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In four rooms, filmmaker shares 600-mile journey

By Danielle Golds

Maarten Olthof leads a meditation at the Square Peg Gallery on Jan. 8.


HASTINGS — On a snowy Saturday afternoon, a group of filmmakers and artists gathered at the Square Peg Gallery in Hastings to discuss a documentary called “Go Without Fear.” It's not yet finished, but as filmmaker James Dean Conklin said, “There’s still cause for celebration.”

The celebration takes the form of an art exhibition called “Pilgrimage: A Journey Through the Life of the Buddha,” featuring film clips by Conklin as well as photography by Nancy Jo Johnson. The film and still photographs center around travels

James Dean Conklin leads a walking meditation into Riverview Park on Jan. 8.

in Nepal, India, and Tibet. At an opening reception last Friday, Jan. 6, about 40 people enjoyed the multimedia exhibit while sipping Chai and eating momo, meat dumplings common in Nepal.

Square Peg Gallery, located at 385 Warburton Avenue, opened in October 2015 and is run by Ben Diep and his wife, Mairead Daly-Diep. Diep has been printing artists’ photographs for exhibitions for 30 years and has done so for two exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). “As we are growing from last year, when we started the gallery, we thought because I have worked with artists for so long it is important to have a dialogue,” Diep said, “This is also the meeting place for a lot of artists.”

The combination of Conklin’s film clips and Johnson’s photographs was the gallery owners' idea. “I brought in Nancy Jo because I’ve known her for many years and she had been travelling to the area for a long time," Diep said. "Her contact sheets give you a sense of the area in terms of the vastness of the landscape, and they give a sense of not just religion but the culture in the area,” he explained.

The exhibit features four rooms, each with projected film of one of four primary sites of a Buddhist pilgrimage, approximately 600 miles long, in Nepal and India: Lumbini, where Buddha was born in 563 BCE, Bodhgaya, where he attained enlightenment, Sarnath, where he began teaching, and Kushinagar, where he died.

Zen monk and ecologist Maarten Olthof, who is the subject of Conklin’s documentary, completed this pilgrimage in 2003. The Dutchman travelled to Hastings for the first few days of the exhibit where the English translation of his 2010 book, "Go Without Fear," which was renamed after the documentary, was available for purchase and signing.

“It was not my plan to write the book, but several people said, ‘What you did is not common, you have to share it with the world because others might benefit from it and be inspired by it,’” Olthof said. Olthof had been studying Buddhism since the '80s and, after found a teacher who helped him become a monk. It took him a year to decide whether to pursue that goal, until he thought, “Well, nothing changes — in fact, I am this monk already so it is just recognizing what is already there.” Olthof also saw a connection between ecology and Buddhism: “Everything is connected in a large web in the universe. Nothing stands on its own and everything is dependent on all other things for its existence. And for me, that was also the heart of ecology.”

Olthof’s book includes the story of his adventure, some history and philosophy of Buddhism and India, and descriptions of India today, along with more than 130 of his photographs. It took Olthof 35 days to walk the entire pilgrimage, an average of 20 miles per day, sometimes in 100-degree heat. There were no hotels or lodges along the way, so he often slept in people’s homes, but sometimes he slept in a tent he carried or in temples or under the arches of buildings.

Olthof, who has been guiding pilgrimages and tours for almost 30 years in Asia and Europe, met Conklin through a solar trek in the Himalayas, when Conklin was touring Asia in 2009 with his eco-activist band, Solar Punch. “We saw right away, ‘Wow this guy is deep, he gets it, he’s connected to this stuff,’” Conklin said. After a few days' acquaintance, Olthof and Conklin began discussing using Olthof’s book as the basis for a documentary.

Conklin, who lives in Hastings, has a background in television animation and has worked on MTV’s “Beavis and Butt-Head,” as well as other animated TV series. However, he began working in live production in 2003 and over the last three and a half years has been working on “Go Without Fear,” and expects to finish the documentary this spring.

Johnson’s work, which is displayed in the entrance and hallway of the exhibit, comes from her 30 years of travel to Nepal, India, and Tibet. Now 59, she lived and worked in Nepal as a natural history tour guide for five years after college. “I grew to love it so much — it was as if I had found my second home,” she said. She worked as a photographer and photojournalist in Tibet, contributing images to Life, National Geographic, and Time magazines. More recently, Johnson became a social worker, developing her expertise in trauma, and is going to start incorporating photography into the therapy she does. Johnson lives in Yonkers.

In addition to the opening reception last Friday and the workshop on Saturday, there was a morning meditation on Sunday, led by Olthof, which included a walk outside in the snow and an afternoon of live music with the Roshni orchestra and Buddhist mantras by Olthof. On Monday, a group drove to the Grafton Peace Pagoda, located about 150 miles north of the Rivertowns in Rensselaer County, for a daylong pilgrimage. There was also a discussion by Olthof about his work in Nepal on Tuesday.

Tonight (Jan. 13) at 7 p.m. there will be an artist discussion with Johnson and Conklin; a closing reception on Sunday, Feb. 5, will include a screening of the documentary trailer and live music.

The Square Peg Gallery is open Tuesday to Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., at other times for special events, and by appointment. The website lists upcoming events. Contact Mairead Daly-Diep at or call (212) 300-3834 for more information.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


January 13, 2017

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