In the Hands of Alchemy
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Interview by Jessica VanDusen
November 1, 2005
See this interview/art feature on the U-MAGAZINE Web site

Jessica Van Dusen for UMagazine: How did the decision to destroy your work and give away your possessions come about? Was it instantaneous or did it come after a period of consideration?
Jerry: The gods seem to whisper before they scream. You might say there were many whispers along the way leading up to that pivotal event in my life. In some mysterious way the abstract allurement that was drawing me forth held the promise of a truer life. This intuitive sense of some greater possibility was the impetus. It did not come about through any kind of sensible or reasonable process or wise strategy; nor was it a process that offered any kind of recognizable choice. It made no sense at all and had no reference point in the "real world." Because of this, it was a very lonely business. I had to completely trust my intuition and 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 forms of our lives naturally change and we cannot be attached to the momentum of old forms that no longer serve us. I participated in the natural transition of form changing by destroying the objects I had created. By doing this, reality offered up something unexpected and more alive. 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 literally means to make sacred.

UMag: In some ways, it appears as though your book, "The Inspired Heart" is a warning to artists and artisans to avoid over-identification with their work and status, and perhaps also a guide for your particular approach to remedying this. Would you recommend such an exercise to others – or would you prefer to serve solely as an example and inspiration? And what sort of preparation would one require to follow a similar path to yours?
Jerry: I don't think of my book as a warning. When you point to the light of the moon you are not issuing a warning against the darkness. I think of it more as the hard-earned territory I have bushwhacked, mostly out of my own personal quest for deeper understanding. Hopefully, others reading the book will experience something of the gift inherent in my discoveries. The gift is poetic in nature and offers a way of seeing and investing our hopes and dreams into something that may not lead to dust. If you read between the lines and are willing to open yourself to myth and paradox, my book offers an efficient, non-"religious" way of bringing a personal dream into form - what ever that dream might be.

In Western culture we so heavily focus on ascension and staying above difficulty. Paradoxically, the stairway to our personal heaven may not necessarily take us in an upward direction. Personal transformation is a more humble process -- one that levels us with the earth -- requiring us to surrender downward into the depths and the unknown. Anyone fixed on control and staying above this unknowing might experience this descent as difficult or uncomfortable. In the tradition of story, my book offers a journey downward into the ashes where complete surrender is the rule. It is an archetypal journey that lives itself out differently for each individual, yet in essence, belongs to all of us.

What serves the cause of radical transformation is what is always right in front of us, regardless of the circumstances. Whether we perceive those circumstances as "good" or "bad" doesn't matter. True creative breakthrough comes out of an inevitable moment where we realize we will have to risk everything in order to experience greater beauty as an ongoing reality. Taking this risk offers the possibility of a defining act of power that will reflect something universal. Having made this breakthrough in the loneliness of our own experience, we return to the world with a template of experience that becomes useful to others.

UMag: I think an important point that you've made is that you view fear as a way in which God or divinity calls to us - or calls our attention to something that we need to face. There are two terms you use with a lot of significance. The first is "formless." How can you describe this particular state of being? To an artist, it can be interpreted a number of ways, depending on how you look at it.
Jerry: Fear is the chain around our neck contracting and limiting our fluid possibility - a fluidity inherent to our nature. That which frightens us is a pretty good indication of where we need to look to find new levels of open possibility. The fear we avoid waits on our shoulders for the opportunity to subtly govern our lives. Generally speaking, in our society we fear what is unknown. Those seeking control in our society exploit this fear. We are not taught the value of facing our fears or liberating ourselves from the limiting ideas that are held in place through the acquiescence to fear. Dealing with fear is a lonely business and we receive little external support from others seeking to avoid the boogiemen of their own creation. Others may actually fear the person who faces personal and collective fear. We do this by projecting our unresolved shadow onto those who bring to light issues we unconsciously agree not to notice or address in our society.

Fear, too, is related to formlessness. Yogananda says, "The ego is the great impersonator." This being the case, there are parallel meanings and interpretations involved in every choice we make. For every empowering experience, the ego creates a fear-based impersonation, which dis-empowers. Formlessness as a state of being can be experienced as nothing, non-existence or even death. Or it can be experienced as unlimited creative potential -- a powerful, hovering force with the ability to create new forms.

The mysterious power of formlessness might be compared to the barely perceptible, black holes in space. Black holes are energy fields existing in relation to the glaring beauty of the stars. It is easy to focus only on the glory of the stars and not see or value the formless creative presence of the black hole. Having the ability to consume or create a star -- the black hole is the more powerful entity. It exists in a vibrant state of becoming and reserves the right to freely come and go as it pleases. This freedom lies in its ability to fully inhabit the mystery and paradox of formless possibility. From the perspective of formless freedom, being or not-being is experienced without preference. To fear the formless requirements of our own lives reduces our creative potential by at least half.

