Arts & Culture Guide
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Ruminations on Rumi
Chester County’s Michael Green promotes peace and love through the life of a 13th-century poet.
By Catherine Quillman
Michael Green recalls the exact moment when he realized a 13th-century Persian poet named Jelaluddin Rumi had gone mainstream. “I was reading a review of the Honda Accord, and all of sudden I read that this new feature is very ‘Rumiesque,’” says the best-selling illustrator and author, sitting on the couch in his barn studio near the Chester County hamlet of Ercildoun. “That tells me that Rumi has reached a deep vein in our American culture.”
For more than 800 years, Rumi has been a cultural icon in many Central Asian countries, including Turkey, Afghanistan and Iran. How he became the most widely read poet in the United States today (his work outsells even Shakespeare) is a mystery to Green. But he suspects it’s Rumi’s timeless observations about the nature of the human soul and its desire to reunite, while still in this life, with a divine source.
The life of Rumi—a poet who once “wandered through the vineyards” spouting wisdom and love poetry, Green quips—is only partly recounted in Green’s three books. The first, 1997’s The Illuminated Rumi, remains a publishing phenomenon, with more than 100,000 copies in print. Its success has been credited to what one critic described as Green’s “hauntingly beautiful” illustrations and the translation abilities of Coleman Barks, a professor emeritus at the University of Georgia.
This past fall, taking up the idea that Rumi has become “America’s spiritual guide” to world peace, Green and Coleman shared the stage at a public symposium at Haverford College’s Global Dialogue Institute. The event drew noted religious leaders from the Philadelphia area, including those from the Middle East Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
They gathered to celebrate Rumi as an “ecstatic” who devoted himself nearly exclusively to completing his cycle of work titled “Love Poems to the Divine.” But, true to any event involving Green, there were spill-over activities on other days—like an exhibit of his work at Fortuna Art Gallery in Bryn Mawr, followed by a talk with spiritual philosopher/author Ashok Gangadean and peace activist Jonathan Granoff.
The symposium also featured film and music, and a literal whirl of activity. The Mevlevi Whirling Dervishes were among the performers, and Green’s Illumination Band (a bluegrass ensemble now led by his son) played music set to Rumi’s poetry.
It was a lot to take in, but Green likes the idea of absorbing new ideas without too much thought—that is, without prejudice and preconceived ideas. “We didn’t always have this vision of Islam as practiced by typecast terrorists,” Green says, “In fact, at one point, we had this really romantic vision as conveyed by artist Maxfield Parrish.”
Green has more than 2.5 million copies of his books in print, including The Velveteen Rabbit, A Hobbit’s Journal and Zen & the Art of the Macintosh. The subjects of these and other works—unicorns, dragons, hobbits, among others—may explain the cult-like adoration Green enjoys, though it doesn’t mean fans actually seek him out. That’s partly because many of his books are centered on a medieval tradition in which artists—toiling monks in monasteries, for instance—“were conspirators,” and there “were no superstars who must express themselves,” Green says.
Green’s most recent book, The Unicornis Manuscripts (Amber Lotus Publishing), is especially vague in its source of authorship. It continues the premise of his first book on unicorns, published by Running Press 25 years ago. Green insists that he’s not the author, only a receiver of a worn, leather-bound journal “filled with notes and jottings.” He wrote the book to quell the “tons of letters” he received from readers the first time around. “In the original, there’s a conceit about a found manuscript,” he says. “But what I discovered is that many people took it at absolute face value.”
For Green, his Rumi-related work is merely another phase of his 30-year interest in sacred culture, and how art is often born out of what he calls “an intuitive archaic response to spiritual need.”
Given his interest in obscure texts and sacred dialogues, it seems fitting that he wound up in a region where landmark designations tend to be simple and unofficial. “You can always prove that something exists, but it’s very hard to prove something doesn’t exist,” says Green, who grew up in the Hudson Valley region of New York.
Green’s decades-long stay in Chester County has included living in a former bottling facility of Highland Dairy. Then there was the former goat shed that served as his studio during the years he and his wife, Sally, were raising their son and living on a communal property near their present home.
Today, Green and Sally live in a rancher. Driving onto the property, visitors notice not the house, but a massive barn made of green tin. Its hayloft now serves as a spacious gallery that houses giclée prints, original paintings, sculpture, handmade instruments and talisman-like objects that Green made years ago. His latest plan is to stage a grand-scale traveling exhibit in hopes of bringing Rumi’s “benign vision of Islam” to even more Americans.
“Rumi is a Muslim whose teaching has seeped into our consciousness,” says Green. “The average person on the street might say, ‘Oh yes, I know that line. I love Rumi.’”
To learn more, visit michaelgreenarts.com.