Guanyin, also known as Avalokistvara, has been worshipped for thousands of years as a boddhisattva of mercy and compassion. This project features an 11th-century masterpiece from the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s (MIA) Buddhist collection, surrounded by a many-voiced audio recording and cushioned benches for mindful listening. The recording includes phrases adapted from traditional Buddhist metta meditations on compassion and loving kindness, recited by a range of local practitioners. Small speakers above each bench play the phrases one by one, offering kind words of acceptance and encouragement to anyone who will receive them. Originally on view in the exhibition "Sacred," MIA, August 31, 2013 through July 13, 2014. listen to the recordings, see poster
[March 2017] Tempera paint on paper. Since a painting retreat in March 2017 on the remote island of Molokai, Hawaii, I have engaged in a series of process paintings, using tempera, gouache, and watercolor paints on paper. It was strange to find myself picking up paints again, since I had abandoned the medium in the early 1990s. In contrast to my more conceptual work in photography, video, and text-based images, these paintings are intuitively driven, and don't start out from a plan or agenda. They connect me to my emotional imagination rather than my conceptual imagination. The paintings are a form of meditation, a contemplative responsiveness to the energy in the body/mind and on the paper. Selected process paintings with details are shown throughout the website, identified by the place where I made them.
 An experiment in presence and connection, Conversation Portraits: For the One Who… is a relational performance piece in which I interview participants and write impromptu text poems about their lives using a 1960s Royal manual typewriter. During each event, I invite people to sit and talk with me one at a time, guided by a series of personal questions. Afterward I turn in my seat and write a biographical text poem for my guest. The original is given to the participant as a gift; a carbon copy is made as a secondary document and displayed in the gallery.
Originally performed for one night at the Weisman Art Museum in 2012, there were seven events scheduled during The Soap Factory's 2014 season along with a gallery exhibition of the text-poems. Artist and writer Regan Golden-McNerney describes the experience of sitting for a portrait here.
[March 2017] The two Molokai process paintings were created during a Painting Experience retreat on the small island of Molokai, Hawaii. Led by Stewart Cubley, the retreat allowed me to return to painting after over a decade as a conceptual artist. The process-art approach I use is anchored in my meditation and yoga practice. It draws on spiritual and emotional aspects of self/soul, and taps into intuitive awareness and intelligence. Tempera paint on paper. Full image and details shown.
[April - May 2017] Process paintings with quoache on paper. Created during my month-long Level One Kundalini Yoga immersion training in Canggu, Bali.
 The single-channel, 27-minute video Again and Again shows the phrase “I love you,” written with water on to sun-heated rock, repeatedly evaporating into the dry desert air. Momentarily clear when first inscribed, the words fade away until nothing remains, some quickly, some more slowly, depending on environmental conditions. A meditation on impermanence and change, as the words reappear in the landscape the intention to love is renewed at each moment. The natural soundtrack features the plaintive call of the canyon wren among other desert birds. Filmed on various sandstone and redrock formations in southeastern Utah near Escalante, Capitol Reef, and Moab. Shown here in exhibit with the map Finding Everett Ruess, Davis Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, 2013.
 Grand Canyon Suicide Map is a large-scale topo map that documents the recorded suicides that have taken place in the Grand Canyon since the early 1900s. Ironically the suicides cluster at the most accessible tourist spots in Grand Canyon National Park. In July 2011, for Metta Meditation Grand Canyon National Park, I spent a week in silent retreat at the park, visiting the suicide spots on the South and North Rims. At each site I honored the people who had taken their lives there with a Metta or Loving Kindness meditation. For each individual I offered traditional blessings, that they be happy, safe and protected, healthy, and free from suffering. These images include photodocumentation of the meditation at Powell Point, Pima Point, Shoshone Point, and Lipan Point, as well as the map and accompanying printed poster in exhibition, “Shadows, Traces, Undercurrents,” Katherine E. Nash Gallery, October 16 to November 17, 2012.
[October - December 2017] Intuitively driven process paintings created while living and teaching in Minneapolis during Fall 2017. Guoache on paper. Full images plus details.
 Process paintings created in Cortez, Colorado. The first painting with the wolf beast was started in Minneapolis but completed in Cortez. Gouache paint on paper. Details and full image.
 Recreation Signs (Duck Rabbit) consist of generic and custom-designed alodine-coated aluminum signs. Three of the signs conform to the standard symbols used by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and State Parks to mark designated trailheads. The other two signs feature the ambiguous figure of a duck-rabbit. The figure has been used in psychological research at least since the nineteenth century to demonstrate that perception is more complex than an automatic response to pure visual stimuli. I first learned of the duck-rabbit symbol by reading Ludwig Wittgenstein’s book, Philosophical Investigation (PI), in a passage discussing perception and knowledge claims. The duck-rabbit shape is based on Wittgenstein’s drawings reproduced in the PI and also found in his notebooks. Despite their iconic standing, reading the signs becomes a highly subjective, interpretive process. Each sign is 24" x 24".