UMag: The other term is "Grace" and it seems to encompass so many different contexts, yet there's an underlying consistency in its use. What does Grace mean to you, specifically?
Jerry: I just read a wonderful quote in Rusty Moe's book “Where God Learns.” I will paraphrase: Living the mystery means to live in such a way that one's life would not make sense if God (Grace) did not exist. In other words, the mystery defines, justifies and holds our lives in place through the element of Grace and not through reason or strategy. At this point in my life, Grace is what washes over reality at the place in the cycle where reason and effort fail. Grace is the spark that comes off the hard, cold flint of dead matter. Something kicks-in and ignites the flame of renewal in the face of everything that might be reasonably perceived as sure death. Grace, with the flick of a wrist, infuses the seemingly meaningless events in our lives with larger meaning, and translates apparent chaos into something recognizable and profound. The paradox of Grace is that life is inspired in death.

UMag: In terms of fear, did you find that when confronting a larger fear, other fears were easier to overcome or manage? Did they make things more difficult; or was there any difference at all?
Jerry: We all come up against a profound moment in our lives where we are given the opportunity to confront our worst fear. This fear will always be seen as sure death to our ego. For me, the larger experience of destroying my art (which also meant the loss of my identity as an artist) and giving everything I owned away, struck the template for how I would approach life and handle fear from that moment on. In many ways this definitive act has made it easier for me to face new fears. More importantly the act of letting everything go and trusting that something larger would carry my life brought in the unseen element of grace as a consistent and reliable experience. I do not mean to say that grace comes through as I think it should or hope it might - instead, it comes through as a recognizable experience of freedom at a moment when ideas and strategies fail and all seems lost. Fear will always have a new face that frightens us newly. However with grace being established through my original act of surrender, grace comes in just as I need it and renews my world at all levels. I realize there is something paradoxical in my explanation here; however, there is no other way to explain it. Grace comes through, right on cue, in ways I can depend on; yet it always comes in unexpected ways that surprise and keep me in awe.

UMag: In the introduction, you mentioned the book began as a response to your proposed website at the time. Could you explain this process? Was the book's writing a sort of exercise in recapitulation to some degree, as well as the creation of a poignant guide to other seekers and creative wanderers? (Sample stories from book.)
Jerry: Yes, it was a form of recapitulation for me to write the book. Something came alive in writing the book --for one thing the timing was perfect. I was approached by the publisher at Sentient Publications and asked if I would be willing to write a book. This came at a time when there were an ever-increasing number of people finding personal meaning in my story. I was talking to most of these people one-on-one or in small groups. The book allowed for a far more efficient way to support others going through some collective change that my story seemed to help define for them. I had not considered myself a writer up until this point and had actually written very little.

Story as a means of communicating came natural for me. I always had a useful story to tell the many people who came to me for support or advice. The stories I told came from my own experience and were directed to the particular conversation I might have been having with someone. Working with so many people in this personal context, I had actually become weary of my own story! The book came as a great relief. Formulating the stories in the creation of the book allowed me to download the defining moments of my experience for myself and for others. This recapitulation (as you call it) was a powerful experience for me. In the process of writing the book, I would re-experience, emotionally, the events as they originally occurred. The depth of this writing experience and the mythic nature of the journey, I believe, translates in the book. We are able to open to any mythic experience because something about it resonates with our souls and feels deeply familiar to us. We experience this resonance individually and collectively as cultural phenomena. By fully living out the mystery of our own journeys and by expressing the elements of our learning process creatively, we ultimately support others in their attempt to find meaning in a world infused with mystery.

UMag: Other than your father and a bit about your mother, there is very little mention of your family in any of the material about you. What kind of a role did the family dynamic play in your creative and spiritual life, if any?
Jerry: My family had very little influence on my creative or spiritual life, really. Like many young people of my generation I experimented with LSD. In a sense LSD opened my world up in a way that was much larger than I had known or was taught by my family upbringing. The difficulty of using an artificial means, such as LSD, for this kind of opening is that I could not fully inhabit the awareness I experienced or hold on to it in a natural way. One needs to grow into awareness organically and with wisdom to be able to hold the ground. The opening I experienced with LSD did, however, blow out my small view of the world, as it existed in relation to my family. As a result, I could not return to the belief system I naturally felt comfortable in. It was like being thrown overboard without knowing how to swim! There was no returning to the family boat so it was swim or drown. Ultimately, I had to find what I had discovered through the artificial means of LSD and make the awareness my own. Doing this involved a long and difficult process. In terms of awakening to creativity-- Art, the unconscious and spirituality are so completely linked that, of course, the total impact of this experience awakened my creative life in ways that my family never could.

