In the beginning was music, my invisible friend. I was inside it and it coursed through me as
blood through a vein. How does one describe something which is of the spirit yet entirely wed
to the physicality of matter? Creativity in this world.
Music and I suffused each other, but we were not identical. Music was free. But my freedom
was ever partial. Although my experiences in its warm current were rapturous, it felt like I
was always giving chase, like a famished lover. I could never ultimately merge with its beauty.
Nevertheless..notwithstanding..even so..I believe it will happen. Until then, however,
the promise must remain the beckoning earnest of life to come.
I’m swimming in it now, no longer churning. I’ve allowed myself to drift. All the seeming disparate streams of my work — music, writing, drawing, painting and film — are converging into one focus: myth.
I am essentially a graphical artist and view image as text and text as image. I look at words as instant image, and imagery as instant narrative.
Although each work is initiated in the making of the piece, its purpose is fulfilled only within those who experience it. In that sense, art for me has no longer a solely exterior locus. Its potency hovers, ghost-like, as in a myth, ready to be drawn from or added to.
“There really is no such thing as Art,” as E.H. Gombrich sagely said. But I do not hold to what Gombrich says next, that “There are only artists.” I would state, rather, that “There is only humankind.” We are ALL meant to share in the emergence of the altogether new.
Let us resist objectification and the taxonomies of culture. Creativity is antinomic. Think paradox. Where IS a painting, for example? It has both an interior and exterior locus, both a subjective and objective reality. It only partially exists in time and space, and it’s physical existence can only be made meaningful, can only reach fulfillment WITHIN the experiencer of the work. Then it is neither matter nor spirit but both/and.
We must create a New Myth, one which needs every Experiencer’s private range of thought, emotion, and memory. One might ask “How is this different from what art does currently? What makes the myth new?”
I would offer the following: the Old myth, the old “Art” is an antiquated paradigm. It describes a world in which, through the making of unique or separate works, the artist seeks personal recognition or commensurate remuneration. This has proven to be a deceitful promise, inadequate for the present age, unable to raise hearts in hope. That old myth, or paradigm brought forth just the opposite. It made life bleak for the many in the very act of making it fruitful for the few. This is akin to the phenomena of pride or power: they REQUIRE that other humans be insignificant in order for you to become significant.
So we need a New Myth. Our creative work must be something in which ALL of us may “live, move, and have our being.” As Baudelaire said of the sensate world, “All these things think through me, or I through them.” Perhaps this is not a new myth at all, though. Perhaps it is simply true myth. I’ve been trying my hand at the prose poem..
The myth is far from something false. It’s truer than the worlds we touch. It calls up what we once have known. Before we knew we’d learned too much, before the way was hard and straight, divisions either day or night, we dallied by the open way, a winding trail still bathed in light. We find this way again in myth, and open wide its welcome doors. We do not bow to blight of fact, within the age of myth restored.
I was a minister’s son and Robert Illes was the son of a printer. We lived across the street from each other in south central Los Angeles from about 1956 to 1959.
Rob’t was a fun guy, and we did fun stuff. For us that meant creative work. Sparks flew when we began to make books. We went for it, totally went for it.
Rob’t’s dad brought home reams of typewriter paper for our unbridled use. Mr. Illes also gave Rob’t an old typewriter, which he made use of. I preferred to hand-print my sentences with a pencil. Some of the pages we made included our rough-hewn illustrations. We celebrated the raw irregularity of our work, the way it filled each page in a different way. I STILL love the way our first books looked even today.
We’d take out a pinch of paper from the ream and fold it at the horizontal half-point. Then we stapled it near the fold. Presto, a blank book!
Nothing holds more wondrous possibility than a blank page - or an empty canvas. Anything can happen, and the artist is always at the epicenter of whatever emerges. Rob’t and I both knew we had front-row seats.
I recall kneeling beside a bed, each of us with our own blank book. We must’ve put something underneath to provide a firm working surface. We hurled ourselves into the work. Each of us let his respective tale unfold.
My character was Flank Ander, a scrappy, tough-talkin' western hero, carrying a pair of “pop-guns” strapped to his hips. I was inspired by the programmers I used to watch with my father on Sunday afternoons, also maybe the Warner Brothers series of television westerns we were watching at the time, like Cheyenne. Rob’t invented Ben Benton, a brilliant private investigator. He was a combination of Sherlock Holmes (he had the same hat) and Joe Friday.
We passionately scrawled out our pulp novels, stretching them from cover to cover, inserting expressive drawings of the action here and there with the lines they illustrated written underneath. We just kept writing and drawing from the first page to the last. Voilà, we had a book! I can’t describe to you how significant this experience was for me. I was 9 or 10 years old.
I’d been drawing at home for several years before this. My mother especially encouraged me in it. I used to draw cutaways of underground passageway and hideouts. They might have been inspired by Phantom Empire, the Gene Autry serial or perhaps by crawling around Injun Joe’s Cave on Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disneyland.
Robert and I still can’t remember just when it was that we met. This makes me think it must’ve been in a class we were in together at 74th Street Elementary School. We were definitely in the same fifth grade class. Rob’t recalls showing our books to Mrs. Ballotte. I just noticed a spelling correction in one of the books. It might’ve been made by Mrs. Ballotte. She cheered us on. So did our parents.
Robert wasn’t a Christian as far as I knew, or at least we didn’t discuss such things. I’ve never been overly concerned if a person I enjoyed was “inside or outside” the church, anyway. I knew Dad wasn’t, either. Robert came from a family of Hungarian immigrants. I knew that I came from immigrants, too; I was a German/English hybrid critter. But, again, we never thought about that. I didn’t even learn how to pronounce his name correctly until I was in my late-sixties. Our attention in those early 78th Street days was concentrated on the wonderful things we could make for free, and out of nothing! We loved it. It was exciting, adventurous and it made us laugh.
