A Conversation With... Jerry Wennstrom
Artist & Author
Interviewed by Marié Sakai, ATH Co-Editor of Arts & Art Therapy
Artist & Author
Marié: What was it that made you destroy your artwork, give up all your possessions and surrender/trust the universe? Was it a particular moment, a voice within that said "let go," or a quote - something from the past that influenced you to make such a bold sacrifice?
Jerry: There were many whispers along the way pointing to this metaphoric leap into what I call the “luminous void.” I was extremely driven as a young artist and had produced an enormous body of work by the time I was 29. It was at this point that I began to feel art, as I had known it, had taken me as far as it possibly could. Ramakrishna says, "When you take a boat across the river, you don't take it with you once you've reached the other side." Painting in the studio served that leg of the journey and became too small a vehicle to carry the larger creation I sensed was moving my life forward. With the discomfort of this partially conscious realization stirring, I knew I needed to give my full attention to the process I found myself in. Fasting helped direct this attention, so I fasted for as long as it took for me to see and get clear on what I needed to do. 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 remain in the safety of the acceptable form, which was based on the belief system of the current conventional art world, or I could give myself to the formless allurement I sensed would transform my life.
Making this decision was not based on reason, so there was not the rational scenario guaranteeing some identifiable, beneficial outcome. It was an intuitive decision based on the feeling that there was some greater, creative possibility coming into form. I knew if I were to stay true to the deeper creative impulse guiding my life, then the only thing to do was to find courage enough to let go of the established artistic identity and give myself to the formless allurement drawing me forth into the unknown.
It is mostly in retrospect that the true gift of that choice has revealed itself to me. My idealistic dream as a budding young artist was to touch the world with my art in some significant way. I find it a bit ironic and something of a cosmic joke that my identity as an artist has been established more in destroying my art than by creating it!
The paradox of this letting everything go and the mystery of its’ return express the deeper meaning of the word 'sacrifice.' It is a word that transliterated means 'to make sacred.' When we can lay our hopes, dreams and precious attachments on the altar with a willingness to let them go forever, then the whole of our creation will be sanctified and returned to us in ways we never would have imagined!
Marié: Why was it important to detach yourself from the worldly goods/materialism? And what did you learn in your journey of facing death, surrendering/sacrificing and detaching from the materialistic world?
Jerry: When we turn away from the demands of the world, which includes our bodies, we discover that Spirit has been tracking all along and actually knows the way better than we do. I needed to face the personal and collective fear that is the foundation of much of our material creation and find a more courageous way to be on the planet. Perhaps our primary fear has to do with what we think it means to “survive.” Letting go of all survival strategies and worldly concerns was a way of facing that fear head-on. I discovered that most of what I thought I had been doing to sensibly meet the demands of my material existence (which included my art) was not much more than self-focused busy-work. If there is a larger intelligence guiding our lives and a greater purpose awaiting our participation, then I needed to risk all that I thought of as my reality and open to that possibility.
I don’t think this is a landscape we can wander through half-heartedly. It has to be “all or nothing” for it to become a living, sustainable reality. The back-up plan we set in place out of fear and doubt becomes the weak point where the creation fails. With nothing to fall back on, I stepped into the paradox of this reality and it held -- even in spite of the terror and doubt that initially came up in taking that step.
What I learned most from the experience was to unconditionally trust that it would carry my life in the most magical and efficient way possible. I learned that it was much better informed and equipped than I could ever have been with my limited ability to perceive and envision the unfolding of a larger personal mythos. Continually surrendering into the ever-deepening mystery of this creative source nourished and developed my life at all levels. A co-creative relationship with this knowing/unknown has become a way of life for me and I continue to be awed by the surprising turns creation takes.
Marié: I really love your Box Series. I love how they open up, how they are spooky and brilliantly whimsical at the same time, and most of all how from the viewer's standpoint, they seem as if they are indeed coffins holding Death. But then all of a sudden, a being pops out of these 'coffins' and new life emerges as if we have witnessed a miraculous moment.
You speak of the concept of death, rebirth (perhaps even resurrection?) and dreams as inspirations for this box series, but I also feel a sense of world-art shining through your work. Were there any particular art influences, Eastern philosophies, or even cultural aesthetics/customs/rituals that influenced these pieces of yours?
Jerry: Everything and everyone I have ever loved has influenced and informed my art. It happens more by osmosis than by design. Of course I love African and multicultural primitive art in general. What comes through the innocent heart in touch with the source will always reflect the deeper mysteries. These are the creations that move and influence me the most.
I don’t consider myself a primitive artist however. I am much too steeped in American pop culture, which also informs my work to some degree. It takes great determination and discipline for me to access the innocence and mystery of the primitive spirit. Perhaps it’s the same discipline required in living the way I have. In a world screaming with distractions, it’s all about listening deeply and seeking inspiration in the wild places within. Some of us are better at it than others but it is a difficult task for anyone in the post-modern world.
