The Alchemist is a work that comes alive with a steam engine (which recycles water), a dancing goddess, sounds and lights.
For years, Jerry Wennstrom lived the life of a promising New York-based studio painter, toiling long hours over canvases. Then, in 1979, at the age of 29, Wennstrom abandoned what he knew and embarked on a journey of personal transformation. He destroyed all his art, gave away all his possessions and money, and began a life of what he calls “unconditional trust.” He drifted around for 10 years, trusting in his own abilities and the Earth’s bounty to provide for his basic needs. He then moved to Washington state, married teacher and singer Marilyn Strong, and began a new series of mixed-media art, much of which is deeply imbued with ecological themes.
Wennstrom’s compelling, unique and at times whimsical “Interactive Box Series” is composed of sarcophagus-like sculptures standing six to eight feet tall. The boxes are carved from the weathered cedar Wennstrom finds in the forests and on the beaches of his home base, Whidbey Island. Metal components, many of which move, are fashioned from found objects discarded by others. In the piece “War,” pulling the trigger on the protruding gun shoots a pistol inside, making a bang and popping out a smoking human skull with flapping jaw. In “The Key to Heaven,” viewers activate the piece by inserting a dime and turning a brass crank. In others, “hair” is made from old rope, and in “The Alchemist,” the flywheel of the internal working steam engine is a recycled coffee plunger.
Wennstrom’s themes deal heavily in life and death, rebirth, spirituality and facing our fears. In his 2002 book The Inspired Heart: An Artist"s Journey of Transformation (Sentient Publications), Wennstrom also cautions, “Our old ways of being on the planet are beginning to fail. Our social forms and structures are radically changing and breaking down. Our mother, the Earth, is ailing!”
Wennstrom is also the subject of two documentaries by Parabola, In the Hands of Alchemy: The Life and Art of Jerry Wennstrom, directed by Phil Lucas and Mark Sadan; and Studio Dialogue, directed by Jim Friedrich. Both videos are now available as a single DVD distributed by Parabola.
E Magazine: What was missing from your life in 1979, leading you to make such radical changes?
It was a deeper relationship with the mystery that was missing. Working as an artist in the studio I gained an intuitive sense that, if I could trust it, there was a larger, natural harmony that might completely carry my life. In 1979, I gave myself to this possibility by giving away everything I owned and allowing each moment to provide all that I needed without interference. Somehow it doesn’t occur to most of us to trust—with our lives—the harmony that we experience in the natural world and allow it to co-create the most beautiful world possible.
You are known for living simply, what you call an “ecological life.” How would you describe it?
Noninterference is the condition of ultimate ecological efficiency. Efficiency is the knowledge that every moment places us in the best seat in the house for inspiration to align our lives with nature’s larger harmony, which includes our material needs. You cannot improve on the perfection of the universe to supply the most appropriate events in our lives for our harmonious growth. Seeking secure advantage and attempting to avoid what is in our lives creates interference and disharmony. When we can live reverently, with the paradox of this sensibility, everything has its place and there is enough for everyone.
You use found objects to create much of your artwork, from an old sign from an animal clinic to a violin case, casket cart and bits of mylar. Can you elaborate on this process?
In Birth-Death (closed), a strobe shines through the pregnant glass belly of the carved cedar figure.
The artwork seems to have a way of its own when I hold creation in a reverent place. I will find something at the recycle yard or someone will send me something in the mail and it will fit perfectly into place, often bringing with it some unexpected sense of deeper meaning. I rely completely on this fluid, mysterious process. I also do my part, working hard carving the slabs of old cedar I find on burn piles at forest clear-cuts.
What is the inspiration behind your art?
Therein lies the mystery! By following my own natural allurements and paying attention to the whispers along the way, I find the inspiration I need to inform and enliven any new art piece. I am both surprised and awed by the creative potential that ultimately presents itself when I trust this organic process. It is like the red flower that unreasonably emerges from the green stem! Inspiration and deeper meaning seem to emerge naturally, from the reverent heart fixed on creative inquiry. Anything else, however well intended, is simply “propaganda,” as Joseph Campbell describes it.
Your interest in mechanical devices started young, inspired by your father. Can you explain why you moved away from the ranks of “paintbrush” artists to your current style?
Yes, I came from a line of inventors and machinists on my father"s side, going back generations. The paintbrush is no longer central to my creative process, yet it still fits into the mix. I incorporate my knowledge of painting in the creation of the interactive sculptures I am currently doing. The sculptures are coffin-like and painted with beings inside. They deliver gifts and do whimsical things. In retrospect, I see that they embody the paradox of death and renewal inherent in the metaphoric death experience. When we find courage enough to face our fear we overcome the fear and are gifted with renewal.
In your book The Inspired Heart you stress the value of people getting to better know themselves, as well as facing those powerful fears. What lessons have you learned?
We all have a personal mythos, a series of defining moments that point the way and offer breakthroughs in understanding. They are lessons learned if we go forth with courage and do our personal work. We travel at different paces. Many of us shrink back in fear at the challenges before us and our mythic journey slows. Some of us move forward courageously, with great strides. The more strident journey is the “Hero’s Journey.” We are our own best judges in this process. My book, which I was asked to write, represents the defining moments of my own humble journey.
What do you feel is the connection between your work and respect for the environment?
This steam engine made from recycled parts is part of The Alchemist.
Our first obligation is always the work of the soul, which naturally expands outward to include the soul of the world. With the soul in order, environmental understanding becomes truly effective in the world and we are able to do more good for our planet. America has lost touch with its soul-life. Materialistic gain at any cost has become the rule. Soul-life may be a stretch in understanding for the material-minded. However, concrete translations and proper attention given to environmental loss are understandable to everyone. E Magazine serves well, translating the soul-language of the Earth and holds the vision for creative new possibility.