The other kids liked to play war games outside. Each kid’d have a toy rifle or pistol. You pretended to shoot, making gun sounds with your mouth. I tried doing that for awhile, but it wasn’t nearly as much fun as making books.
When I played with the other kids sometimes I’d get into a fight about whether I was dead or the other guy was dead. I’d say, “I shot you first!” Then he’d say, “Uh-uh, I shot y-o-u first!” I didn’t like that part. When I wrote my own stories I always survived..and there was no argument. Oh, I got wounded a lot, but I didn’t have to die. I liked that a lot better.
Flank Ander didn’t take guff from anybody. He was a tough guy and a good fighter. Ben Benton could solve mysteries and figure things out. Besides that, we we had a lot of fun. Besides, it seemed a better way to go than butting heads with bullies in the street.
I soon realized that Robert didn’t have the “restraints” on him I had as a preacher’s kid. He definitely still uses words I would not employ even now. But, what was this strange compunction hovering over me? I have a feeling it might be one of the reasons we church-folk don’t enjoy life sometimes. We’re confused about many things. My mother, especially, taught me to be a “nice” boy. Robert didn’t have the same baggage. That was part of the reason I enjoyed being around him so much. It was eye-opening. It still is.
Rob’t and I have just made a new book together. When I first read the text, I heard my mother’s voice again, saying, “Now Daniel..is that a nice thing to say?!” But I weathered the lying compunctions, and hopefully stayed true to those I needed to stand firm on. Whew! I got past my initial qualms about illustrating Robert’s text. After 58 years, we’ve made a book again!
The graphic novel, I, Alien should be published soon. I’m not sure it’s as great as the books we made back in ’59, but it’s still very good. It’s a comedy about alien abduction.
The narthex was a long room just inside the church doors where the ushers greeted everyone. They gave us a pamphlet called Order of Worship and we went in.
The sanctuary arched high over us like a loving cloak. As we walked forward down the aisle, I looked to either side. Between the ribs of each wall were tall stained glass windows illumined from without by the bright sun. We found a place to sit on the smooth wood. Sometimes I scooted so I could sit where the colored light from a window streamed down onto the pew.
In the center of the back wall was a rough cross. Light shone through chunks of stained glass which had been imbedded in the cast fiberglass. I found myself reminiscing about when Dad & I visited the sculptor in his studio where the cross was being made. Since it was sunny California, he worked outside in his grassy, jumbled backyard. Wow, a real artist! It meant a lot Dad doing that with me.
Waking from my reverie, I heard music coming from behind us. Both the choir and organist were situated in a balcony above the narthex. In Tucson, which was our next church, the choir and director were in front, behind the organist. I was in the youth choir and all of us wore red robes. It was a great experience singing in that choir. We toured the states one summer. The choir director was a great teacher. It was he and Dad taught who me how to use my diaphragm.
The high wooden pulpit was in front on the right side of the platform. Dad stood behind it so everyone could see and hear him. A purple cloth with an embroidered cross and gold fringe draped over the top in front of the microphone. On the left was a lectern for the associate pastor. Under the cross in the back was a large wooden table, which Dad stood behind to officiate weddings or celebrate communion. At both ends of the table were large white candles on gold candle stands. Sometimes the table was covered by a blue cloth decorated with liturgical symbols. My father wore a black robe and a scarf around his shoulders.
When I heard the soothing sound of my father’s voice in the call to worship, I reached for the hymnal and opened it to the first hymn. Then he began to sing. I have to say, I think the rich sound of his voice may be the dominant memory of my childhood, aside from the palpable presence of God himself.
I wrote a list of favorite hymns in an old hymnal of mine. When my father sang A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, it moved me deeply..
A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper he amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
What the hell was my God preparing me for?! For example, there was
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home!
These songs have stood by me all my life. Recently I worked on a guitar version of Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus and sang it in the Princeton Methodist Church.
Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us;
Let us find our rest in thee.
I'll cite one more by Charles Wesley, He, along with Bob Dylan, have been my greatest influences as a songwriter. Wesley wrote the hymn I just mentioned and he also penned O For a Thousand Tongues To Sing. It’s the first page of my hymnal:
O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace!
My young soul basked in the glories of this music. You'll just have to take my word on it. The lyrics alone do not convey what power they have. Before the golden age of fifties rock n’ roll, before the rich and varied music of the sixties, before the classical music I grew to love as a young man, there were these great hymns. They still resonate deep in my heart.
And then there was the visual counterpoint to the sublimity of the music - the stained glass windows. They weren’t just scenes or illustrations. How could they be? The colored glass was all broken up into shards, separated into fragments! The form defied taxonomy. A stained glass window didn’t just refer to a subject. It called up the thing itself. Here in the sensuality of the sanctuary, suffused with beauty and kindness, riding a wave of ineffably rich music, amidst the color and light streaming down, I could touch the Spirit. This is where I learned the act of contemplation, of knowing God - and it became the bed of my life's creative work.
Between hymns, the congregation spoke aloud:
Our Father, which art in heaven ,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
On Earth as it is in Heaven.
Some refrains we sang. I so wish you could hear the music of them now. They’re in my bones:
Glory be to the Father,
And to the Son and to the Holy Ghost,
As it was in the beginning
Both now and and ever shall be
World without end, Amen. Amen
The service culminated with my father “delivering” his sermon. The term fit. On Sunday it was like he gave birth to a child that had been gestating all week long.
I knew firsthand how he labored. Once I looked into his study and tried to get his attention, but he didn’t look up. It was like I wasn’t there. Why was I so deeply hurt? It was because I loved him so much, that’s why. It remained a sore wound for years.
