By Bill Gusky



Artist/Explorer Reid Stowe completes a record-setting voyage

He's back and looks great, if thinner than I remember seeing him. After 1,152 days at sea Reid Stowe sailed into New York on June 16. It was a strange and awesome thing for a guy whom John Tierney in his New York Times article characterizes as "a singular blend of mariner, mystic, carpenter, painter, sculptor and New Age philosopher."

It's good to read people taking this voyage for what it was: an extended, self-imposed purification ritual by a true believer. Performance art doesn't get more authentic than this. It's extreme in every aspect. Sheer ambition alone simply isn't enough to sustain an art piece at this level of duration, arduousness and sheer danger. I haven't spoken with Reid in many years, but I'm as convinced today as I was then that his faith, his commitment and his authenticity are absolute.

Check Charles Doane's article "Comprehending Reid Stowe: His Various Purposes" for what looks to be a comprehensive discussion of the various things Reid was trying to do in this voyage, and for images of some of the art pieces he created while at sea.

It'll be interesting to see how this achievement affects the future work of this intriguing and very unusual artist.



Reid Stowe -- 1000 Days at Sea -- "Christmas Tree Effervescence"

It's amazing to think that someone whose every waking moment is spent on some aspect of his own survival would have the time to make art. But art making seems to move forward even under extreme circumstances. The impulse to find meaning in the arrangement of objects and materials, in the generation of images, is apparently nearly as elemental as the survival instinct itself. See a number of historical artworks for examples.

If you'd had an experience similar to the one Reid recorded on August 20, you also might put the repairs and food-procuring on hold as you made some sort of record.

Day 850 - August 20, 200
Wind S, 10 knots, Course NW, Speed 1 knot, Position 5*22n by 16*26w
Christmas Tree Effervescence

A few days ago before I dropped the mainsail we sailed through a night of the most amazing phosphorescence I have ever seen. Shortly after dark green lights around the schooner began flashing on and off. They were about six feet in diameter and they flashed very brightly and then slowly dimmed down. They flashed all around us as far out as I could see. Obviously the flashing lights were not caused by the schooner or our school of fish.

The lights were so bright that I tried to film them with the video camera, but once again the wonders of the sea escaped being captured by my technical devices. I knew I would have to share this in words and a painted image, so I started looking at it with the artist's mind. My limited frontal vision changed to a spherical omnipresent vision and my being spread out with it.

It was a soft silky night and all the stars twinkled in a dark velvet sky. I could feel the stars touching me. The green phosphorescence around the schooner made me feel as if I were sailing in a Christmas tree of effervescent flashing lights with neon decorative mobile fish swimming around and through me.

I knew the phenomena could end and I didn't want to miss a moment, but I had to cook and eat dinner. After dinner it was still there and I climbed to a higher vantage point to see the green flashing further out. As always this time of night my body gets tired and prayers begin.

I lay down naked on cushions in the cockpit and fell asleep only to wake up again and marvel at the magnificence and the prayers of thankfulness that go on and on.



Reid Stowe -- Zen Sailing

Word comes from the deep blue sea that Reid Stowe has started a new art piece far from the sight of land. He's using an intriguing image to introduce the concept --

I'm guessing that the artwork above is made from a nautical chart from this or from one of his many previous voyages. The path it describes meanders in all directions. This is perfectly in keeping with Reid's description, which I'll excerpt here:

In the ancient orient, the story goes that when a man reached a certain age he was free to go on a 1000 day walk. This was his reward for a life of worldly duty. Now he could wander from town to town, into the nature or wherever he pleased. I often spoke of this story over the years as I tried to explain one aspect of the 1000 day trip I am on. I delved into many forms of spiritual knowledge and I kept Zen in mind.

A sailing writer called what I do "Hands off Sailing". That title is too mundane to describe such a hard won sacred act. I decided I must try to explain "The Art of Zen Sailing" and the steps I took to discover and learn. As I balanced my boats and learned to make them go where I wanted, I often used "Body English" the way a golfer uses body English to influence his golf ball. This is skill combined with an unstoppable urge to use invisible forces.

Read the entire entry at

The artist has put his vessel under the control of wind and weather, influencing it only slightly through the movement of his body on board. It's a pure act, a performance streaming from a finely-tuned consciousness.

Don't settle here for the cliche of one's life as a vessel lost at sea, under control of the elements. That's way too Hemingway, way too embedded in the art historical narrative that Danto and others assure us is long past.

Consider the social identifiers that seem like an outer skin to you: your name, relationships with lovers and family members, your vocation, personal history, religion, preferences and so forth.

All of these are like a fairly idiosyncratic and somewhat beaten-upon twin-masted schooner, rolling across the waves of the South Atlantic. You need these identifiers to survive in any way that's meaningful to the rest of the world. They both invite people on board and also form a reasonable defense against the elements.

As solid and important as these socially-determined structures might seem, they aren't you; they're not who you are. Your essential being lies pure, radiant and glistening within. You can take charge, move this amalgamation of structures in the direction you desire, or you can force desire to take a back seat and allow the elements to control things and move these structures around.

This latter course requires a high degree of trust, the kind that comes from a deep-seated realization that the forces that course through your consciousness are the same ones that course through all of life, through the economy, the political sphere, through every element that touches you. They're the same forces influencing the sun, the atmosphere and the oceans, causing heat and cold, movement and calm, storm and silence.

Reid's Zen Sailing image shows his meandering course surrounded by thangka-like Buddhas or bodhisattvas. They appear as guides, each influencing the schooner's path. I also see them as guardians of a realm of security Reid has drawn himself, through his beliefs and, really, through pure faith. This small artwork is a reflection to me of the much larger one surrounding the artist, a kind of living mandala he's created on the high seas.

