Creative Careers Interviews

In the Hands of Alchemy: Artist Jerry Wennstrom

Author of The Inspired Heart: An Artist's Journey of Transformation

By Molly Anderson | Posted 4/29/09 | Updated 5/17/23

Jerry Wennstrom and Marilyn StrongAt the age of 29, after producing a large body of work, artist Jerry Wennstrom destroyed all of his art and gave away everything he owned. For 15 years he lived a life of unconditional trust, allowing life to provide all that was needed.

Jerry's story is told in his book, The Inspired Heart: An Artist's Journey of Transformation and in the Parabola Magazine documentary film called In the Hands of Alchemy: The Art and Life of Jerry Wennstrom. He's presented at dozens of libraries and art museums including the Birmingham Art Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, the EMP (Experience Music Project), Glen Arbor Art Association, the Old Firehouse Art Center, Pacifica Graduate Institute, 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 including the following for Creativity Portal.

Q: What was the seminal event that sparked your original interest in art? How has that interest evolved throughout your life and career?

A: Having grown up in a poor underprivileged environment, creativity was the one involvement that came naturally to me and it was the best way to entertain myself. Others acknowledging my often ridiculous creations helped to fan the flames. "Creativity" involved everything for me, from creating absurdly elaborate wagons out of baby carriage wheels and other found material to ornate patterns created by pounding thousands of nails into my father's workbench. Needless to say, this kind of activity angered my father but his anger was often neutralized by the intricacy and beauty of some of the creations. I was dubbed "The Doodler," — a label that was not necessarily a term of endearment.

Q: What inspires you, excites you, and surprises you?

The Sacred Marriage by Jerry WennstromA: What inspires, excites and surprises me the most is when, in the creative process, something larger than my original intent comes through and delivers a level of mystery that I could not have strategized, calculated or even imagined. There is some level of mystery involved in the creation of any work of art if it is inspired.

When working on The Sacred Marriage, just such a mystery transpired, and carried the piece in a direction that I had not originally intended. When I had begun the piece I found a large sign at our local recycling center. The sign was made of a slab of old growth cedar, which is great for carving. Deeply carved into 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 possible to get the most use out of the large slab of cedar.

I had cut out two of the figures and was cutting the third when the phone rang. It was my first love, from 30 years prior! She discovered my book, saw the Parabola documentary film 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 of the 3 figures 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 "inner feminine" of a man, which he often unconsciously projects onto the first woman he falls in love with. I had just spoken on the phone with my first projected anima! I incorporated the ANIMA figure and another of the cedar figures I cut out that day, creating an entire art piece out of this mysterious poetic occurrence.

Q: What inspired and excited you when you were a child, around the age of six?

A: One creative experience that I had at about that age did have an influence on my life. One day in art class, we were given a block of wax and some simple carving tools and told to carve an image out of the wax. I got completely absorbed in the project, and carved an Eskimo with out-stretched arms holding a fish. The carving was good for a child my age, and elicited quite a bit of attention from teachers and students when it was placed in the school art show. Having grown up on "the wrong side of the tracks," with little to go on in terms of advantage or individual brilliance, this attention brought to life a new identity. All at once, I was seen as an artist — and I liked it!

Q: What is the best advice you ever received? How does it apply to your life today?

A: The best advice I have ever received came from an ancient book of wisdom — the Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tsu. There is an essential kind of efficiency expressed in the book, which has helped me create a personal standard for my creative process. My life, as well, has been influenced by this efficiency.

Q: What did you rebel against as a teenager? What do you rebel against now?

A: I probably rebelled against my father the most at age 17. However, finally realizing that to rebel against anyone or anything hands power over to the object of our rebellion, I now make every effort not to react to external mechanisms. Instead, I choose to take action that is directed by a deeper sense of self, which often comes into play when I don't mindlessly rebel or react.

Q: What is your secret, guilty pleasure?

A: Exploring unusual cultural expressions — especially the simplest ones that go on to become trends in the larger collective. I am fascinated with YouTube and the Internet in general.

Q: What was the last book you devoured; the one that kept you up too late because you were simply unable to stop turning the pages?