(As an aside) I do not necessarily advocate the use of LSD to further one's personal awakening here. In retrospect it is clear to me that there were far more casualties resulting from the use of LSD than there were successful awakenings. The worst of which are the fear-based sellouts of my generation who have abandoned spiritual pursuits altogether in favor of material excess and security at any price. This is the same generation who now rules America and has imposed its insatiable appetite for more of everything on the world.

UMag: How did you transition into doing the interactive sculptures that you are now doing? From where do these ideas originate? Do the faces you see in your work come to you as visions? Also, there is a certain degree of humour in your work that accompanies the tone of deathliness. Would you say this speaks to the nature of divinity in some way - a sort of comedy/tragedy theme? Or at least is it an indication of the less "serious" new approach to your work?
Jerry: I don't think of my work as coming from ideas or visions. The work comes more from intuitive allurements - whispers along the way that point to something requiring a different kind of attention. Meeting the requirements of this attention sometimes bears fruit. The sculptures reveal themselves and develop with continued, reverent focus. I will simply get a hit and know what to do next. Usually this hit is absolute, in that once I see what needs to be done it becomes clear that it could not have been done any other way. I might find an object on the street or someone might send me something in the mail and the object I hold fits perfectly into place or it can even 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. I call the piece "Sacred Marriage."

As you suggest, I do work with humor and death. More generally, I work towards uniting the opposites by bringing into form some poetic resolve beyond the tension of the two. The work I destroyed in 1979 were paintings and the work I am doing now is three-dimensional. The last paintings I did before destroying my work were similar in size to the current interactive boxes. The paintings were life sized interactive figures painted on both sides of 6 X 1-foot strips of canvas. One side of the panel was painted with a dark figure, the other a light figure. Early on I called them "angels and demons." The paintings hung from a single line and constantly moved, changing from one figure to the other. The paintings also explored aspects of duality and paradox. The work now embodies a kind of wholeness – the opposites have united into a different kind of expression. I am not sure this difference is clear to others viewing the past and present artwork, however, I know the difference as a fundamental shift that occurred for me. This shift brought in something whole and complete as a standard for perceiving the world. I would describe my current body of art as celebratory -- the end game of the metaphorical death experience I jumped into. 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 a resolve in my work. When I am able to hold the paradox of opposites with more unknowing, my art finds its own expression.

UMag: What are your planned future projects and endeavours?
Jerry: I will give you an immediate plan and a broader plan. I was in Assisi, Italy this summer and was very moved by a few of the very old, worm-eaten "confessionals" that I saw in some of the oldest churches. I want to make something similar or bring the spirit of the confessionals into an art piece. The confessionals were like children’s small playhouses. They had two stations for "sinners" to confess their sins and a place at the center for a priest to sit, unseen, as he listens and comes up with solutions for the sinners. The confessionals were well used over the years. The places where people knelt down on the wood struts of the confessionals were worn into the shape of two half moons. There were marks made where fingernails dug deep into the wood of the hand-rests of the prayer stations. These confessionals were alive with history, you could feel the pain, anxiety, and surrender embodied in the wood. I don't know if I will literally make one of these things - I just know I was deeply affected by them and that experience usually translates, somehow, into a new creation. I also loved one of the ancient, life-size crucifixions. It was wonderfully gruesome and was created more in the spirit of folk art. I must tell you a funny story here. This particular crucifixion was in a hallway/alcove that led into the main chapel of a monastery. The chapel was the main focus for the people entering the monastery so no one stopped to look at the crucifixion for very long. Being taken by the power of this particular crucifix and having the space to do so I decided to sit in the alcove and simply take it in, as I do with the art I love. It was amazing and a bit ridiculous - as I sat entranced, staring at the piece, everyone entering the chapel felt obliged to stop and do the same! It was a bit like pointing to the sky - everyone looks up.

To answer your question about future projects and endeavors in a more general way - I would offer this. My dream has always been to touch the world in some significant way as an artist. I am at a place in my life where my art and life are moving further into the world in a more significant way that seems to have a life of its own. There are two art books due out this year that feature my art and life story. The plan, by one author, Dolores Tarzan Ament, is to coordinate a museum exhibition of the artists featured in her new book titled "Dark Visions." I trust the timing of the events going on in my life at this time. These events are unfolding just as they should and I wouldn't know how to better direct the process, even if I could. My dream is to remain watchful and see what the next moment might bring and how best to respond to what comes. I hope to stay open and aware enough to allow the spirit of the time to flow freely through everything I do. If I can accomplish this, I believe all else will come with the territory.