Art is a pilgrimage of identity. An artist is a person who thrives on the extreme edges of creative expression. They are the pioneers of identity and powerful advocates of transformation. Jerry Wennstrom’s life is an exemplary model of personal growth and transformation. In this first installment of a three-part interview with artist Jerry Wennstrom, I ask him to explore the liminal frontiers of identity. What follows is a remarkable story of one artist’s journey through a remarkable transformation.
Background: An Artist’s Journey
Jerry Wennstrom is an artist, author of The Inspired Heart: An Artist’s Journey of Transformation (book and audiobook) and subject of Parabola and Sentient Publications documentary videos, “In the Hands of Alchemy” and “Studio Dialogue.”
He lectures and offers film presentations internationally and has written monthly articles for Inferential Focus, a New York City think tank and consulting firm for 4 years. Many of his articles are featured in Mythic Journeys. Jerry’s art is featured in the film, also entitled Mythic Journeys Documentary (feature length film).
His unusual life story is currently being made into a feature film by award-winning Danish filmmaker Hans Fabian Wullenweber.
Jerry is an annual lecturer at Pacifica Graduate Institute. (See video here). The tower that Jerry built on his Whidbey Island, Washington property and his life’s story is featured in the book, Holy Personal by Laura Chester.
In 1979 Jerry Wennstrom was a rising star in the New York art world when he let go of his identity as an artist by intentionally destroying his large body of art and giving away his money and all of his possessions. With this leap of faith he embarked on a fifteen-year journey listening, seeking, relying on intuition and unconditional trust to guide and provide for him.
Jerry currently lives with his wife Marilyn Strong on Whidbey Island Washington and has created a large new body of art. (Parabola Magazine)
The Liminal Frontiers of Identity
Brian Alger: You have changed your identity and presence in a deep and fundamental way. What are the key experiences in your life that caused you to make fundamental changes in how you were living? What specifically happened in the way you thought and felt about the world in each of those experiences that became the catalyst for change?
Jerry Wennstrom: There are two key experiences that led to and supported fundamental change for me – and by “fundamental change” I mean “The” event that changes life permanently and at the deepest level. First, there is the allurement of inspiration with its ongoing magic.
Then, at the other end of the spectrum, there is the catalyst of change that comes from boring, useless suffering, which is often the result of living outside of one’s true place of freedom in the world.
It is often these 2 conditions that cause me to question my life. Through deep and honest questioning I can begin to open to some inspired new possibility that I may have been sensing at an intuitive level all along.
The most radical transformation that occurred in my life, which became the template for real and lasting change, happened for me in 1979. This was a period, real or imagined, that I felt I was at the pinnacle of “achievement” in my creative ability. It was at this point that I felt the need to turn away from the reasonable and controlled environment of my own creation and begin to trust something larger.
Rather than looking for justification and support from the world around me, my journey led inward to some of the most undesirable and uninhabitable areas of both the personal and the collective psyche. It was the allurement of inspiration that drew me into this unlikely area of discovery.
Inspiration is Mystery
Inspiration was and is a mystery. In a sense, I was exploring the holy science of inspiration. I was asking, “What were the conditions surrounding that quantum leap that brought an inspired moment to life? And then, “How could I give all of my life to the experience of inspired freedom?”
Sustainable freedom is hard-earned and for the most part, avoided by most of us. Perhaps this is because of the inherent discomfort, loneliness, and formlessness we encounter, as we more fully inhabit our individuality.
The studio was a kind of laboratory for me. Having dabbled with the mystery of creation and more specifically, the allurement of inspiration, I came to understand a bit about the strange reality of this elusive gift. I began to trust and work with something larger than my will, intelligence and good intentions.
My identity as an artist seemed puny compared to what I sensed life could be if I fully embraced what I was intuiting. I sensed that if I were to give myself to the formless allurement of inspiration it would completely transform and inspire both my art and my life. This is what I did in 1979, when I let go of my identity as an artist, (by destroying my large body of art ) gave everything I owned away, and decided to completely trust the creative potential of the moment.
Having given myself to such a complete void, on the external level, I proceeded to take life as it came, without interference. Keeping myself open in this way of being, I placed no limits on where my exploration took me. Paradoxically, it was some of the more undesirable areas of discovery that were rewarded with the most liberating, beautiful and inspiring experiences.
Leaping into the Void
I sensed the single act of leaping into the void would set into motion the conditions that would require me to look to the source of inspiration for everything I needed, creatively and materially. My intuition proved to be correct and life began to unfold in new and unexpected ways – ways that required tending all aspects of life with equal attention.
I focused equal, creative attention on every experience that I encountered. A moment of not doing was mindfulness to a moment of doing. Having been so driven as a young painter, finding substance in the experience of Not Doing was a huge, yet ultimately rewarding challenge.
Doing nothing and finding meaning in the emptiness was probably one of the more difficult challenges for me. Generally speaking, exploring emptiness does not come easily to men who tend to focus more on external goals and forms. Opening to the powerful creative potential of emptiness is generally more a feminine experience. Like the Black Holes in space, it is vast, spatial and formless, and women are much more comfortable inhabiting space.
The initial shift that occurred for me at this time was and continues to be the most important event 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, sacrifice and outrageous trust in something unseen is required of this relationship.
It is in our willingness to turn and walk into those areas of consciousness where our ego-identity may come undone that we have the potential to find our own true life. This conscious, directional shift requires all of our courage.
Something Old and Calcified Must Die
The personal and collective ego does everything in its power to resist the possibility of such a radical shift in consciousness. The ego interprets any radical departure from a personal or cultural fix as sure death to its existence – and this perception is entirely correct.
Something old and calcified must die; yet, it is in the death of this old way of life that creates space to bring forth a truly new and inspired life. An inspired life is our birthright.
I find it ironic and something of a cosmic joke that this metaphoric ‘dying’ of my identity as an artist is what essentially brought my art to life in the context of a larger cultural expression. When we find courage enough to sacrifice our ego-identity and allow the mystery a say in what we do, there is a universal quality that gets expressed.
This universal quality resonates in the hearts of others as it makes into the world. The world recognizes and experiences this quality, in a personal way, as a timeless myth. The boundaries simply fall away. Universal creative expressions of this nature belong to everyone.
An encounter with art of this nature awakens the best in all of us and reminds us of who we are – collectively.