A: It was an obscure little book I found in a junk shop called A Mantis Carol by Laurens van der Post. It is the story of a bushman from the Kalahari Desert who comes to New York City by way of a circus and is finally adopted by a wealthy family. What fascinated me about his story was the way in which he maintained the simplicity of his culture's magic and mystery in post modern society.

Q: What scares you? What is the thing that wakes you up in a cold sweat at three in the morning?

A: It scares me to feel that I am out of alignment with the greater forces attempting to express themselves through my life. Sometimes I wake in the night with this "off" feeling and go out to the meditation tower I built on our property and attempt to realign.

The Sacred Marriage by Jerry WennstromQ: What inspired your impetus to destroy your paintings, give away all your earthly possessions, and embark upon this incredible spiritual and creative journey?

A: Inspiration often enters our conscious awareness by way of a quantum leap. It takes us beyond that which we think we know. There were many whispers along the way that pointed to this inspired breakthrough for me. They forced me to pay attention, which then set the stage for me to make this timely leap. We can travel great distances and bushwhack exciting new territory for ourselves (and others) when we can fully give ourselves to a radically inspired moment.

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. There is a Hindu parable that says, "When you take a boat across the river, you don't drag the boat along once you've reached the other side." Painting in the studio served the first leg of my creative journey and eventually became too small a vehicle to carry the larger creation I sensed was moving through my life. With the discomfort of this realization stirring in my inner life, I knew I needed to give my full attention to the dilemma I was experiencing. Fasting helped direct the necessary attention, so I fasted for as long as it took for me to get clear on the next step I was to take. I had no idea that the final expression of my focused attention would be to destroy my art and give everything I owned away.

Feminine BalanceAfter a month-long fast, two choices became clear to me. I could keep doing what I was doing and stay with the safe and acceptable form established by the artistic convention of the late 70s, 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. I knew if I were to continue along a path of heart, the only thing to do was to find courage enough to let go of my identity as an artist and completely give myself to the exciting, formless allurement I sensed was drawing me forth.

It is mostly in retrospect that the complete gift of that choice has revealed itself to me. My original dream as a young artist was to touch the world in some significant way with my art. I find it a bit ironic and something of a cosmic joke that I have been acknowledged more as an artist for destroying my art than I ever was for creating it! Included in the larger mythos that eventually unfolded were two Parabola/Sentient Publications documentary films that were made about my art and life (In the Hands of Alchemy), and a book I was asked to write, The Inspired Heart. The paradox of letting everything go and the mystery of its' return express the deeper meaning of the word 'sacrifice.' Transliterated, it means, "to make sacred." When we can trust the quiet intuitions of a deeper calling, the whole of our beloved creation becomes inspired and is able to re-emerge in a way that we would never have imagined!

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke expresses the experience well with his poem, To that Younger Brother:

Now pray,
as I who came back from the same confusion
learned to pray.
I returned to paint upon the altars
those old holy forms,
but they shone differently,
fierce in their beauty.
So now my prayer is this:
You, my own deep soul,
trust me.
I will not betray you.
My blood is alive with many voices
telling me I am made of longing.
What mystery breaks over me now?
In its shadow I come into life.
For the first time, I am alone with you —
my power to feel.

The Inspired Heart by Jerry WennstromQ: What's next in upcoming publications, events, and exhibitions of your work?

A: There are so many things stirring it is difficult to say what's next. My most recent involvement is the new audio version of my book The Inspired Heart I have been working closely with Wetware Media, the distributor of the audio book, to create a more interesting than usual product. I do the basic reading for the audio book and I have included several other unusual touches.

With the voice of a radio personality, friend, Kendall Hubbard (a professional reader) reads Thomas Moore's foreword to my book. Then, I had a good friend and excellent musician from New York, Steven Roues, create musical interludes using a variety of instruments, which will go between the chapters. With the accent of Rilke's native tongue, I had a young German friend, Bernd Label read the Rilke poem that I have at the end of my book and I had Marilyn Strong, my wife, read the chapter titles. So I think the audio book should be more interesting than just a monotonous talking head. The Inspired Heart audio book is scheduled for release sometime in early June 2009. Among other things, I have done over 60 media interviews and have several currently in the works, including the possibility of a feature Link TV interview.

