Tiny Devotions

Moments in the abstract with Kristyan Stjerne.

Light / Dark

Roosters crow. Prayer calls echo in the distance. Low tide rumbles against the cliffs. Uluwatu is waking up. 

In a small wooden joglo overlooking the ocean, Kristyan Stjerne levitates above his canvas, supported only by a homemade scaffolding that allows him to hover over the center of the 8-by-6-foot canvas in his home studio.

Incense lingers in the air. Sitar and tabla music on the speakers. Idols of various faiths. Vishnu and Buddha. Christ and the Dalai Lama. Jars of paint everywhere, and one big bucket of black. Various abstract paintings lean against the walls amid doodles, notebooks, paint-splattered photos, and spools of unstretched canvas. He dips a brush into a jar of the orange natural pigment, leans in close to the blackened canvas, and places a single dot. Then another. Then another. Again and again. 

The approach appears both elegant and agonizing. Legs crossed on the makeshift scaffold of two-by-fours. His back folded forward, exposing ribs against a T-shirt. Slow, measured breaths. 

“By sitting in full lotus,” he explains, “I’m able to slow the circulation to the lower half of my body, so all the blood and energy flows to the vital regions of my core.. The body then becomes the instrument for energy to flow through my hands.”  

Considering the black expanse of canvas he intends to cover, matched to the pace of each dot, his progress seems painfully slow. For Stjerne, however, that’s part of the art.

“If I take my time,” he says, “then the works become timeless. That’s why these things take me so long, and why people respond to them.”

A painting like this one will take him three to four months, perched daily over the canvas in sessions of four to six hours. Not counting the dots within other dots, no two dots will ever touch. 

“If they do,” he explains, “that’s when I know it’s time to stop. It means I’m not being completely present.”

And so he stops. He paints over the mistake—or sometimes starts over entirely—and resets himself. He puts the kettle on the stove, then walks across the short grass lawn to the edge of the cliff and checks the surf. 

Dreamtime, 18 x 29 inches.

“That’s the whole dance of it,” says Stjerne. “To stay completely focused, completely in the present moment for each and every drop of paint. If I can accomplish that, people seem to have a physical reaction to the painting.”

He’s careful with his words. Careful not to drift too far into speaking about the “energy” imbued in each drop, the “tiny prayer” and every dollop of paint. Because abstract art is best left unexplained. And because, just look at him. Those long dreads, Rasputin beard, and gaunt yogi frame. People jump to conclusions. People judge. 

And that’s fine, too. Growing up in Southern California, Stjerne always felt like an outsider. He wasn’t into the things all the other kids were into. 

“I struggled in school,” he says, referencing an undiagnosed attention deficit disorder that surely informs his current work. “But I’ve just tried to stay true to what I felt was my authentic self. That’s why I’ve always connected with surfers, artists, and yogis.”

The waves out front are a constant. Here on Bali’s Bukit Peninsula, removed from the bulk of the bustling island, he maintains a small perimeter. Surfing out front and dots at home. Friends and neighbors. Not much reason to engage with Bali’s burgeoning traffic situation. 

Unhurried, Stjerne gazes for a while at the reef below, then returns to his house.

While Yoga may be his medicine of choice, hollow Indonesian surf also helps keep Stjerne centered. Photograph by Gerhardt Engelbrecht.

He brews tea, making each step of the process as purposeful and intentional as the dots on the canvas. A time out. A moment of presence. Then he sits and stretches, taking in the morning’s progress.

One painting in the studio stands apart from the others. A haunting, black shadow across unfinished white. Where most of his work is brilliant in lizard-skin galaxies, this one is stark and atonal. “That’s my art teacher,” says Stjerne. 

Twenty years ago, Stjerne received a full scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute, where he focused on ceramics. Part of his studies involved accompanying his instructor to Mexico to teach art for a year. There, he walked into his teacher’s house one day to find him upside down, balancing on his shoulders. This was before yoga had made an impact in the West. Stjerne had never even heard the word, but seeing his teacher practicing made him curious.

“I got myself into that same shoulder stand posture,” he recalls, “and the energy sent crazy shakes through my entire body. I was instantly hooked.”