Is this the performance art of the new narrative?



Reid Stowe - The Oceanic Heart Part 2

Reid Stowe, The Oceanic Heart -- 2009 --
GPS markers on Google Maps describing a heart-shaped path 2,600 miles in circumference

Considering all the problems he's had to deal with alone on his twin-masted schooner, artist Reid Stowe's Texas-plus-sized conceptual piece is a triumph.

Check this latest entry from day 745 on

It seems perhaps bad news has replaced our search for the miraculous and our human myths, and I am left to think we are an intellectual society in fear, with many suffering a sense of personal meaninglessness. Those who went to our website and looked at our Google map may have been surprised I am now completing a giant heart with my course in dedication to Soanya and as a gift to the world.

Stowe has stepped off the civilization-sanitized plain most Americans inhabit, where a meal is a few microwave minutes away and distractions abound.

He's dropped back deeper, to a level not usually experienced by other-than-tribal people in this hemisphere, at least not since when -- the seventeenth century? And it saturates his writing, which reminds me of John of the Cross, "The Cloud of Unknowning," and others who have sojourned long in a place where each continued moment of life seemed like a gift.

The thing is, he always sounded this way, even in writings before the 1000 Days voyage.

I've come to believe that the things you learn in your early 20's are the ones that stay with you for the rest of your life. During those years of his life, Stowe was criss-crossing the Atlantic in small sailing vessels, often solo. He spoke to me once of the way you become one with your ship -- drifting off to sleep and suddenly sensing something that needs attention high up on a mast.

Long weeks alone on the sea, your mind wrapped up in survival moment by moment, facing storms of lightning, wind and rain, and also of doubt, and yet living through all of them: there's no way that that isn't going to affect your outlook. In my opinion it was highly transformative.

Stowe learned the mystic's appreciation for life and the universe not through books, or at the feet of a guru, or because it was a really cool fad. He really didn't even try to learn it in the first place. It came to him through protracted, sometimes gruelling day-to-day experience. And it never left him.

Unlike so many similar gestures made in irony or with hypocrisy, this Oceanic Heart is real. The only question remaining in my mind is can the world accept it?



Verena Dobnik / Associated Press article published this past May 3 on Reid Stowe's "1000 Days" voyage

Here's a snippet:

Also monitoring Stowe’s travels is Charles Doane, editor-at-large of Sail magazine. “I check his positions every day,” he says.

Already, Stowe “has set the record of the longest nonstop, unsupplied voyage at sea,” says Doane, adding that proof the schooner has not touched land comes from a GPS satellite system tracking the voyage, along with regular photos and videos posted on the Web.

“I want to inspire people to follow their dreams,” Stowe says. And in fact, the voyage serves as a vicarious adventure for some young virtual sailors — second-graders at a Virginia school whose teacher, Mindy Morrison, wrote to the wandering mariner that his Web site was helping them locate continents and oceans, making geography “more tangible and more importantly, FUN!”

On the newspaper's blog one of the commenter's left something that really resonates with me, partly I think from having worked with Reid all those years ago:

As I try to imagine the perspective of Reid Stowe as he sails into the fringe of our worlds, I find myself surrounded with images of classic adventure tales from my childhood; like The Little Prince by Saint-Exupery, telling the story of a lonely boy from another planet who fell in love with a mysterious rose, or the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor of the Thousand and One Nights who goes to sea to repair his fortune. I hear sounds of Rimsky-Korsakovs Scheherazade and remember how I used to fantasize about what would do when I grow up.

Reid Stowes quest is profoundly idealistic and makes a point about life and human nature.

Can I get an 'amen,' somebody?


Reid Stowe: The Oceanic Heart

Today was day 729 for Reid Stowe out in the vast Pacific. He shot me an email and I wanted to pass it along -- it's called the Oceanic Heart, and it's a drawing of a heart hundreds of miles across, made with his schooner and plotted by GPS and satellite. He refers to it as a 'gift to his loved ones and the world.'

Artworks like this intrigue me in a kind of ticklish way -- ticklish I suppose because they don't fit purely and easily into any category of art or art-making. They're largely conceptual, living in the mind pretty much like any emotion or memory. And yet the means for creating them is heavy, vulgar and material. See for example Jeremy Woods' GPS drawings -- Woods has been at it for quite a while and has made a real name for himself. You have to travel to make these things, and even if you're on foot, you've got to bring things along: equipment, food, water, clothing. Hence the materiality that must accompany the concept that functions as the main part of the piece.

Reid's Oceanic Heart drawing, like the Sea Turtle and Dolphin drawings before it: layers of complication make its creation all the more interesting to me. Instead of walking about or driving on dry land, he's got to deal with ocean currents and winds that might not always favor the path he wants to take. The main piece of equipment, the schooner-as-stylus, is subject to all sorts of breakdowns, each of which must be dealt with by hand and ingenuity, using whatever is available. And making all of this even more complicated is that he's working completely alone.

The Oceanic Heart combines Reid's almost ridiculous danger and solitude with the kind of cliche'd gesture usually made by young naive lovers, carved in trees along with the tacit or written suggestion of 'forever' that both know but won't admit is tongue-in-cheek. Funny thing is, I think Reid means it.

Here's the last part of his email to me -- see if you don't agree:

Humbly I proceed because the schooner is worn out and anything could break and the sea sweeps away the plans of many men. My plans could be swept away. Rather than keep it secret incase I fail, I am taking a chance and sharing so we can all create the Heart of the Ocean together.