It all started with a lump of clay. While Chris Moench hasn’t always been a professional potter, art has always been a strong force in his life and now occupies him as a full-time career. Moench has made a name for himself with his handcrafted Axis of Hope Prayer Wheels. The ornate pieces of art act as storytelling devices, Moench said. For many people, a wheel can bring them peace, harmony, and healing. Moench often creates his Axis of Hope Prayer Wheels for weddings, funerals, or for institutions like hospitals and law firms. In addition, while prayer wheels are an ancient Buddhist concept, Moench said he has made his wheels for churches and temples of all sorts of denominations.
Moench is one of more than 40 local artists on the roster for the 23rd Whatcom Artist Studio Tour, set for Oct. 7–8 and 14–15.
With a sculptor, painter and art professor as an aunt and a poet for a mother, there was no shortage of artistic encouragement for Moench as a child. After growing up exploring the wilderness of Colorado, he moved to the San Juan Islands and has been a Pacific Northwest resident ever since. Since pottery didn’t always pay the bills, Moench has been a chimney sweep, hay farmer, news printer and legal assistant. “One of the tricks to making a living as an artist is to make something people want to pay for, that also satisfies you,” he said. However, Moench began his professional pottery career creating more utilitarian pieces before he began making his prayer wheels.
After the 1999 gas pipeline explosion in Whatcom Falls Creek that killed two young boys and a teenager, Moench was struck with intense grief. He created his first prayer wheel as a symbol of the tragedy. “The event seemed like a pretty obvious metaphor for our interaction with nature,” Moench said. The young boys were simply enjoying time in the natural beauty of the park, yet their lives were taken by the invisible leaked gas that hid beneath the surface. Moench’s resulting sculpture was three-foot-tall cylinder decorated with the story of the disaster. The huge piece resides in the Big Rock Garden Park as a memorial.
Since his first wheel, Moench said he has made close to 1,000 of them. He continues to create prayer wheels for all sorts of causes, often collaborating with customers to create the most unique designs. “Keeping a dialog between the customer and myself brings it away from me. It is a good way to separate my ego from the work,” Moench said. Depending on the size of the wheel and detail of the surface decoration, pieces can take from two weeks to a year to complete, he said. In 2008, he had the opportunity to present an original piece as a gift to the Dalai Lama at the Seeds of Compassion gathering in Seattle. “It was just a brief couple minutes, but I’ll never forget it. It was a real honor to meet such a humble man.”
Moench is also involved in the community as a board member of the Whatcom Land Trust and in 1995 helped start the Whatcom Artist Studio Tour to connect local artists. The tour offers participants a look into local artists’ workspaces for demonstrations, gallery tours, and refreshments. The event has drawn about 400 curious visitors in the past, Moench said.