She came dressed in a funky Tibetan wool hat and handed me a photograph of one of her artworks, Tao Seeker (below). I was struck by this work, its searching, its journeying.
It was October 2013 and Suzanne Fox and I had put on an event with the curator and translator Valerie Doran. A quiet legend, Valerie has worked alongside the likes of Johnson Chang Tsong-zung and played a seminal role in the emergence of the Chinese avant garde to the world in the early 90s. I had lured her up to this New England sea port to speak about 5,000 years of Chinese art history.
At this lunch event, Mei Selvage appeared, her eyes wide with inspiration, telling me that she was an artist based here in Portland. It was almost like we had generated the entire event for her - so intensely did she respond to the themes of the talk. The two of us exchanged phone numbers and met up again the following month.
As the winter months played out, Mei and I continued to meet, drinking hot teas and discussing our respective art forms of painting and writing as well as our Buddhist practices. I am a Kadampa Buddhist, through a lineage which originally hails from India and into Tibet, and she is a Zen Buddhist which saw its path forged from India, through China and Japan.
I always walked away from our meetings feeling inspired, exhilarated, and ready to write.
But in her spare time, from her house close to the woods she delves into her art projects.
A few years ago, Mei was speaking at a conference and after the presentation, when someone commented on her Chinese accent, suggesting she needed to lose it. In that moment of discrimination, she did something transformative. She decided that her art would carry her accent instead - and she turned it into a journey of awakening.
Mei has sought her roots through her art. She has looked to ancient books as her inspiration, like Mustard Seed Gardens Painting Manual (芥子園畫傳), which features in a mirror-image in her artwork, Fear Not. She came across the book - reimagined in a modern form - in the exhibition Fresh Ink at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
"I was struck to see the relevance of that book, even as old as that, and how it could be put into a modern context," she told me.
"As I was working more and more on getting my accent, this book became very important. It has text, it has images, and more importantly it has fundamental Chinese philosophy in it. The book starts not by talking about painting, but about taoism. All the images ties back to the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching."
One morning, in late summer, Mei came to my apartment in the West End. We drank tea and that day, the seed for an idea was born: Yaji (雅集).
I had come across the name when I was brainstorming with Suzanne Fox (the same wonderful woman who had allowed me to experiment and launch the event with Valerie the previous year).
Suzanne had invited me to her retreat spot on Peak's Island during the summer and we had sat there by the ocean waves, as seagulls cried overhead and schooners sailed past.
We had mused on the idea of launching cultural events here in Portland that could connect artists from Asia and New England. Portland is a town of artists, why not lure some artists from Asia over here?
I had also been researching the literati painters of the Song and Yuan Dynasties for an article I was writing for Time Out Hong Kong - looking into various young artists in Hong Kong who were starting to question, interact with and explore their ancient Chinese roots (this was before they took to the streets of the city in their hundreds of thousands this fall).
I wrote the name Yaji, which refers to gatherings of poets, sages, painters and scholars in ancient gardens, in my notebook. As I sat there with Mei, I threw out this name to her and she caught it with delight. Since then, the event has come together with an amazing energy and a feeling of great auspiciousness.
Through this experience, I've been struck by the collaborative nature of creativity. We need each other, don't we?
We can't work in isolation. We need community, we need muses in the form of our fellow artists and thinkers.
We're just like those Song Dynasty folk.
Yaji kicks off tomorrow night in Portland. Come along. Info here!
Photo credits (top to bottom): 'Fear Not' by Mei Selvage, 'Tao Seeker' by Mei Selvage, 'Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual' by Wang Gai,1679. Courtesy Wiki Commons.