Perhaps this is why I still have so much trouble praying. I’ve never been absolutely sure that God was listening. It remains a persistent quandary - is what I desire to say important enough to hold his attention? I've never doubted that he loves me, though. I know he loves me. I feel his love.
During one of my father's last days, I thankfully got what I really needed. He must’ve sensed what I was asking for. Looking up from his wheelchair, he said, “Dan, you’re a wonder to me.” I’ve sealed those words up in a secret vault in my heart. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I hadn’t heard him say this before he died.
His actual sermons are vague in my memory. I guess I was preoccupied, too. Young men do tend to get wrapped up in the throes of their own emergence, so wrapped up they either can’t or plain don’t want to listen to what their father is saying. I do know that what he said sometimes got him in hot water. I remember hearing in Tucson about the parishioner who objected to what they called “profanity in the pulpit.” I was never told what that particular fuss was about. I do know Dad liked to rock the boat, and I know he enjoyed it when I rocked a few myself.
I caroused a bit and, either he didn’t know, or didn’t think it was important enough to stop me. Sometimes I think it might’ve been better if he’d done it a little more - stopped me, I mean - stopped me and talked. But here again, I'm not sure I was always on his radar.
You know, I don’t hold it against him anymore. I’m grown too painfully familiar how oblivious I can be myself.
His sermons always returned to themes closest to his heart. He usually got around to social justice, racial equality, or, and this should cover it - the kindness and compassion of God. I have a photo of him in Africa at Albert Schweitzer’s compound, helping an old woman churn buttermilk. I think the picture says it all. Most of the time he lived to love people and give himself for others. That’s why he respected Schweitzer so deeply. Faith can’t be just what you talk about. It has to be a life you live.
When I was young, my father represented God to me. That’s why my parents’ divorce had such a devastating effect. I thought the kingdom of God was crumbling. Eventually I got over that notion, but it wasn’t until I got a lot more familiar how difficult being a parent can be. I should say being a person..period.
At the end of the service my father stepped off the platform and spoke these words to the people. They have rung down through my life:
“Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy: to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever, Amen.”
The Dad walked to the back of the church, turned around, and said:
“The Lord bless you and keep you: the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you: the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. Amen.
Then arose gradually the usual Sunday after-church rustle - people getting up, the sound of Bibles and hymnals being put back, voices muttering softly - all this over and against the swelling chords of the organ.
Reverend Gilbert S. Zimmerman walked back and stood beside the front doors. I scurried back to sidle up next to him, close enough to feel his soft, cascading robe. I loved standing there with him, as the people filed past to say a few words, shake his hand, and go home.
"The essence of Western Civilization is neurosis.”
I happened across this startling phrase reading one morning in William Barrett’s Time of Need- Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century.
I value this early reading time so much. It helps me navigate, or rather, circumnavigate, my own peculiar neurosis. After a night of sleep and dreams, my brain is less tangled by concerns. I’m not driving forward with the heedless velocity which builds up inside me during the day. In the A.M. I'm able to both read and think, and beyond this to send thoughts back for more consideration.
Today again, as I read William Barrett, I am brought up short by his discussion of neurosis, and I reflect on the bizarre theatrics currently on public display. Barrett says of Western man: “We know so much that we cease to know the primal things.”
Does anybody know “the primal things” anymore? If anybody does, they couldn’t possibly all be in one camp. I think a lot of them aren’t making any public noise at all.
On the television news, I watch the dramatic characters determinedly pursuing their impassioned ideas and am reminded of Victor Frankenstein, as he fixedly labored to raise his carefully re-fashioned corpse to life by an obscure combination of both scientific and arcane means. But in the end, after all the sparks had subsided, he was left unfulfilled. I quote Mary Shelley: “We are unfashioned creatures, but half made up,” Victor’s overambitious drive reflected his nagging neurosis. He was desperately seeking a sense of worth, something to complete his “half made up” existence.
Our nation’s awkward (to use the kindest word possible) situation is tragic in the classic sense.
If only we would allow our stubborn ambitions to die, if only we’d go to sleep and dream again, like children do..if only we’d cease our efforts to manically cobble things together, things we should allow to properly decompose..so as to best nurture the soil of a whole new world..maybe..maybe..perhaps..
Perhaps then we’d be able to stop, look around, and see each other, standing together on this grand, beautiful, ravaged Earth. If only we could pause to recognize the great gifts we’ve already been given. If only we’d learn to care for one another.
Frankenstein sought to galvanize the monstrosity he’d stitched together and raise it to life. If he had a change of heart, the horror might have been averted. After all, He who was dead has already been raised.
Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
The quote is from Yeats. A profound humbling of our nation might not be a bad thing.
“There can be worse things than the experience of humiliation through which we learn humility.”
Sometimes there is great profit in defeat.
It was 1971. I was sitting on the grass at the east entrance to the University of Arizona. I had in my hands a copy of Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, and was leaning back against the base of the UofA sign, reading. I wasn’t in school; I was just there. Tucson wasn’t home anymore; I was just there. The air was hot and dry, pleasant if you’re used to it. But I felt like flotsam, jettisoned and left there by the storm which was the sixties.
I paused at a sentence in the book. A vivid memory had intervened, called up by the turmoil inside Harry Haller, Steppenwolf’s main character.
On October 21, 1967, 50,000 people marched on the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam. I was in that seething mass of dissidents. We crossed a great expanse of grass, and finally stood, gazing up at the imposing outside wall. We were exultant. I was exultant, too.. and yet, my heart was divided.
The march happened when I was still in art school at Syracuse. A friend told me about it, and said I could go with him. My parents, meanwhile, were in Tucson, watching it happen on television. Weeks later, when I was home for Christmas, my father said he was very proud of me. He’d always taken a principled stand against the idea of war, but he wasn’t against self-defense. He taught me how to box, and cheered me on sometimes when I wrestled in high school.
