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Art and Nothingness: An Interview with Jerry Wennstrom

[Editor's Note: I visited Jerry's HandsOfAlchemy website and found much of his work stunningly beautiful and riveting in its emotional content. The article is not an easy read, but it provides much insight. Jerry lives and works in Whidbey Island WA, and can be reached at 360-341-3382, or soluna AT
—Shel Horowitz, Editor, Global Arts Review]

Jerry Wennstrom is author of The Inspired Heart: An Artist's Journey of Transformation published by He is also the subject of the Parabola documentary video called In the Hands of Alchemy: The Life and Art of Jerry Wennstrom directed by Phil Lucas and Mark Sadan. The video is distributed by Parabola Magazine Jerry's web site is

(Marilyn for) Global Arts Review: As a culminating creative act you destroyed your large body of art, gave everything you owned away and lived this way for over 15 years. This pivotal act shifted the focus of your life and took you away from your identity as an artist/painter. What meaning did you find in this radical shift of focus?

Jerry Wennstrom: All the meaning in the world! The shift itself continues to be the most important and meaningful experience of my life. I am convinced that high art and the cutting edge of the creative human experience can only be accessed through a direct relationship to the source. The absence of any interface and outrageous trust in something unseen are required of this relationship. It is in our willingness to courageously turn and walk into those areas of consciousness where our ego-identity may come undone that inspiration has the potential to come most alive. It is in this undoing that we find our true identity, separate from any existing reference point.

The personal and collective ego does everything in its power to resist the change, however. It interprets any radical departure from a personal or cultural fix as sure death to its existence. It is entirely correct in this assessment-- something old and calcified must in fact die. It is in this dying that we access the truly inspired life. There is a quote by Yogananda that alludes to this paradox, "To set out on any holy purpose and to ‘die’ along the way is to succeed." To the ego, "die" in this context is indistinguishable from complete demise. Most of us are too busy surviving to open our lives to the unreasonable requirements of this mystery.

GAR: Can you say more about death as an important metaphor in life?

JW: "Death" is unavoidable and interwoven into the cyclical nature of creation. If we examine the subtle cycles in our own lives we will see that we experience times of both light and dark—fullness and emptiness. Like the phases of the moon, there are times when we can access the fullness of our light and shine brightly. At the opposite end of the cycle, the light disappears altogether and we must surrender to the inevitable darkness. This moment might be seen as the death of the light if we are attached only to the light. Paradoxically, it is in the darkness where the light begins its cyclical return. In our culture we are not taught to embrace darkness and death. We do everything in our power to hide or deny the many expressions of death in our lives. Rather than being fully present to the experience of death and renewal, reverently receiving its gifts, we fear this aspect of the cycle.

GAR: How did death lead to renewal for you as an artist?

JW: Seeing the pitfalls of denial and fear in myself as a young artist, I saw no alternative but to face the metaphor of death and open myself to the potential it had to influence and enhance my life. If art is to deliver all of one’s reality onto the solid ground of a more meaningful and inspired life (which is what I believe it should do) then it was the gift of death that did this for me. As a path of discovery, I believed in art with all of my heart and soul, producing an enormous body of work. This path took me to an edge where I could do no more with my will, intelligence or good intentions. I was experiencing the death of everything I most identified with as an artist. It was here that two choices became clear to me. I could back away in fear or I could trust the path of art right to the very end and surrender to something unknown, which is what I did.

In retrospect, I find it paradoxical and a little comical that "dying" of my identity as an artist has done more to bring my artistic expression into the public light than years of painting in the studio ever did!"

GAR: How does the artist’s personal experience, like you describe, ultimately have an effect on society?

JW: We are in a transitional period in our world and many of us are intuiting the need to stop and look more deeply at the way we live our lives. A deeper inquiry has the potential to tap into and express the zeitgeist, (the spirit of the times). It is our individual connection and quiet response to the zeitgeist that ultimately effects social change.

As a result of my own response, I left behind the discipline of active doing (painting) and opened my life to a new kind of discipline—the discipline of conscious being. Being took me into a more formless relationship with inspiration. An inspired moment will always expand our small ideas about our world and ourselves. I gave myself to exploring the holy science of an inspired moment, separate from any form—art or otherwise. The choice to leap into the void as I did was not a choice based on reason, so a rational explanation is inadequate to describe its effect on society in any literal way. It was an intuitive decision and one can only intuit the meaning as one would a dream or a myth. I sensed this single act would set in motion the right conditions that would require me to look to the source of inspiration for everything I did. My intuition proved to be correct and life began to unfold in ways I never would have imagined. The new life that I gave myself to involved creatively tending all aspects of life with equal attention.

GAR: You have had quite a positive response to your book and the Parabola documentary film that was made about your life and art. Why do you think you are getting this attention and why are people responding the way they are to your unusual story?

JW: I think there is something in my story that has found a resonance in the hearts of others going through similar experiences. It gets back to the zeitgeist. When any expression strikes a chord in the heart of culture it usually does so because the creativity of the person doing the expressing has tapped into something universal—something we all recognize and identify with as our own. When we have been inspired by an experience or an idea we feel we have found what we have been looking for. There is a joy and a freedom that comes through that has the potential to reawaken the desire to live more fully. The interesting paradox about this phenomenon, however, is that most of us identify with an inspiring experience and treat it as our own even if we have not found the courage to meet the requirements of such an experience. At some level this identification is justified, in that the emerging mythology belongs to all of us. However, as individuals we must find the courage to move forward into the reality of our own inspired experience and allow it to transform our lives.

GAR: Your current interactive sculptures are both powerful and whimsical. How did your new level of creative exploration inspire these unusual "beings"?

JW: In retrospect I see that my sculptures are an expression that developed organically, out of my exploration into the metaphorical death I experienced. The greatest gifts are easily overlooked in the life-experiences that challenge or frighten us—the experiences that look like death to the ego! By continually facing my fears some essential template of understanding crystallized for me. First and foremost was the initial, terrifying experience of jumping into the void. I then gave myself to the challenge of looking for the gift in every experience that came up naturally in life, especially those experiences that frightened me. The art I am involved with now reflects this same challenge.

Recently, a man visiting from St Louis was standing in my studio, surrounded by many of my large coffin-like sculptures. He said, "You know—if someone was not in a very good state of mind they might be a little frightened by your art!" Clearly, there are some people who see my sculptures as spooky and death-like. Paradoxically, for those who can go beyond their initial fear and interact with the pieces, they walk away joyful, inspired and bearing gifts.

GAR: How do you balance the impersonal elements of metaphor and death and with the personal daily task of maintaining human relationships?

JW: One’s true understanding of the creative power of death becomes the basis for the renewal of all things—including relationships. In trying to maintain a healthy relationship, we must do our best to be kind, compassionate human beings. However we will inevitably come to the limit of even our best intentions. It is here that we feel our powerlessness as human beings. Fear and control are often the way that many of us react to this powerlessness; however, the only real and effective option to this dilemma is surrender. It is this final act that holds all that we love in place in the world. The paradox of this impossible situation can only be resolved by keeping in mind that doing our best in relationship is never quite good enough. It is wisdom to know that it is not completely in our power to hold what we love in place. If you have a spiritual sense of things you might call the unseen glue that holds our world together—grace.

GAR: With such a major journey behind you, what are your hopes and dreams as an artist at this stage of your life?

JW: 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 reemerging in the world in a way that seems to have taken on a life of its own. There are events unfolding just as they should and I wouldn’t know how to better direct the process. 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.

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