Since I don't sell art, I have not accepted gallery representation. I have nothing against selling art — I simply haven't felt called to do so yet. Perhaps I will some day. I have an enormous body of art in my possession at this point. I occasionally show the film and/or my art in museums and galleries willing to show and not sell. It has been the true art-lovers who have shown my art, not the merchants. My work is experienced more extensively by groups and individuals who come to my studio, through film presentations and lectures I give internationally and through a variety of media venues.

Q: Your book, The Inspired Heart: An Artist's Journey of Transformation is simply amazing. What led you to create this stunning literary self-portrait? What was your greatest challenge in bringing this inspiring and deeply personal work to the page?

A: After talking to many friends who are writers about the nightmares of writing and finding a publisher, I see what a blessing my experience around the creation of my book has been for me.

During an art show I had on Orcas Island, our friend Carol Wright took an interest in my story and work. She decided to gift me with a website. She asked many questions and asked me to write a little of my story that she would post on the new site. I decided to write about my journey in short story form rather than in a literal way. The stories I initially wrote for that early web site were the humble beginnings of my book.

Once the web site was up and running, Carol asked an associate of hers, Connie Shaw, publisher at Sentient Publications, to have a look at my art (for potential book covers) and the stories I had written. Connie apparently liked both and asked if I would be interested in writing a book. Feeling a little overwhelmed with the increasing number of people who came to my home to talk to me; people who, in one way or another found elements of healing and hope in my story and art, I began to feel a need for a vehicle larger than my one-on-one human presence to carry my story.

When Connie asked if I would be interested in writing a book, the timing seemed perfect. I immediately said yes. With the ease with which events unfolded around the creation of my book, I felt as if unseen hands were guiding the process. The stories poured out easily enough. I had always had an applicable story to offer someone experiencing difficulty and in need of a meaningful, poetic twist to the harsh reality they were experiencing. With everything falling into place I managed to complete the actual writing of the book in about four months. Photographer and friend Ed Severinghaus volunteered to take high quality pictures of my artwork for the book, and Connie did the editing personally. For the miracle of this book I humbly owe a good deal of gratitude to Carol, Connie, and to Microsoft Spell-check.

Q: What is your vision for the next phase of your career?

Dark GoddessA: My vision as an artist has always been to touch the world in some significant way. I am at a place in my life where my art and life are emerging 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 hope is to remain watchful and see what the next moment might bring and respond to what comes in the most direct way possible. My only desire at this phase in my life is 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 fall into place.

Q: What is your message for the next generation of up-and-coming artists and any words of wisdom or advice?

A: It is not easy for young artists to see the potential in the world we currently inhabit. If we thought logically about the challenges we are faced with today we might all go and jump off a bridge. However, inspiration and the spirit of art are not logical, they are paradoxical and poetic by their very nature.

My message to young artists is this — Art is alive and well and always will be! The challenges of artists of any generation are basically the same. The spirit of the times flows on and is expressed through anyone open and willing to live fearlessly in the spirit of their day. Truly creative breakthroughs in art have a way of hanging our fixed and established notions of art on the peg of paradox. As the crowning jewel of any creative journey, inspiration moves in to define our individual expression — and it is here that we must let go and leave behind all that we think we know about art. At the same time, we must honor all that has come before us. Herein lies the impossible paradox for most artists!

To establish the ground of a truly inspired new expression in the world, one must fully give oneself over to a larger harmony beyond our control. It is a harmony that is self-sustaining, and holds the newly established ground we have given ourselves to, more by way of its' nature than by reference to anything known or established. Honoring the past is established and experienced more as a poetic sense of awe than by way of reason. There is a collective, living mythos that we recognize and identify as our own when a work of art, or the path of an artist has been inspired. Joseph Campbell says, "The most sublime form of artistic expression is formless and simply leaves one in a state of awe."

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Copyright ©2009 Molly Anderson. All rights reserved.

Jerry WennstromArtist and writer Jerry Wennstrom was born in New York, where he lived-out the first half of his prolific art career. The superficial post-Andy Warhol-Soho-art-scene in the late '70s repelled him. ...