William Barrett, in his brilliant book, Time of Need - Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century (’72) writes on Hesse:
“Forty or fifty years before the hippie culture was to erupt among us, Hesse was its prophet— even down to the Oriental trappings with which it fits itself out. And rereading him now should help us to see what the revolt of today’s youth is really about. It is only secondarily political. Sometimes political causes are grasped only in order to externalize or objectify the more nameless malaise within. At bottom, however obscurely grasped, the revolt is for some psychological and spiritual wholeness which our civilization seems…to frustrate.”
Barrett calls it “one part of Hesse’s message that his youthful admirers tend to forget. His theme is the polarity that divides human nature.”
Barrett later says:
“Some children repeat the lives of their parents, even down to omitting all those things the parents themselves avoided…Other children, and they are fewer, seem driven to search out and experience the unlived life of their parents. These are the voyages of discovery that broaden the mind and enrich the spirit..”
For me, this is getting much closer to what was happening. The sixties were “only secondarily political.” There were profound changes going on. Everything was changing. I recall thrilling to the electricity in the air. And it didn’t just involve the young. It effected everyone.
It was like everybody suddenly sensed how wonderful it was to be alive. Nobody needed to justify their existence anymore! Admittedly, it was apprehended partly through the use of certain substances which became widely available, but, nevertheless, people were beginning to discover dimensions to their lives which they never knew existed, had never experienced before.
It seems like a bit of an aside at this point, but.. is it any wonder that a person, who may be just awakening to the marvel which is their life, would balk at the idea of being shipped off to fight a seemingly absurd war and thereafter very possibly be returned home in a body bag? Brief rewind to the march on the Pentagon.
But, like I said, there was more going on than this for me. My political activism was somehow only an exterior event. The sixties had to do with creative freedom, an inward change. My experience in life, limited though it was, told me that — creativity was where the energy was.
I heard it in the amazing music. I saw it in the trembling beauty of paintings. I drank it up in the passionate and diversely intelligent conversations I was having. I felt it pulsing through me as I started getting much more serious about my own work: in drawing, painting and, starting to write my own songs. The atmosphere was charged.
Horrific stories of the Vietnam war were constantly in the news. I was finding it so hard to stay focused on my schoolwork. I began to be constantly aware of the marital problems my parents were having. It pained me deeply. I was starting to consider dropping out, and not just from school. I knew, however, that I would be up for the draft as soon as I did. And throughout all this, I was becoming increasingly aware of aggravated divisions within me. Remember Harry Haller? Of course, the drugs only exacerbated the conflict. What divisions you say?
I’m learning now that Hesse, like myself, was a preacher’s kid. His parents, whom he honored and respected, were missionaries in India (which lends Siddhartha whole new added meaning). Young Hesse was a disciplined, educated and reasonable young man. But he desired to explore different territory. Whereas his parents hoped their son would embrace the ordered life of the theological seminary, he was drawn to spontaneity and emotion, intuition and instinct — the realm of poetry and art.
But, as Barrett describes so masterfully, Hesse was not willing to wholly cast off the values of his parents, which he, albeit reservedly, still honored. He chose a life that embraced what I describe as the necessary tension of contending opposites.. like wrestling.
In high school, I was a wrestler. I was familiar with its code. You were required to accept the premise of the match: the necessary tension of grappling with another wrestler who earnestly sought to gain the advantage over you. It was a dialogue, a fierce conversation.
My coach taught the art of “finesse wrestling.”According to this method, one trained oneself to counter any unwise moves on the part of one’s opponent with swift, decisive counter-moves. Skilled practitioners of this wrestling style were beautiful to behold. They never tried to bully their adversaries.
I was also on Tucson High’s 1965 undefeated state championship football team. It was an tremendous experience, don’t get me wrong. I’m proud to have been on that awesome team. But football is much different from wrestling. On the gridiron, you sought to be faster than, or simply overpower your opponent. There was beauty in that game, too. It just didn't have the same.. grace.
We're going through some tough times now. What we need is a new myth. I choose wrestling as the more compelling myth, in which adversaries step onto the mat as equals, accept the incumbent tension of the situation, and proceed to engage in a heated dialogue. Now there’s an honorable contest.
And, if we take this further, ideally.. it’s a myth in which we actually both love and respect our opponent—that is, if there’s honor in the game. So, let us celebrate opposition. After all, there’s plenty to go around. The world is rife with it.
Let us return to William Barrett, whose contention is that most of Hermann Hesse’s admirers miss the ultimate point he makes in Steppenwolf (and all his other novels as well) concerning the conflict between opposites, which is that
“Victory cannot belong to either side. One force cannot conquer the other without also eventually inflicting defeat upon itself…Man is condemned to live forever in the tension of…opposites; but his salvation lies in maintaining not civil war, but a fruitful dialogue between them.”
Of course, this can’t be the end of this conversation. Numerous questions remain. Is it really so that victory cannot belong to either side? Does this have to do with all competition, with each and every conflict? I would not be completely comfortable with a “yes” answer to that question. After all, what would that say about our entire western way of life?
I think there are some wars which must be won. But, and here I’m trying to get at a more nuanced view of this conjectural battle...to look through a different lens.
I’ve proposed the myth of wrestling because for me it relates to the creative process, which is something I’m passionate about. I’ve been trying to ascertain if a fierce conversation between opponents, even enemies, could ever be seen as worthy engagement, could ever become “fruitful” dialogue?
Only if it results in something surprising, welcome and entirely unexpected. Then there’s honor in the game. I wonder. Is there still.. any honor in the game?
I continue to reflect on the time my father and I drove out to Old Tucson and visited the set of Heaven with a Gun, a western movie starring Glenn Ford. I'm not saying it was a great movie, but it continues to carry great import for me.
