In the Hands of Alchemy
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Hoard Magazine
Interview by Hoard Magazine staff
June, 2005
See this interview on the Hoard Magazine Web site

Hoard Magazine: Describe your earliest body of work, the work you destroyed. What was your process for creating in the past? What was the aim of your work back then?
Jerry: My earlier body of work consisted mostly of paintings. In terms of my process in creating the large body of earlier work, I would begin by saying that if I could have painted my way to heaven I would have done it because I tried hard enough. What I see in retrospect is how, as a young artist, I was intuiting my way towards wholeness. By wholeness I mean that quantum leap of consciousness that comes as an epiphany and brings together all of the disparate parts of our psyche in some meaningful way that we were not able to do through effort and will alone. We might also call this epiphany Inspiration. I believe it is the nature of reality to guide our lives in the direction of wholeness. Many of us are off and running in other directions -- too busy to feel the gravitational pull of this possibility. The paintings I had done, prior to destroying the art, were grappling with the limits and tensions of duality and attempting to bring them together into some meaningful whole.

There was one particular group of paintings that were 1-foot by 6-foot panels, painted with life size images on both sides. There were 80 of these paintings and I was calling them "Angels and Demons" -- painting one on each side of a panel. Some of these paintings had 2 figures merging on a single side. The paintings were hung in groups of 10 or more, each by a single cord. Hung in this way, they would slowly turn and appear to relate to each other as spirits in passing. I was also doing large paintings that explored and expressed aspects of duality - some explored birth and death, light and dark, male and female, good and evil, etc. In grappling with duality as a young painter, I was wandering and intuiting my way towards a greater understanding of wholeness. In the beginning I was only semi-aware of the full impact this wandering would ultimately have on my life. I trusted some abstract allurement, a sense of beauty and joy, and did not know exactly where it would lead.

I would also paint into my fears or perceived limitations. Through this creative process I would discover new levels of understanding and have liberating new insights. For example, I did paintings on insanity, suicide, the holocaust, sexuality and other areas of the personal and collective psyche I feared or did not understand. I also read all of the personal stories I could find by people who were in the concentration camps during World War II. This, too, was an attempt to find deeper meaning in perceived limitation and in the dualistic nature of the human psyche. What I found in the books I read, were amazingly beautiful stories coming out of the worst possible human conditions. This paradox alone hinted at some inspired possibility inherent in the dualistic nature of reality at its worst. The stories spoke to an experience beyond good and evil and life and death. Even in the stark naked reality of the death camps, when all seemed lost, the possibility of some poetic salvationcame through in many of the stories I read. I found great liberation in knowing the human experience was not limited or determined by external circumstances. Instead, it was determined by unconditional trust and the miraculous gift of a timely, perceptual shift.This perceptual shift would often save a person’s life.It became clear to me that I needed to embrace this paradox within myself in order to access the inspired life I intuited was possible. After fasting for a month and getting very clear what courageous commitment was required of me, I destroyed my large body of art, gave everything I owned away and became the “nothing” that terrified and inspired me.

Hoard Magazine: Describe your current body of work. What is your aim now?
Jerry: I would describe my current body of art as celebratory -- the end game of the metaphorical death experience I jumped into. Now I feel quite free of art as a process, a refuge or an identity. I needed to get to the place where it did not matter whether I did art or not. Many years later, after letting go of my identity as an artist and finding that place, I could then begin doing art again.

In retrospect, I see that my current sculptures express something essential about duality and the paradox of life and death that I spent a good part of my creative life exploring. So often what we think of as "death" can, in reality, offer the gift of life in full measure. And the thing we willfully chase after, believing it will give us life, may actually lead to the death of our original dream. The coffin-like boxes that I am creating now are perceived by some as spooky or death-like, yet they offer gifts and are whimsical, playful and full of life. Without a plan on my part, duality seems to have found some resolve in my current work. I am now able to hold the paradox with more unknowing, allowing it to find its own expression. I was much more willing, as an ego, to take credit for what came through my earlier work. I cannot do that now, and I find this detachment from any inspired moment I experience a great relief. My aim is to stay attentively detached and allow the spirit of the journey to carry my art and my life exactly where it needs to go.

