Speaking with Jerry Wennstrom
AN INTERVIEW BY RALPH WHITE
Oct 29th, 2004
In 1979, Jerry Wennstrom, a rising star in the New York art world, intentionally destroyed his paintings and gave away his possessions and money. He spent well over the next decade wandering, seeking, and listening, relying only on his own intuition and an unconditional trust in the Universe to provide for him. In consciously emptying himself of his identity, Jerry was led on an extraordinary spiritual journey and ultimately, a return to creating art. In his new book, The Inspired Heart: An Artist's Journey of Transformation, Jerry tells the story of his metaphorical death and rebirth as an artist and as a man. The Inspired Heart is a self-portrait of the life of a man guided by a desire to connect to the divine, and armed only with an unwavering faith in Grace to sustain him. In sharing the tale of his remarkable survival and his surrender to life experience, Jerry writes that he hopes "to bring the mystery of this survival back to the tribe as a story."
1) Jerry, you wrote in The Inspired Heart "art was the church of the 1970's." Tell us about the art world in New York in the 1970's. What was your role in it?
J-In many ways the art scene in the late 70’s was something fashionably safe to hang our hats on. Art, and more importantly, the life of the artist had achieved celebrity status by the late 70’s. Artists doing some of the most ridiculous things imaginable were being heralded as the wisdom keepers of this new church. Most of us had read about the poor, starving artists of the past who had not been recognized until after their death. Somehow, there seemed to be an unconscious need to collectively repent the oversight. By the late 70s’ artists could do no wrong! They were no longer the fringy characters living quietly in the back alleys. Mainstream culture had discovered the back ally. It was Soho - the high-end hangout and place to be and be seen.
Art has always held some element of the sacred so there was some legitimate reason for mainstream culture to eventually recognize this area of possibility—late though it may have been. The essential inner power of any true movement is illusive and will vanish the moment it becomes recognizable as a form in the world. The source of inspired breakthrough will always offer up its gems in the lowlands of the unconscious where few of us are willing to go. It is the loneliness and danger of the landscape that keeps most of us at bay. Like the queen-muse wandering incognito in a bad neighborhood, she goes where no clever strategy and ulterior motive might recognize her and seek to exploit her glory. There, where there is danger, she seeks only authentic relationship and ruthlessly dismisses any impersonations. Most of us however, hope to meet up with her at the front of the bandwagon in the safety of the well-attended party on the hill.
As far as my own role in all of this goes… I certainly had a longing to join the party. However, this possibility never felt real to me. Instead I trusted the beautiful and terrifying spirit of the time that I intuited was beckoning us forward into some new, unimaginable expression in the void. This is what I gave myself to.
2) Most people cannot imagine the idea of intentionally destroying works of art that had taken so much personal time and energy to create. Why did you feel destroying your art was necessary?
J-Einstein says, “ Matter never dies, it changes form.” If, as I suspected, art was beckoning us forward in the direction of some greater formless experience, then the “matter” and attachment to the objects of creation would only change form and offer up something unexpected and more alive. This is what the experience of destroying the art did for me. There is no question that the act of destroying my art and giving everything I owned away involved a huge risk. I was very aware that my initial impulse might have been misguided or even insane. Realizing this, it required every ounce of courage for me to trust the small seed of intuition and higher sense of beauty I perceived, enough to let it all go.
I sensed something important stirring within that needed my full attention. Fasting helped direct this attention inward, so I fasted for as long as it took for me to see what life was asking of me. I had no idea that the final expression of this focus would be to destroy my art and give everything I owned away. After a month-long fast, two choices became clear to me. I could keep doing what I was doing and continue to live as (what felt like) a fear-based idea of an artist, or I could give myself to some formless allurement that I can only describe as something that offered Life in full measure. Making this decision was not based on reason, so there was not the logical scenario guaranteeing some identifiable, beneficial outcome. With intuitive clarity I knew that these were my choices and I chose the formless allurement of life.
It is mostly in retrospect that the true gift of this choice has revealed itself to me. I find it a bit ironic and something of a cosmic joke, that, as an artist, I have been acknowledged more for having destroyed my art than I ever was for creating it! This paradox embodies the true spirit and deeper meaning of the word “sacrifice,” which means, “to make sacred.” We lay our dreams and precious attachments on the altar, with a willingness to let them go forever, and the whole of our beloved creation is sanctified and returned to us in ways we never would have imagined.
3) In having no possessions, your story seems to indicate that you were actually able to be more generous with those around you. Why do you think this is?
J- Giving up possessions certainly set the conditions for acts of immediate, uncalculated generosity. Unconditional trust requires that we remain completely present and keenly aware of the needs of the moment - we can’t afford to do otherwise when we know our very life depends upon it! When we have nothing more to lose, the ego has the potential of stepping out of the way and allowing the needs and suffering of others to come into the light for a compassionate response. We also develop some long-forgotten sensibility of how to manifest what is truly ours. We learn to metaphorically “paint” what we need on the cave wall and then go out and catch the beast. There is an efficiency that comes into play when we no longer depend upon the accumulation of things to make us feel safe. We come to realize that we need much less than we originally thought and the emptiness we once feared becomes our greatest asset.
