. I was hooked.
Returning to Pemako in 1995 and 1997, we undertook month long, leach-infested and extremely arduous pilgrimages/expeditions to Vajrayogini’s various terrestrial chakras. It was in 1995, during a particularly brutal portion of our trek that she appeared to me in a vision. However, instead of seeing her in the upright “Warrior Posture”, I saw her in the reclining posture of the Buddha. Also, instead of the stiff legged, rigid demeanor of a store front mannequin, she was soft and supple and invitingly gorgeous. (Historically, Vajrayogini, as a meditational deity, has been sculpted, painted and described by monks – men of limited knowledge of the female body.) The Vajrayogini I saw exuded power through her sexuality. The vision was stamped indelibly.
In 1997, my brother and I located Pemako’s long-sought “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra” and were subsequently arrested by the Communist Chinese. However, that’s a different story and if you are interested you can learn more about it at: www.hiddenfalls.org
I have returned to the Himalayas three additional times visiting Vajrayogini’s holy locations in Nepal, Ladakh and Mt. Kailash of Tibet. It has long been my dream to find a way to convey my experiences and understandings in a unique and meaningful way. My artist friend and fellow Rancho Feliz “Guardian Warrior”, John Soderberg, has helped me do just that.
I worked with John for three years creating the “Reclining Vajrayogini” bronze. The piece is rich in symbolism and I know of no other sculptor who could have captured the essence of this feminine deity as did John. There is not a doubt in my mind that John was divinely inspired and guided in this creation. The Vajrayogini you see here is the self-same goddess who materialized before me in waterfall mists of the Hidden Lands.
It’s important to note that the many Buddhist concepts symbolized in this sculpture exist independent of Vajrayogini. Vajrayogini’s function is to rouse the kundalini energies in her practitioners. Once brought to the fore, these sexual energies can be harnessed as the force to propel us beyond our instinctual traps such as grasping, greed, hatred, self-centeredness, etc. to achieve spiritual perfection.
I chose Vajrayogini because I believe the genetic drive to reproduce is the strongest of all human instincts. Accordingly, as instinct driven as I am why not choose rocket fuel to propel me on my path to enlightenment!