Hoard Magazine: When do you know it's time to create a new work of art? Describe what your experience of inspiration is like.
Jerry: I am usually drawn into a new art project for one of two reasons. Either I stumble upon some interesting object or experience and get excited about what I might do with what is right in front of me -- or, like the recent beginning of my latest art piece called The Sacred Marriage, I find a lull in the activities of my external life and feel it is time to go inward and focus on something creative.

Hoard Magazine: Tell me what the difference is between the artist and the shaman. Then tell me what they have in common.
Jerry: I was recently asked this same question in another interview so I am probably going to repeat myself a bit, here. 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 meets up with his essential spirit and is inspired. "Inspired" literally means-to be overtaken by spirit. However, 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, peddling their wares and 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.

Hoard Magazine: Where did you grow up? When was the last time your were there?
Jerry: I grew up in the hill section of Spring Valley, New York. It was a poor, mostly black neighborhood. I lived there until I was about 16. The area was known as "Boot Hill." My brother recently told me he was reading a book by some famous football player who tells of his experience being mugged while buying drugs on Boot Hill. When we were young my brother and I were the only white kids in a neighborhood gang that we called "The Boot Hill Boys." I always thought it was the kids in the neighborhood who named that downtrodden area of town, Boot Hill— although I never knew for sure.

A few years ago my wife Marilyn and I were presenting our film at NYU as part of Parabola's Cinema of the Spirit Film Festival. With time off we decided to go for a drive out of Manhattan and into the old neighborhood. I wanted to show her where I grew up. The area had gotten much worse than I remember. You take your life in your hands driving around Boot Hill now.

Hoard Magazine: Did you take a new name after experiencing your metaphorical death?
Jerry: No, I did not feel I was running the show and did not feel the need to change anything as literal as my name. What it was that was being renamed in my life was Everything! Being a willing participant in this radical renaming of my reality was as much as I could do. I do, however, have a sense of a larger identity as a result of this process. It is only in the last few years that this larger identity has begun to define itself in the world and reflect the particulars of my journey. In any case, Jerry is a name that keeps me humble. It’s like the name of a Brooklyn deli owner.

Hoard Magazine: Was there a pivotal life experience that occurred before you decided to destroy your first body of work and give away all your belongings? Did some specific event occur? Or, was this a decision that came from a moment of insight and clarity?
Jerry: There was no specific occurrence that led to the event, directly. The gods seem to whisper before they scream. You might say there were many whispers along the way leading up to that pivotal event for me. In some mysterious way the abstract allurement that was drawing me forth held the promise of a truer life. This sensibility was the impetus -- not reason. My decision to destroy the work did not involve any kind of definable experience or wise strategy. It made no sense at all and had no reference point in the world. Because of this, it was a very lonely business. I could not look to the world for support or understanding.

Sensing something important stirring in my interior life, I began fasting. After a month it became very clear to me that I could keep doing what I was doing, which would have been a decision based on fear -- or I could let it all go, which was the decision I felt unreasonably excited about. Letting it all go not only meant destroying my art but also giving away my money, celibacy and the decision to completely trust the universe to carry my life. The paradox of having made this decision is that as an artist I have touched the world more by destroying my art than I ever did by creating it! What I had to let go of was mysteriously made sacred and returned to me. The essence of this paradox speaks, poetically, to the deeper meaning of sacrifice. Sacrifice means to make sacred.

Hoard Magazine: You say you are guided and moved by unconditional trust in the universe. But, narrow it down just for the sake of one question, and list a few single human beings who have been influential in your life.
Jerry: It is only by seeing the results of real trust that we become grounded in the reality of our beliefs -- whatever they are. No one does anything for very long if they do not experience some kind of recognizable benefit from their involvement. There is a saying, “God speaks in a language that we can understand.” When our conversation with the mystery is alive and well, there are inevitable gifts that simply come with the territory.