4) How did you survive during this time, often without money and not knowing if you were going to eat on any particular day? Could you please describe to us the nature of your faith that enabled you to live like you did?
J- I survived by doing my best not to interfere, by trusting unconditionally and by accepting every experience that came to me as if it had been dealt by the hand of God. I could never have continued this strange and lonely journey if I had not seen how well this level of trust carried my life. The simple fact is, as long as I did not act on my fears life continued to unfold naturally, in the most miraculous of ways. If it had not, some essential part of my humanity would not have survived. If I had given into my fear and given up when things became difficult, my journey would have been devoid of any real substance or integrity.
5) You spent a great deal of time after your departure from the art scene fasting, in celibacy, and in silence. What did you learn from these sacrifices? And how did you satisfy your need to express yourself during this time?
J-At some level I feel I did not choose fasting, celibacy and silence — they chose me. They were unexpected teachers and taught me things I never could have learned in any other way and I learned something different from each of them.
Fasting taught me how to find nourishment in an inspired moment and to trust and act on my intuition. It taught me the importance of right timing in relation to these actions. It taught me about places and moments of real power that nurture the soul, which then nurtures the body. There is nothing more insistent than hunger and the primal instinct of the mind bent on survival to set one off in the direction of the ”barn, so fasting taught me the fierce discipline of trust under any circumstances.
Celibacy taught me how to redirect my sexual energies and how to hold and become my own feminine and not project it onto every illusory attraction that promised comfort and fulfillment. It taught me to easily remain present with others, especially women, and to enter into the heart of communication without an agenda or the interference and confusion of personal desire.
To answer your question on how I satisfied my need to express myself; I would have to say that my ideas of how one personally expresses oneself did not hold up in the face of the demands of some larger expression. Like many of us, I feared the void and believed expression needed the channel of a literal form, perceivable by our 5 senses. I learned by facing my fears that this was not true and that the soul will always find a way to express itself. What I learned in a seemingly expressionless void was how to allow expression to come through in unexpected ways on its own terms. Sometimes it would be a glance; sometimes a word, and sometimes it would be a purely energetic experience - alone or in the presence of another person. Joseph Campbell writes in his book, The Inner reaches of Outer Space that the most sublime expression of art is formless and it leaves us in a state of awe. The mystics know about this level of expression. What I learned is that the universe will express itself with or without our willing participation or our ideas of how it should be done. The beauty of the human experience is to become a willing and grateful participant in the flow of inspired communication. Sometimes the flow of communication takes literal form and is perceived as art and sometimes it does not. An inspired moment is a reality in and of itself.
6) How was returning to sexuality after 15 years of celibacy? That must have been a powerful process. Are sexuality and creativity tied together in your world?
J- After 13 years of celibacy I became quite comfortable with the discipline and had finally accepted it as a way of life. However, it was exactly at this point that things changed for me, and I became involved in a kind of tantric exploration of sexual energies. This period lasted for about 4 years before I married at age 45. At the time I was following my intuition and knew nothing about the tantric experience. As a reliable guidepost, fear often led the way. I walked into the areas of my life that I feared the most. After becoming hugely invested in the disciplined life of celibacy for so many years, sexuality was one of those areas. It was sheer terror for me to return to the exploration of sexuality, fearing I would lose my way. While remaining just outside of full sexual expression, I learned how to hold the powerful energies of sexuality. This allowed for a veritable “Garden of Eden” experience to occur with another human being without “the fall.” And here-in lies another paradox. The “sexiest” time of my life was the time I spent exploring unfulfilled tantric sexuality!
7) You built a 40-foot stupa with your own hands on your property in Washington. (With virtually no background in carpentry!) Could you describe for us the importance of having sacred space in the desire to live a spiritual life?
J-Most lives have such an excess of packaging. It is important to set aside a special place where we honor the real substance of our lives and reverently express our holy longing. It is clear to me after building the tower, that the creation of a special place, even if it is a simple altar, pleases the gods and goddesses. When I built the tower, as you said, I was not a carpenter and had no idea what I was doing. However, the process of building the tower was pure magic for me. I worked long 15-hour days all summer that year and I was in bliss most of that time. Friends would arrive and help or offer the perfect advice. I would find what I needed, just as I needed it, at the local recycle. Everything fell into place so beautifully. And when the tower was complete, nine Tibetan monks literally happened along and blessed the tower with a 45-minute ritual. It was the monks who first called the tower the “Flaming Stupa.” Laura Chester followed suit in a chapter about the tower in her book “Holy Personal.” The name just stuck after that. It is interesting to me that my tower has gotten the attention that it has, since I did not know how to build when I started. I mentioned this fact to a friend who is an accomplished finish carpenter and he said, “If you knew you what you were doing you never have built anything that exotic!”
8) Earlier in your life, your artistic medium was paint. Your art now is more interactive, three-dimensional, and mechanical. How does this art more reflect your current life with Grace than the art you destroyed years back before your metaphorical death?