The text for the film poster reads like this...
Certain questions spring immediately to mind like “How can this be?” or “How could an artist ever, conceivably…KILL !?” I wish to look at how the plot of the movie relates to the creative process, so please bear with me as I make the following comparison:
Glenn Ford’s character, Jim Killian, wants to leave the life of a gunman and become a preacher. With his gun, Killian had always been able to put a stop to things, to wrap things up...with his "peacemaker." Hence, the messier, more difficult process of peacefully resolving conflict was efficiently avoided. But now, after a lifetime of such easy solutions, he found himself eschewing the gun. His heart was gripped by an inchoate vision - he desired something more.
A skilled painter can kill as well - but with a brush instead of a gun. If the artist relies on technique alone when faced with the challenge of what direction to take, if they, too, desire something more - whether they're facing a blank canvas or a particularly problematic work-in-progress - the ready brush, or perhaps the sharpened pencil can, like the drawn six-shooter, effectively “put a stop to things.” Very often, this can (not in every case certainly, but frequently enough) prevent the emergence of THE NEW.
And isn't that the whole point? It certainly was the whole point for Jim Killian. He was not accustomed to being a man of God. Non-violent conflict resolution was completely new territory for him.
This is how it should be for the artist as well. It's the whole point of creativity. If what results from the "creative" process is not wholly new, then we shouldn't be using the word creative in conjunction with it.
We can't create out of nothing, but what we do create must never have existed before, or we may as well slip once again back into melancholy and call what we do re-presentation, or, as Andrew Graham-Dixon, in his book on Howard Hodgkins, says “..all representational art is melancholic. To represent is, literally, to re-present. It is to attempt to reincarnate a moment, something seen and felt, that is already in the past. It is an attempt to bring back something that is irretrievably gone.”
We're all up against it here. The world is a closed system. Despite our efforts to open up an aperture and bring something new through the cracks, most of the time we just slip back into re-presenting. It's a cosmic struggle; for, by defintion, the "new," unless you've seen a vision, is something never seen before. It's at best only vaguely envisioned, like a vaporous dream. It has no precedent. If we knew what a "work of art" was going to be, why would we even begin? But, isn't that how it should be? The artist cannot see what their work will be. I don't believe God does, either, and I think that's been his mysterious and wonderful intention all along. In a related sense, artists cannot comprehend what they're doing. What results from creative work MUST be a joyous surprise - to both God and man.
The greatest dreams are elusive and only partially formed. The experienced artist knows this. Each time you begin to create, having only a compelling, albeit indefinite vision, all you can do is set the stage for its emergence. Then what you must do is try to woo it. The artist, in this sense, must court surprise. However, if at this critical juncture you draw your “gun,” instead of letting yourself experience the awkwardness of not-knowing-quite-how-to-go-about-this, you may KILL the work, or merely re-present what’s been seen before.
So how do we avoid this? It seems to me the answer has to do with how we use our gun. It’s very important to know when it’s best to keep it in the holster. I’m not against the use of one’s skills - I have a hard-won few that I’m glad are available for use. But the creative act is less about what an artist can do and more about what they’re open to finding out. It’s less about what we have and more about what we’re reaching for.
All of this is quite difficult. It certainly requires a sense of security, a modicum sense of who you are. Otherwise, you'll just "go for the gun."
I mean, Jim Killian knew he was fast at the draw. He was confident of that. Over the years he had spent many hours practicing and had gotten damn good at it, if he said so himself.
But he was seeking something larger and deeper, a dimension he hadn’t yet tasted.
To answer another question raised by the film poster, yes, I do believe it’s possible for an artist to make a masterpiece. However, just a moment, please. One of the dictionary definitions I found for masterpiece was “the best piece of work by a particular artist or craftsperson.”
Let’s be real here - there are masterpieces and..there are masterpieces. The “best” piece of work by a particular artist may still be mediocre in the grand scheme of things. It might merely be the fastest draw in the life of yet another run-of-the-mill gunslinger, business as usual.
Neither the world nor the artist would or should be seeking that result.
In the dog-eat-dog world of competition, whether you're a "successful artist" or a famous gunslinger, you always have to be looking over your shoulder, because, sooner or later someone’s going to show up who is faster on the draw. Then you’re dead meat. However, true creative work is not haunted by these phantoms. By definition it is unassailable, because it results in what is always both unique and irreplaceable.
There is, and can be, in this case, no contest
Nicolas Berdyaev said, “Creativeness is always a growth, an addition, the making of something new that had not existed in the world before.” He also said “Creativity is the only thing that adds.” It’s a breakthrough. More than simply a development, it's an addition.
Allow me to share a memorable milestone for me:
I’d been working for several months on a painting I call Mowing the Lawn. The central character in the piece, a man smoking a pipe, is mowing his lawn. I drew the image from an ad in a fifties-era issue of Popular Mechanics. To me it perfectly typified the contented homeowner caring for his property. Then I had the idea of surrounding the seemingly oblivious fellow with a jungle teeming with dinosaurs and dangerous beasts. These I drew from film stills and old monster magazines.
For months I worked and worked on the painting, but even though I rendered everything pretty much as I wanted to render it, I ended up in a state of utter frustration, exclaiming “So what!!” There was nothing new about it. I’d seen it all before. The piece struck me as singularly unsatisfying. It "didn't work."
I decided that I needed to really wrestle with the thing, So, in a storm of emotion, I yanked it out to my backyard, (which, by the way, is also very much a New Jersey jungle), mixed up a strange brew of black oil paint, mineral spirits and water and started to throw the mix onto the canvas with sticks, brushes and rags. Thank you, Jackson!