There are saints from many religions, and some from no religion at all, who have influenced my journey. A few were Yogananda, Rama Krishna, Meher Baba, Christ, Buddha - artists too like Blake, Marcel Duchamp, Picasso and others. One must understand, however, that being inspired by the lives of others does not alleviate the inherent loneliness of the journey. Nor does it offer a complete road map showing us the way. Each of our journeys is particular to the lives we have lived and the requirements of any given moment. It only helps us to know that if some other human being found their way on the planet, then perhaps we can too.

Hoard Magazine: How do we evoke the muse?! Who is she? Where does she live? What does she look like?
Jerry: My muse looks more like a toothless bag-lady than some mysterious dark beauty. She lives out-back in the alley where no one cares to venture. When she appears she does so in a dissolve where the gross appearance of things fades and the given moment demands a different kind of attention. With her shopping cart full of the discarded items she deems precious, she reminds me that all matter is sacred. What shimmering object she hands me has poetic meaning and I accept it with unknowing and gratitude.

I might find an object on the street or someone might send me something in the mail and the simple object I hold might inspire an entire new art piece. Recently, I found a large 4 X 8 foot cedar sign at the recycle center here on Whidbey Island. Deeply carved in the face of the sign were the words, "Animal Clinic." With the sign lying face down I drew three six-foot figures, arranging them in the most efficient way to get the most use out of the large slab of cedar. I had cut out 2 of the figures and was cutting the third when the phone rang. It was my first love from 30 years ago! She had discovered and read my book and saw the Parabola documentary made about my art and life and decided to look me up after all of these years. I was amazed that she called and we had a lovely conversation. After I hung up the phone I finished cutting out the last figure and turned it over. Situated perfectly, the full length of the figure was the word "ANIMA." For anyone who doesn't know the meaning of anima, it is a Jungian term. It represents the projection by a man of his inner feminine onto a woman -- I had just spoken on the phone with my first projected anima! I created an entire art piece out of this small poetic event, incorporating the ANIMA figure and another of the cedar figures I cut out that day.

Hoard Magazine: Your works are created with found objects, are mechanical, and interactive. Tell me how some of the pieces interact with the viewer.
Jerry: I call one of the pieces, The Key to Heaven. It is something of a prayer machine made of carved cedar, brass, copper and several mechanical devices. On this particular piece I used a variety of religious paraphernalia taken from several different religious traditions. Some of the objects and symbols are placed in the hidden compartments, which are to be discovered by the viewer. To make sure the machine worked properly, I thought I had better include symbols from every religion, just in case one group of religious fundamentalists were right and their religion had more of an IN with God than the other religions! The main outer face of the Being is a carved and gold-leafed Buddha face. The face looks out from behind a crucifix, which gives the appearance of a face looking out of the crossbars of a window. The delicately sculpted wood of a termite nest spirals upward serving as a topknot for the Being. The headdress is adorned with decorative and symbolic objects. Among these objects is a small, black, ceramic skeleton that moves up and down. This skeleton is mechanically linked to several other moving parts within the larger figure. There are a pair of glass eyes in the inside mask of the art piece.

To activate and run your prayer through The Key to Heaven, you insert a dime and turn the large brass crank that is mounted on the front of the piece. Turning the crank dispenses a slip of colorful paper with a picture of an angel on one side. The other side is blank. On this slip of paper you write your secret prayer and place it into the slot of the prayer wheel mounted on the left side of the art piece. You give the prayer wheel a spin, which rings a little bell and sets your prayers in motion. You then take the Key to Heaven that hangs from a large brass padlock and insert it into the keyhole on the front of the piece and give it a turn. Turning the key makes the piece come alive! The wings mounted on the sides of the piece begin to flap; the Buddha face pops open like a door and "Amazing Grace" begins to play from a music box mounted inside the door. Inside this compartment are two more masks, one inside the other. The outer mask slowly separates in the middle and opens. As it does this, the glass eyes of the innermost mask roll back in its head, and then return to position, focusing on the person standing in front of the piece. While this is happening, the little skeleton above comes up out of the termite-eaten headdress and then returns back down, inside.