J-I guess you might say that the new art comes from a more conscious grace. There is a saying, “Fools and children are divinely guided and protected.” Like the fool, I guess my path as an artist was divinely guided in some mysterious way, for which I am most grateful. This is in spite of my willful attempt to control what I thought I was doing as a young artist. Fool’s guidance brought me to the proper edge where I could confront the possibility of a leap into the void. This confrontation offered me the opportunity to choose conscious Being over mindless doing.
I feel the new art is more an effortless expression of the fullness of this Being. Now, all of the aspects of life are given equal consideration, equal importance, and there is a mystery that seems to come through the work that is larger than my control. This mystery never fails to surprise me.
9) The materials you use to create these days are found objects or objects that find you. You have used objects you have come upon at garbage dumps, in nature, or people's discarded items for your interactive art pieces. How does the seemingly serendipitous way you come across materials for your art affect your relation to your artwork?
J-Sometimes I feel as if the art pieces have a way of their own and know what they need better than I do. Someone will give me something or I will find a piece at the recycle yard and it will fall perfectly into place on the art piece that I happen to be working on at the time. One naturally feels blessed when this happens. The feeling is one of humble gratitude for the presence of a conscious universe. I am sure many artists have this experience when they are deeply involved in the creative process. It is as if, for just a moment, one becomes a willing participant in the conscious expansion of the “Big Bang.” To feel we are doing our part to allow the mystery a say in what we do, brings about great joy and this joy translates to others.
10) There is a shamanic quality to the art you are creating. Do you think these pieces carry any magic with them?
J-It is difficult to say exactly where the magic resides, but there is certainly a kind of magic that is available in any creative process. Sometimes a work of art will carry with it something of the eternal. This touch of the eternal is what we call “great art” and we do so mostly without really knowing why.
There may be something unconsciously shamanic about my art as you suggest – others have said this. The shaman has the ability to bring spirit into matter for the benefit of the individual, the tribe and the collective whole. This is not unlike the role of the artist, however, it is not as complete an experience for the artist as it is for the shaman. Generally speaking, the artist is someone who, rattling around the unconscious, occasionally stumbles upon the prized “philosophers stone.” It is a rare event for an individual to be thrown into the full blast of a shamanistic death experience and to come out of it fully awakened and able to translate the experience to others. There are probably many more half-shamans walking the streets these days, talking to themselves or conversing with spirits of a questionable origin. The land of the shaman is not as easy to inhabit as some would like us to believe.
11) Your story is the journey of one man's striving towards what you refer to as 'wholeness.' Could you please describe your concept of 'wholeness?' What do you think are the greatest obstacles in modern life to achieving wholeness?
J-Wholeness is the fullness of possibility available to all of us now, like
never before. I would say wholeness is a powerful force coming through our
collective consciousness and it is raising havoc with our small ideas of our relationships, our overall reality, and ourselves, as we know it!
The parents of the baby boomers had the luxury of living in a state of half-ness, where each partner in the relationship was able to happily occupy half of their whole story. Something was acceptably complete in what they held as a couple. The generations that followed have not been able to do this - even when, for sentimental reasons, they try. It is really a much deeper issue involving our polar opposites and where we choose to set up camp in relation to these dueling aspects of ourselves. Jung talks extensively about the polls involving the masculine and feminine aspects of our selves. The problem begins when we project the undeveloped aspect of our nature onto another person. We often do this when we fall in love by
falling in love with is our own reflection -- exactly as we have projected it!
Seven years later we feel betrayed by the beloved's inability to hold or live up
to the projection. We may actually come to resent the person for the mysterious power they have over us-a power we had no business giving away in
the first place!
In a particular kind of way, consciousness is demanding more of us now. I personally believe this is why there is such a high rate of divorce and why there is general discontent for anyone trying to live a partial life. When we least expect it, the undeveloped parts of ourselves crash the gates like unruly children refusing to be ignored.
We have an opportunity like never before, to transform first ourselves and then our world, into something whole and fully alive. There is some powerful new awareness coming through. It is hovering in place, available to anyone open and willing to do the necessary work required of our time.
12) So if art was the church of the 1970's, what do you think is the church of our present decade?
J-Radical departure from the known and unknowing trust and openness to the mystery is the real “church!” The prayer required of this church is a fierce and courageous discipline and the ability to hold the tension of the polarities we are experiencing in our world. To accomplish this we must first be willing to turn and look at the shadow of our own creation and give this area of the psyche the conscious attention it needs. The false church is best represented by the projection of everything evil outward onto others. The most flagrant symptom of this disease is fundamentalism in all of its forms and our refusal to take responsibility for our part in what we see going on in the world around us.
Jerry Wennstrom is the author of “The Inspired Heart: An Artist’s Journey of Transformation”; further information on his life and art can be found at his web sitewww.handsofalchemy.com, as well as in the Parabola video “In The Hands of Alchemy: The Life and Art of Jerry Wennstrom" http://www.parabola.org/