Over the next few years, he studied under various masters, devoting himself entirely to his practice. “People definitely thought I was a freak,” he says, “but for me it wasn’t even a choice. Yoga is my medicine.”

At the urging of a teacher, Stjerne entered the Yoga World Championships. “It’s not my proudest moment,” he says, laughing lightly at the memory. “And it’s hard to even explain or justify the event without understanding the full history. But essentially, it’s an expression of how far the human body can go.”

That year, Stjerne finished first in California and seventh in the world. For competitive yoga. And then, feeling pressure to commoditize his efforts, he opened his own yoga studio in south San Diego. What had once been his medicine quickly became his job. The pressures of playing therapist and philosopher to his growing flock of students drove Stjerne to drink. He found himself secretly chugging beers in the back room between classes to cope with his new pressures and insecurities.

“I’ve always seen yoga as a bridge,” he says. “A path from one place to another, but never a destination. And as I was there numbing all my darkness, I could hear art calling out to me, like a baby needing attention. It was like God was saying, ‘I have something for you, but first you need to let go of what you’re holding on to.”

The move to Bali was just that. He sold his yoga studio, invested in surfboards, and set off on an open-ended surf trip. Like so many other international wanderers who visit Bali and never leave, Stjerne found himself at home on the island. An outsider among outsiders. He rented a simple shack near the water and divided his time between surfing and art.

Not long after, his mom called with heartbreaking news. The day he’d flown to Bali, she said, his art teacher had jumped off the Coronado Bridge. 

“This painting is of him right before he jumped,” says Stjerne. “He found his wings on the way down.”

Somewhere in the background, the dots had been there all along. He’d splattered paint one time, not paying attention, and was intrigued by their abstract simplicity. Circles and dots had made their way into his earlier work years before. But in Bali, they became an obsession. He’d disappear for weeks, pouring himself drop by drop and dot by dot into the canvases. 

“There’s a beautiful energy that radiates from his work that cannot be ignored,” says Nico Zeh, curator and founder at the MADE Gallery in Berlin, who was visiting Bali when he found Stjerne’s work and offered to represent the artist. “He has the ability to be completely in the moment, so the result becomes a natural extension of that. There’s no approach. He just lets it happen so that others can receive the feedback and then multiply the emotion.” 

Things progressed quickly for Stjerne. Commissions stacked up. He couldn’t work fast enough. He didn’t want to. Heeding the lessons of his previous success, Stjerne stuck to his program of focusing on the medicine of his art rather than the business. Dot by dot. And when he can focus no more, he goes surfing. The waves in Bali are good more often than not. The water is warm. The sun is shining. For Stjerne, there’s little separation between his painting, his yoga, and his surfing. It all forms a singular meditation upon which his life is built. Being present. There’s a yoga studio and vegan restaurant in the complex where he lives. There’s barely any reason to leave, except for the airport. 

He takes trips to Berlin for art, trips to Sri Lanka for yoga, and trips to outer islands for waves. Travel breaks up the singularity and allows for inspiration. At these times, his art takes on a playful, humorous, self-deprecating nature where he just allows his mind and hands to roam free. Then back to the cliff, back to the dots.

Stjerne, in a meditative state. Photograph by Nate Lawrence.

A staircase leads down the side of the cliff, giving Stjerne backdoor access to the peak at Uluwatu. He rides tiny boards, 3’10” to 4’10″—built to his specs by California shaper Dan Mann. 

“I just want the least amount of board in the biggest surf possible,” says Stjerne. “I end up missing some good waves or going over the falls when there’s a lot of water moving around, but when it all lines up it’s like defying gravity. There’s no better feeling in the world.”

At the base of the cliffs, another surfer passes him and casts a sidelong judgmental sneer, but Stjerne is far beyond absorbing such grade-school pettiness. He is who he is. Other Bali expats jokingly call him Captain Goodvibes, and Stjerne greets the humor with unwavering positivity. 

He raises a hand and a warm smile to the passing surfer, grabs his board, and slides out over the reef. The current sweeps him up as it wraps through the channel along the cliff, and he follows its pull out to the lineup.

[Editor’s Note: To read “Regarding the Surfer-Artist Debate,” fine artist Ashley Bickerton’s take on Stjerne’s work, click here.]