At length, I stood back aghast, thinking I might have destroyed the work altogether. But in the end, I realized that I'd saved it. Something surprising happened when I reached beyond my recalcitrant capabilities.
So again..do we artists really know how to kill? Oh, yes. We are especially capable of doing so. And why is that? As in the case of Jim Killian, it’s because we’re so damned skillful.
Now, how on earth did we get this way?!
We’re taught in school to hone our skills. And, unfortunately, it's during that early educative season of life that we begin to doubt our wonder-struck "childish" creative work, comparing these marvels to the work of "mature, skillful artists.” Nothing kills like these comparisons.
I still hear the echoes: “Oh, that's g-o-o-d! I wish I could draw like that.” or “That’s doesn’t look anything like...” or “Wow! Great job. You should get an A+. It looks almost like a photograph!”
And so we go on like this, in a sort of trance, marching toward a shimmering mirage in the distance. William Barrett, in his brilliant book on the philosophical basis for the idea of method or "technique," calls this mirage The Illusion of Technique. We keep shambling zombie-like toward the apparition, meanwhile, as the years go by, getting too skillful for our own good.
And, of course we’re egged on and celebrated along the way. How pleasurable it is when people praise us! Pride rises up. We start to “believe our own press.”
We've entered the savage world. Alas, not only do we find ourselves conforming to its rules, we begin to compare ourselves with others in the game
I still remain divided about the value of competition, grades, scorecards, rankings... we develop an interest in keeping score, for carving notches in the handle of our gun, to keep track of how we're doing, our record of KILLS. When we fall into that trap, we find that we always need to be looking over our shoulder for the inevitable threat of another young gunslinger. As soon as we begin keeping score, we’re fair game.
Do you recall how strange it was when you got your first report card? My memory of it is that it becomes increasingly difficult to rest in the knowledge of who you are and what you’re becoming, let alone to see others clearly, and honor and respect them for who they are. We begin to see everything through the distorted lens of comparison, pride, and ambition.
So how do we avoid this trap? Like Jim Killian, in every new work, we must continue to desire something broader and deeper than what wrong-headed education has encouraged us to seek, something greater than what our familiar skills have produced so far, As William Wordsworth reminded us, "Heaven lies about us...we still can hear its voices..." Heaven on Earth is the dimension we seek. We must "break on through to the other side," although I would say to Jim Morrison if I could that then the other side becomes this side as well..
Creativity, as Berdyaev attests, is the only thing that adds. Every other human activity simply shifts things around, or re-presents them in a different context. In this world, this side of Heaven, there is nothing new under the sun. But,the new can only be brought forth by a creative act.
I find myself thinking of Jackson Pollock. His painting process has often been called an “arena.” He would circle his canvas like a wrestler or bullfighter. He took immense risks with every piece. In my view, he was always grappling with the paradox we all face. He knew he had achieved exciting results in the past. He even had a rough idea how he’d achieved them, BUT..he kept pushing himself forward into strange territory, where he didn’t know what he was doing. That is why he did such astonishing work.
There are others. I know the following list will be only partial, and I know I will probably forget to include people who should be on it, but I want to mention a few of those whose consistent efforts to break through barriers impacted me greatly:
My father, Gilbert S Zimmerman, my mother, Belle Zimmerman, my resilient brother and sister, Michael and Georgia, my luminous, courageous wife, Robin Mercedes Zimmerman, my brave, creative children, Matthew and Amber and their faithful spouses, and all my grandchildren, Magnus, Enzo, Isabella, Julian, and Abram, Robert Illes, Scott and Ellie Snedeker, Francis & Pam Lagielski, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Klee, Marsden Hartley, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Charles Burchfield, Richard Pousette-Dart, Chaim Soutine, Wassily Kandinsky, J.M.W. Turner, Lee Krasner, Emily Carr, Ludwig Meidner, Maurice Vlaminck, André Derain, Howard Hodgkin, Fern Coppedge, Jack Melrose, David Robinson, Roderick and Linda Smith, Tony and Jane Tuck, Blair and Linda Stevenson, Byron Renderer, Steve Bakunas, Tim McAllister, Leon Goodenough, Dennis Childers, Todd Fadel (especially when he worked with Matt Zimmerman), Bob Sable, Tony Jones, Johann Sebastian Bach, Charles Ives, Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Television, Lenny Smith, Daniel & Elin Smith, Josh and Kory Stamper, Frank Zappa, Harvey Kurtzman, Forrest J. Ackerman, Georges Méliès, Walt Disney, Paul Blaisdell, Jack Arnold, George Pal, Val Lewton, Merian C. Cooper, Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Eiji Tsuburaya, Hiyao Miyazaki, Terrence Mallick, Jim Jarmusch, The Marx Bros, Laurel & Hardy, Tom Rankin, Malachi Matcho, oh, and Ed Wood, Jr. Quite a mix, huh?
Many times they failed, days in which they could not wrest the new from the ether. But they were seized by an inchoate vision, being no longer satisfied with what they knew could be done they pressed on. Every failure to break through, every easy dispatch made them sad. They craved something much more, something akin to standing near where a shaft of light might shoot through a crack in the distant hills. They desired to witness how it would suddenly illumine previously unseen shapes.
They sought to position themselves well, so they could respond quickly and lithely to the newly limned dimensions being revealed. They were poised to respond. It was their destiny to take part in the co-creation of a whole new world.
Jim Killian was tired of the gun and its fruits. After all, he was a preacher. He loved the Lord now, and fervently led his congregation in the Lord’s Prayer. Sure, he loved the earth. Sometimes the earth did require the service of a skilled gunman. But, now that he included heaven in the mix, and it was a puzzling mix to be sure. He was finding that, to triumph here, in this new era of elevated concerns, he saw it as absolutely necessary that his Earth become “as it is in Heaven.”
