Find Your Inner Chi With a Special Zen Brush Painting Workshop

Simeon Den will be sharing his artistic expertise in Honolulu later this month.

Editor’s Note: Through our partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art, HONOLULU Magazine publishes a monthly blog written by Lesa Griffith, the museum’s communications director and a talented Hawai‘i writer on arts, culture and food.


Simeon Den dancing in his garden in Cathedral City, California.

Simeon Den, a godfather of dance in the Islands, returns to Hawai‘i later this month with a special workshop at the Honolulu Museum of Art that he’s teaching with artist Andy Kay.


As co-director of Danceworks Honolulu in the 1980s and ’90s, Den trained a generation of lithe performers. His students included Tau Dance Theatre founder Peter Espiritu (who is now artistic director of the Oceania Dance Theatre in Fiji), Honolulu Dance Theatre’s Celia Chun, and Honolulu Dance Studio’s Cathy Izumi.


Yes, he trained at Alvin Ailey American Dance Center and performed on Broadway in the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures and a revival of The King and I (with Yul Brynner!), but for 30 years he has also taught meditation and has taught yoga for 20. In 2005, he published the book 8 Meditations on Urban Life. The first half of the book comprises stories of Den’s life experiences.


“I found the ones that reference growing up in Hawai‘i had a universal appeal,” Den says by phone from his home in Cathedral City, California. So he started writing a series about his formative years.


Simeon Den performing at a gallery event in Palm Springs, left, and in a garden butoh performance.

“It’s about passing on those life lessons. As a teacher, rather then be didactic, I share lessons in an entertaining way. It’s the best thing we have to offer.” And what Den, 64, is teaching these days is how to face death. “My overriding thing has been to demystify death and dying,” he says. “Conversations about death and dying are kind of taboo in our culture, and I want to be open to make discoveries about approaching death with as little fear as possible.”


He will be in town later this month to tandem teach with artist Andy Kay the workshop Zen Brushwork and Chi Energy at the Honolulu Museum of Art School Aug. 21 to 23. What does chi energy and art have to do with each other? A lot, as Den explains.


“In deep meditation, you get into this state—at that point it overlaps with science, quantum physics, and that is what I was interested in exploring. So I started working with Andy Kay.”


Den explains that artists can go into a zone, in which they are almost automatically creating, and are balanced spiritually, mentally and physically. “You know, when artists say, ‘It just flowed through me,’ and they created a masterpiece in a day, or wrote a great novel in a month,” he explains.


“What Andy does in painting is like that. It’s like martial arts—when you create an impression with the brushstroke, it's a visual representation of your energy.”


Den will start each day of the workshop with meditation to calm students’ minds and bodies—and hopefully open the door to that creative zone.


“What may seem like mumbo jumbo to some people, I am able to communicate those principles through telling stories,” says Den. Students will also write haiku and paint them on rice paper. Those works in turn will lead to the workshop’s pièce de résistance—Eh, Where You Went Go?,  an improvisational multimedia performance in the museum’s Doris Duke Theatre with guest performers violinist Fumiko Wellington and Giinko Marischino dancer Summer.


Den will read from his story series—which is written in pidgin—about growing up in Kalihi, as well as dance to the accompaniment of Wellington, who was a student of his.


“I’ll be dancing at one point while Fumi plays, and Summer and I will dance while students read their haiku. We’ll take our cues from the work.”


As a child, he lived on Lusitana Street with his mother for two years, and passed by the museum daily. “It was before they cut off Lusitana Street to build the freeway,” says Den. “You had to walk to King Street to take the bus. I went to Royal School, and one year the museum invited teachers to submit art by students to display at the museum. I had done two tempera paintings, one was really elaborate, and the other was of a donkey. She chose the donkey. That’s when I learned art is very subjective,” he laughs.


So what does he think it will be like teaching and performing at the museum? “It’s like coming home.”


The workshop Zen Brushwork and Chi Energy takes place at the Honolulu Museum of Art School Aug. 21–23. You can register onlineEh, Where You Went Go?, Aug. 23, 5–6 p.m., purchase tickets online.


Lesa Griffith is director of communications at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Born in Honolulu, one of her early seminal art experiences was at the Honolulu Museum of Art, when on a field trip her high school art history teacher pointed out that the ermine cape in Whistler’s Portrait of Lady Meux was not just a cape—it was visual signage leading viewers’ eyes through the painting.