The Goddess Cabinet is another of my art pieces. This piece has the overall look of a life size woman. Ringing a bell sets this piece in motion. When the viewer rings the bell, the golden face of the woman slowly reverses and an interesting three-dimensional optical illusion occurs. The face that is on the back of the originally presented face is concave but actually appears convex like the face on the front. When the viewer moves from side to side the face appears to follow the eye. In the pubic area of the piece is a decorative door. Also, when the bell is rung this door opens and an antique statue of the Virgin Mary comes out of a secret compartment. There is another aspect of this art piece that offers something of a divination process. I like to put men to the test with this component. I ask visiting men if they would like to know where they stand with the Divine Feminine. I then ask them to choose one of the breasts on the Goddess and push the nipple. Depending upon which breast he chooses he will receive one of two different responses. If he chose the left breast it will pop open and a small copper heart slowly spins and plays a love song. If the right breast is chosen it too pops open to reveal a set of chomping and chattering false teeth. I put a group of visiting, Tibetan monks to the test with this piece one day. They had come to our place to bless the tower I had built. They were curious about the piece and wondered what tradition it was from. I had them all choose a breast. This scene with the monks choosing a breast and laughing is actually in the Parabola documentary film, In the Hands of Alchemy.

Another recent piece of mine is called Walking Through which is 8 feet tall, 24 inches wide and 18 inches deep. The entire piece is set into an antique casket cart, which at one time folded open and was used to display occupied caskets at funeral services. The cart has 4 wheels at the bottom for wheeling the caskets around. Someone who attended one of our events gave it to me. He approached me and said, "I have something for you-- you are the perfect person to give it to!" Below the casket cart I incorporated two red feet made from old wooden shoetrees. There is a round, brass switch situated just above the coffin cart, which activates the feet. Once the switch is turned on the feet go through a walking motion. The large, dark elongated box in the center of the piece is an old violin case called a "coffin case." The coffin case was a gift that arrived in the mail from a friend in Michigan. The case is set into a hole that was cut into the large, cedar slab on the front of the piece. Inside the violin case is a carved, cedar figure surrounded by moss. There are rope lights hidden behind the moss causing it to glow. The figure inside the case has a mouth made of abalone shell and inside the mouth is a copper tongue. The tongue comes out of the mouth when the main upper chamber is opened and says "Live." Turning a handle on the front of the piece opens the upper chamber. The outer door of this chamber has the large face that is carved into the cedar. This face also has abalone eyes with a copper spiral mouth. When the chamber door opens a carved cedar mask appears from behind the door. Hidden, just below the mask, is a molded copper hand, which comes into sight when the door is opened. The hand waves and returns back down out of sight. There is also a prayer wheel on the front of the piece made from copper plumbing components. The prayer wheel has prayers inside and out.

Hoard Magazine: Where are you currently living and working? Any plans to move? Or, are you firmly planted?
Jerry: I am quite firmly planted on Whidbey Island, Washington with my beautiful wife Marilyn Strong and have been for some time. We have a 2,000 square foot workspace that is currently full of my creations, a kitchen facility and a dormitory with 15 beds. This is where we do our work with groups. We have many visitors who come to see the art or to attend our workshops. We offer an annual 5-day workshop called, The Union of Opposites: Exploring the Sacred Marriage Within. This year it will be in late September. In the program we work with the western Hermetical tradition called Alchemy, as explored and translated by C.G Jung and others. Marilyn took an interest in Alchemy several years ago and began reading everything she could find on the subject. She recognized that my story embodies the process of spiritual transformation that Alchemy describes so well. We draw quite a bit on this as a template for psychological and spiritual growth, using it as a tool to interpret the deeper meaning of personal loss with its potential to initiate spiritual transformation.

Hoard Magazine: Thank you, Jerry, for everything you've shared in this interview. I'll be keeping this interview and this documentation of your profound art work safe…just in case. I'm going to hang on to it, real tight.