My dad taught me to love the “oaters” when we lived in San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles. After the extensive work he always did preparing sermons and then preaching them every Sunday, he would come home tired, turn on the television set, relax in his chair, and watch The Lone Ranger, The Three Mesquiteers, Hopalong Cassidy, or some other hard-riding, hard-fightin’ star like Kermit Maynard or Buck Jones. Of course, there were also the singing cowboys. One of my earliest memories was Gene Autry in Phantom Empire, which combined western, musical and science-fiction elements.
On “family days,” in the fifties and very early sixties, Dad liked to take us out to the Simi Valley area where the westerns were filmed. Corriganville was a town they had built on the property of Ray “Crash” Corrigan. Ray, along with Bob Livingstone and Max Terhune, was one of The Three Mesquiteers. He was also the guy who was inside the terrifying alien suit in It, the Terror from Beyond Space.
Corriganville Movie Ranch was open to the public on weekends. All around it, of course, was country very familiar to my imagination. Its roads wound through low-lying oaks which cowboys jumped up into or leapt out of, past magnificent rocks which they clambered over or used as cover to shoot from. I loved climbing around this terrain. Later it made watching the movies even more exciting.
One weekend that we went, I saw Robert J. Wilke standing by his car in the parking lot. You'd recognize him if you saw a photo. He was the guy who fought with Kirk Douglas when water was flooding into the Nautilus at the climax of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I’m guessing he might have been out there working on Have Gun Will Travel, which was also shot there.
In 1963 Tucson, we lived on Painted Hills Road, which intersects West Speedway beyond the edge of town. It was actually the only house my parents ever owned. Before that they had inhabited a string of parsonages going back to the first days of their marriage.
I loved it out there. We kids used to catch the bus to school right at the corner of Painted Hills Road and Speedway. The rolling hills all around were thickly populated with cacti, stands of saguaro, ocotilla, prickly pear, barrel, and the tenacious cholla. Of course, there were also rattlesnakes and scorpions to watch out for, as well as prairie dogs, roadrunners, herds of javelina and more. Marvelous stuff! We saw a bobcat in our driveway soon after moving in, and my brother, Mike soon brought a tarantula home in a jar from the arroyo near our house.
Things had changed. Before, in California, I rode my bike on a regular basis on city streets, delivering newspapers and hauling my skimboard to the beach. Now that I was a desert dweller, I did my riding on dirt roads, to explore my new turf, and get in shape for football and wrestling.
One day I biked up into the mountains behind my house, out Speedway and over Gates Pass, a low ridge at the western edge of the Tucson basin. On the other side you could see Old Tucson on the plain below, constructed for the Columbia picture Arizona in 1940. It was built to look like the mud-adobe town Tucson used to be.
As the years went by Old Tucson had been further developed. It was a picturesque replica of a western town, complete with raised wooden sidewalks, a grandiose hotel and saloon, a sheriff’s office, blacksmith’s shop, old white-washed Spanish-style church and, of course, dirt streets to handle both stagecoach and horse traffic, complete with tethering posts and water troughs.
In my case, I didn’t need a horse. I looped down over the pass, scooted left into an arroyo which crossed the road, hid my trusty bike behind a mesquite tree..and quietly walked into the back side of the movie lot.
I have a friend from Tucson High, whom I played football with there, whose parents, the Sheltons, owned Old Tucson. I remember a hallway in his house lined with photos of Robert Shelton with John Wayne (Rio Bravo), Kirk Douglas (Gunfight at O.K. Corral), Jimmy Stewart (Winchester 73) and other stars. When I recently talked to my old friend on the phone and told him about my going in the back way, he said, “You owe me!” It was a justifiable reaction on his part, as well as a good reason to laugh together.
In 1968, Heaven with a Gun, a western starring Glenn Ford was about to be filmed at Old Tucson. My father had been contacted by someone from the press about posing for a publicity shot. They thought it would excite interest locally if they photographed a real preacher from present-day Tucson shaking hands with Ford, who would portray the gunman-turned-preacher in the film. Dad asked me if I wanted to go. “Sure,” I said.
I’ve never seen Heaven with a Gun. But Glenn Ford is not the important figure in this piece. Oh, I met him that day, yes, but he seemed like kind of a jerk. To be fair, maybe he thought I was a teenage punk. Not to digress, though.
My father has always been the hero of the story for me. Like Ford’s character, he always strove to stand up for the dignity of others. So, it strikes me as particularly poignant that he chose to leave his wife and children at the same time he was posing for that publicity shot at Old Tucson. The Zimmerman family was going through a period of great structural stress. 1662 Painted Hills Road would turn out to be the last place we lived as an intact family. This particular family crisis culminated in Dad making the decision leave the ministry, move back to California, and divorce my mother soon thereafter. Except for this one egregious case, I believe my father usually fought a noble fight in life.
I still maintain that, in one way or another, he was always engaged in what had been for him a lifelong struggle with the reality of death. The death of his father when he was 6 in Duluth, Minnesota was something he could never wholly accept. I think he was always haunted by it.
Speaking of being haunted, he also liked to take our family to visit ghost towns. The most memorable for me was our trip to Bodie, a ghost town east of Yosemite near the Nevada line, still preserved today “in a state of arrested decay.” I recall my parents being careful to tell us how we should take care where we stepped around the old buildings, so we wouldn’t fall through a rotten floor and be sorry.
Bodie was indeed a haunting place. But in a related sense, so were Corriganville and Old Tucson. They were reminders of the inevitable transience of life and the ever-present specter of death. In 1995, a tragic fire consumed much of Old Tucson. We visited recently, but it was closed. The familiar mountain one sees in all the films, however, still looms over the scene. You could feel the presence of everything that had taken place there.
Such spots are the repositories of myth, symbols of our quest for a fresh realization of life passed by too quickly.