Marié: What do these beings (those in the Box Series) represent to you and how have each of these pieces impacted or not impacted your life? Have they healed your personal fears of death and attachment? Is it important to you that your artwork is interactive? And if so, why is that?
Jerry: Essentially my art addresses the metaphoric death experience more than it does literal death. It is the death of the ego, which brings about the birth of a truer identity. Fully traversing the territory of metaphoric death, once we have been thrown into it, is the most important personal work any of us can do.
It is only from the vantage point of retrospect that I see the deeper meaning that has come through the interactive box series. The focus of my journey both as an artist and as someone seeking greater understanding has been to fully traverse the above-mentioned metaphoric death experience by facing my fears. I suppose the largest of those fears was letting go of my identity as an artist by destroying my work. The box series has come to represent that journey. As you stated, they are spooky and coffin-like in appearance, often invoking the immediate response of fear for some people. They stand from 6 to 10 feet high and are often wider at the top than at the bottom. They are carved from cedar and include electric motors, mechanical devices and other found and altered objects. The metals I use are mostly brass and copper. All of the boxes have inner chambers, which are accessed through external doors, which are often figures that open out. Inside, most of the art pieces are carved cedar masks or full size figures as well.
Their coffin-like presence offers the viewer a visceral encounter with images of death. If one stays present with the encounter and interacts with a piece they receive gifts and surprises, which are dispensed through secret compartments. Some of the gifts are literal, some symbolic. Several of the art pieces startle the viewer with an element of surprise, shocking them, perhaps into wakefulness while others are whimsically entertaining.
I am continually surprised and awed by what comes through my creations. I feel my art now comes more from the celebratory end-place of where my journey has led me, and there seems to be more of a collective expression coming through the work than a personal one at this point. But who knows?
Marié: What would you like to impart to artists who are struggling with the concept of materialism and society's demands vs. following their heart? What would you like to say to artists, young or old, who are trying to come to terms with the concept of pain, death, and fear? And how do you think that your art has impacted people/healed people/given people the ability to believe and dream again?
Jerry: First, I must say, that art is no less than a powerful expression that changes the world! Equating art with material success misses the mark completely. The market place does not set the standard and the spirit of the day will always come through in unexpected ways. With the flick of the wrist the muse, in her ability to go underground, will continually surprise the surface reality of the market place. She remains available where she always has - in the depths and out of sight of surface reality. This is the place artists need to inhabit if they are to stay grounded in the reality of a truly creative life.
To answer your question about pain, death and fear, I would say Trust and walk fearlessly right down the middle of all of it and find the gift inherent in the experience. There is nothing else to be done with the challenges that we must all face in life – including the experience of pain, death and fear. We are all in the best seat in the house and every experience we are faced with is uniquely designed to open us to greater possibility. To be a willing participant in the challenges we are given, lessens the difficulty and helps us see and appreciate the gift.
Marié: So with all of these pieces that you have created, experiences that have led you to different ideas and concepts about the world and art, what is the next step on your spiritual journey in regards to life and artwork - or anything else you would like to share?
Jerry: That’s a big question and the simple answer is, I don’t really know what the next step on my journey is. I remain in awe at the ways in which my life continues to unfold and what comes next usually surprises me. The most recent surprising and slightly daunting new piece to the story is, a feature film is being made about my life and art by Danish film director Hans Fabian Wullenweber. Fabian and I are creating the treatment for the film now, and there are some exciting people from the film industry interested in the production end of the project.
In all humility, I feel I am at the celebratory phase of the journey. The territory I have bushwhacked and established for myself - the deeper mythos - if you will, seems to have found a resonance in a world going through a transformational shift of its’ own. By coming to know the nature of my own personal transformation and by actually befriending the beast, it is clear that the larger, collective transformation we are experiencing requires the same attention. At this point, my life is given in the service of this larger shift.
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About Jerry Wennstrom
Jerry & Marilyn
Artist, author Jerry Wennstrom was born in New York on January 13, 1950. He attended Rockland Community College and the State University of New Paltz. After producing a large body of work, at age 29 he set out to discover the rock-bottom truth of his life. For years he questioned the limits of his creative life as a studio painter. After destroying all of his art and giving away everything he owned, Jerry began a life of unconditional trust, allowing life to provide all that was needed. He lived this way for 15 years. In 1998 he moved to Washington State, where he eventually married Marilyn Strong and produced a large new body of art. Marilyn and Jerry’s charming Whidbey Island home is now filled with his unique interactive sculptures and paintings. Jerry also built a 40-foot meditation tower on his property, which is featured along with his story in a book by Laura Chester called Holy Personal.
Jerry Wennstrom has presented at the Birmingham Art Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, the EMP (Experience Music Project), Glen Arbor Art Association, the Old Firehouse Art Center, Other Side Arts, Pacifica Graduate Institute, UCS-NAROPA (Wisdom University), the Vancouver Public Library, Western New Mexico University, California Institute of the Arts and NYU. He has also done over 50 radio, TV and magazine interviews and art features.