[2011-2012] Thinking Portraits is a series of drawings on digitally printed anatomical scans of my brain. The drawings arose out of an art and neuroscience collaboration with colleagues Wilma Koutstaal and Sheng He and their graduate students in Psychology at the University of Minnesota. From 2009 to 2011 the interdisciplinary group researched the neural and cognitive bases of semantic knowledge and the role of scientific imagery in conveying empirical data. Scientifically the project used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore the relationship between abstract and concrete language as processed by the brain during semantic decision tasks. Artistically I was motivated by a question of what brain scans could and could not show about human experience, our emotions, and the impact of trauma. I collected the brain images as a test subject in the group's fMRI study. Once inverted, the objective data became a catalyst for my subjective response to them. Drawings are listed chronologically. Oil pastels, colored pencil, digital print on paper.
[2007-2013] I have designed and produced four site-specific illustrated folded sheet maps. Each map explores a different location and includes photographs, drawings, graphic topography, and a long essay about the history and land uses of the site. They begin with research and reading about a chosen location followed by time spent walking and meditating on site. All of them include some form of site intervention as well. Central to the map-making experience is the difference between the embodied, sensed experience of the place and the stories/ideas we project onto the land. Shown here are the front and back images of Finding Everett Ruess, Davis Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, 2013; Grand Canyon Suicide Map/Metta Meditation, Grand Canyon National Park, 2012; Beneath the surface (of language), Silver Island Mountain Byway, Wendover, Utah, USA, 2009; and Searching for Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lake Eidsvatnet, Skjolden, Sogn, Norway, 2007.
 Beneath the surface (of language), Silver Mountain Island Byway, Wendover, Utah, USA is a performative, site-specific map/text/photo project featuring the 54-mile backcountry Silver Island Mountain Byway, a BLM-managed route near the Bonneville Speedway just outside of Wendover, Utah. The mountains rise up like an archipelago in the middle of the Great Salt Lake Desert, surrounded on all sides by salt and mud flats. Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels (1976) are 45 miles north and Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) 220 miles east. In April 2009 I spent two weeks in Wendover at CLUI’s residency unit researching, photographing, and writing about the area. The resulting essay, written in five parts, is buried along the byway. My dog and I made the trip to bury the texts during a long, focused day of driving, exploring, and digging. Afterwards a topographical map was produced to mark the locations.
[2010-2011] The time-lapsed video On Certainty, 2010, records the artist (myself) writing a philosophical joke in large letters on the wall. It begins, “I am sitting with a philosopher in a garden …” accompanied by the sounds of birdcall and the forest. The words continue to describe someone transfixed by a tree, wondering if it is real. His skepticism leads him to a mental and emotional space that seems strange to a passerby, as the narrator explains the philosopher’s dilemma. The viewer feels a similar strangeness by the delay of the words being written out by hand as the mind tries to anticipate what comes next. The text is excerpted from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s book, On Certainty, from which the video also gets its name. The related video On Certainty, Take Two, 2011, records another narrative, this time a meeting with a Buddhist monk, who offers a very different perspective on the problem of naming and certainty. The text is adapted from Pema Chodron’s book, Start Where You Are.
 Endless Day is a single-channel video, 5 minutes, silent. It was filmed above the Arctic Circle on the Lofoten Islands off the west coast of Norway. It captures a natural phenomenon called the Midnight Sun; during the summer months at this latitude the sun never fully sets, only skimming the horizon line. In the video the sun seems to move horizontally across the screen. This “endless day” was filmed in real time then time-lapsed in editing. The two companion photographs Endless Day and Endless Day Refraction were taken moments apart in the exact same spot, just turned 180 degrees. Video stills, color photography, and exhibition view of video with embroidered text pieces in "SAD: A Northern View of Darkness,” Weisman Art Museum, June to September 2007.
 Text phrases hand stitched onto unbleached linen. Pulled from common cliches, vernacular sayings, excerpts from books, song lyrics, and other found commentary, as well as my own words, the phrases collectively investigate the way language shapes our basic understanding of the world. There are 156 embroidered panels, 11-by-11-inch each, installed in three long rows. The panels are organized so that as a viewer walks their length the subject matter subtly shifts. The focus ranges from questions about knowledge and reading: “You are what you read,” “The more you read the more you know,” “The universe is an infinite library," to phrases that conflate and compress the body with words: “Written on the body,” “Tongue in cheek,” “Eye to eye." They include sayings that describe the physical assault of language: “You aim your mouth like you’re aiming a gun," “A blow-by-blow description,” to nonsense speak: “Babel, babble,” “Yip, yap, yuk, yak, yawp, yelp, yowl." It begins with “Hot Air” and ends “Sincerely.” Hot Air Sincerely also exists as an artist book, presenting photographic close-ups of the original embroidered linen. Shown here are detail and installation views in studio and on exhibit, Barrow and Juarez Gallery, Milwaukee, May 2007.
 Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) is best know for his work on the philosophy of language. He devoted most of his writing to an investigation of what we can and cannot do sensibly with words, particularly regarding our claims to knowledge. Wittgenstein had a long-standing appointment teaching at Cambridge, England. But he was always leaving the field, and spent considerable time living and writing elsewhere, including Norway. Curious about his retreat north, in 2005 I spent three weeks at the Wittgenstein Archive, University of Bergen, Norway, and traveled to the site of a hut Wittgenstein commissioned in the small fjord-side village of Skjolden. The corresponding artworks include two grided photographs that document the remains of the hut and the trail signs leading to it; a set of three comparative map drawings of the hut’s location, drawn by Wittgenstein, the owner of the trailside campground where I stayed, and me; and an illustrated, folded sheet map. In exhibition, a stack of maps is contextualized with the photographs and map drawings. Exhibition view, “McKnight Visual Artists 2006-2007,” MCAD Gallery, Minneapolis, 2007.
 Single-channel, 24-minute video, color photographs, artist book. Filmed in the high desert of southeastern Utah near Escalante, a place of slickrock canyons, Navajo Sandstone, Juniper, Pinyon and Sage brush, Ad Infinitum features a skeptic and an optimist arguing the pros and cons of each other’s positions. Their conversation is rhetorical, theatric, and purposely absurd: Samuel Beckett meets Sergio Leone. Bumping up against the limits of reason, they each use logic to try to capture the other in a contradiction, but ultimately no wins or loses the debate. The video premiered in New York at Art in General, February 5 through April 2, 2005. Written, directed and edited by Jan Estep; Directory of Photography by Tom Graybael; Audio Mix by BWNoise; Optimist, Michael Agnew; Skeptic, Jan Estep. Shown here are video stills, installation view at Art in General, location production shots in Utah, and the related color photographs, Ad Infinitum, Boulder Mail Trail, 2005; Ad Infinitum, Milemarker 71/72, 2005; and Ad Infinitum, Dry Fork, 2005. The dialogue is reprinted in a related artist book, Ad Infinitum and Desert Maps.
 The video Time and Time Again was created during an extended collaborative project, Doing Time, Nothing But Time, with inmates at Northeast Correctional Center (NECC), a close-security men’s prison in Bowling Green, Missouri. The script is written as a long list of common cliches, proverbs, and other familiar sayings about time. Filmed inside the prison, the phrases are recited by a group of 20 actors from NECC. The language is generic and overly familiar, but who speaks makes all the difference to its meaning. This video originally screened during performances inside NECC in July 2008. Shown here in exhibition at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery, 2009, and at the Weisman Art Museum, 2010, Minneapolis. Produced, directed, filmed, and edited by Jan Estep. Written by Estep with contributions from Denzel Downing, Altonio Graves, Jimmie McGee, Travis Ray, and Stan Schell. Cast: Raynell Brandon II, Scott Brown, M.X. Campbell, Denzel Downing, Tony Drone, Mathew Fuqua, Altonio Graves, Howard Chris Harris, Peter Keil, James Laney, Charles Roy Mosley, Jeffrey Pollard Sr., Lance Pounders, Travis Ray, Stan Schell, Rodney Sheets, Frederick Starks, Robert Thenhaus, David X. Turner, and James Word. See related artist book with a dvd-r of the video.
 The multimedia theatrical piece Doing Time, Nothing But Time is the result of a four-month collaborative creative process that used theatre, writing, and video to explore the theme of “time.” The collaboration brought together four groups: Michael Agnew and Groundswell Community Performance, Minneapolis; Jan Estep and the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; Agnes Wilcox and Prison Performing Arts, St. Louis, Missouri; and the actors and staff of Northeast Correctional Center (NECC), Bowling Green, Missouri. The final theatrical script is composed of material from group discussions, recorded interviews, and the original written work of the participants. Only the participants’ actual words are used. The related video Time and Time Again originally screened during Doing Time, Nothing But Time, performed inside Northeast Correctional Center (NECC), July 8, 9, 10, 2008. Following the performances, an artist book with dvd-r insert was produced documenting the project. Graphic cartoons by M.X. Campbell.