Emile Zola wrote that through art we “objectify the subjective,” that art is "the exteriorization of an idea.” It could be that when I was visiting these ghost towns I began to see some of the ideas I was meant to exteriorize. I began to encounter the compelling realm of myth and symbol. As a boy growing up where people were busy giving their dreams shape, so near Hollywood, which was often called a “dream factory,” something stirred deeply in my imagination.
I wasn’t convinced... I’ve NEVER been convinced that life was as it appeared outwardly to be, in the streets and neighborhoods where I lived. Everyday life wasn't telling me the whole story.
Civilization has a way of shielding us from the uncomfortable but revelatory reality of death.
A person can only see its secrets if he makes a myth of it somehow, to facilitate the looking. I’m still trying to exteriorize its hiddenness through creative work. Otherwise one might as well just be strolling down a nondescript street peering through the windows of other people’s houses.
I create to disclose life.
And so this time I've told a tale of ghost towns. I'm very much like my father. He wouldn’t settle for the way things appeared to be, either. From the day his dad died when he was 6 I think he lived on the edge, where meaning is sometimes brought into focus by the proximity of death.
As Nicolas Berdyaev says, “The fact of death alone gives true depth to the question as to the meaning of life. Life in this world has meaning just because there is death.”
I never lived in one city long enough for these things to catch up with me..is that it? But it was inevitable that necessity would catch up with me. Why?! Does it just inevitably descend upon as you “mature”? Are such concerns normal ? Crap like “We don’t have enough money to pay the bills, or much worse crap like “Did you hear what so-and-so said about so-and-so?” or “How do you like that pastor of ours? Did you notice how he’s trying to allow more colored people into our nice congregation!?” Not to mention all the anxiety, innuendo, and jealousy that goes on in the unspoken realm all the time anywhere, even in churches.
No, I consider myself very blessed to have remained unobservant in this setting, and I think also in other situations very much like this, whether it be in high school, workplace or neighborhood. I’m so glad I was able to remain unobservant much of the time. I can’t say that I remained as able to not notice things in high school, however. And things deteriorated even more after that in college. Nevertheless, throughout my life, I think my overall focus has been somewhat different from many people around me. I looked through the eyes and heard through the ears which I was given very early,
Which begs for a more detailed description of my experience in church. If I wasn’t noticing the petty (if they weren’t also tragic) things which went on all the time around me, just what was it that I was taking in?
I was noticing that God was irresistibly present and real, that his love was radiant, warm and full of energy. I could sense that his love was for all of us, each concrete personality, and that the suffusing presence we found ourselves experiencing was full of both beauty and surprise.
Day by day, life was shaping up to look very much worth living.
What remains pertinent to my life as an artist is how I began to see that spirituality was a palpable reality. It was NOT cut off from the realm of sound, and taste, and sight and touch. All the sense aspects of the material world were infused with a surging energy, like marvelous waves of a brilliant sea, beckoning me to swim in it.
In the midst of these experiences, every week I would intone the following words along with the entire congregation, each of us at various stages of life and mind, whether we were challenged and uptight about life, or gently open like flowers to catch the sun’s rays. Young and old, skeptical or accepting, whether our state of heart was one of abject existential pain or ecstatic belief, all of us together reading from the hymnal or confessing from memory..the core of it was:
We believe in God the Father, infinite in wisdom, power and love, whose mercy is over all his works, and whose mercy is over all his works, and whose will is ever directed to his children’s good.
We believe in Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of man, the gift of the Father’s unfailing grace , the ground of our hope, and the promise of our deliverance from sin and death.
We believe in the Holy Spirit as the divine presence in our lives, whereby we are kept in perpetual remembrance of the truth of Christ, and find strength and help in time of need.
We believe that this faith should manifest itself in the service of love as set forth in the example of our blessed Lord, to the end that the kingdom of God may come upon the earth. Amen
My experience speaking these words was, and still is, a powerful, deeply assuring experience. In the midst of this confession of faith I lack nothing, except.. perhaps an active, continuing creative participation in the emergence of the Kingdom.
And for me, it all started back there when I was a child in church.
What I eagerly drank in streamed through the stained glass - light, shining through saturated color, making each color brighter than the vivid pigments fired into the glass.
And I can only begin to describe how it reached me through the music, music that wasn’t driven like the music I would encounter later in life. Even though I confess to a deep love and affection for rock n’ roll, especially during the hurtling sixties, this early encounter with hymns in church had a deeper-rooted effect on me.
Rock n’ roll was moving and beautiful, but it drew its energy mostly with the way life surged and always kept escaping. It was music about the way my body was changing, and the way I began to look outside myself at the way others looked and how they regarded me. It was extremely self-conscious music,
Rock n' roll celebrated the sexual. I had no problem with that. From age 13 to age 20 I loved sex. But sex didn’t love me back. Sex was a moving target. It promised much, thrilled briefly, and then always, always left.
It resulted not in my own fulfillment, but resulted in the birth of yet another complex and wonderful being. A bad infinity, as Berdyaev calls it. Both my parents are dead, and my children, bless their hearts, have their own lives. And so do their kids. So much for evanescence and rock n’ roll.
But the music which I experienced in church was singular in its multidimensional presence. It always seemed to hold me and know me. It was always in motion but never left. It was music wherein people’s voices were each distinctly pivotal to its structure, yet at the same time each was one with a total sound being made. It was music that responded to God’s love and gloried in it.
This music, and the sound of my father's grand, exultant singing voice have continued to connect me with a realm far kinder than this one. That's why I hope I can yet tend to not notice the discordant, driving noise of the world. I DO want to still notice his magnificent love. When I begin to feel misunderstood, forgotten and old, the realm I've been speaking of reminds me that.. He will never leave me nor forsake me.