Interview: James Melchert: Getting There Is Half the Fun
by Craig Svare, Jan 12, 2018
As part of his doctoral dissertation at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley CA, Svare conducted interviews with several prominent Bay Area artists. The question of "self-indulgence" had come up in a discussion of particular American cultural and religious views which are practical in nature and value social service, but which regard art-making with suspicion as a self-indulgent activity.
James Melchert: There’s something I've thought about that's tied in a little bit with what you're saying. It stems from a visit I made to Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, a Mennonite undergraduate college. The students there were very bright. There were questions addressed to me that I didn't quite understand at the time and therefore didn't answer well. There was this one boy who was asking questions; he wasn't being direct enough for me to catch it. Later when it was explained to me what the problem was, I couldn't address his concerns because I never saw him again. This young man had been in Africa, Kenya, perhaps. He had gotten interested in pottery making there because of the village industry that he was exposed to. When he went back to Goshen College he wanted to spend all of his time in the pot shop. This young man wanted to pursue a career like this and yet he felt that it was not justified. In a lot of Mennonite thinking, which tends to be very practical, there is an idea of self-indulgence associated with art-making, even if you're a potter. I've been thinking about that.
I think there is something in the Protestant tradition that suspects art-making and, I would say, intellectual activity in general. I don't know enough about this topic to say if it is Protestant exclusively. We find someone like President Reagan whose background must be Catholic, I think—who typified, for me, a kind of anti-intellectual position that many Americans who have had his financial and career success express in many ways. I think it probably comes partly from economic background. I think of my Dad's family—they were Prussian farmers and also very religious, and of my wife's family, who were Mennonite and who were also farmers, partially. I think that among people who were self-supporting through the work of their hands, whether in farming, industry or whatever, that for them, a person is worth his or her salt on the basis of this kind of practical work. So it’s the non-practical aspects of scholarship and art-making, I think, that has to do with this particular bias.
Craig Svare: Would you say you’re "self-indulgent"? I ask in relation to your art-making.
Melchert: I would like to think I am. But, I want to explain that because normally we use the word in the pejorative sense. I turned sixty a year ago. It was a threshold year for me. Very important. I felt that I could finally let someone else take a turn at being the conduit between many people and funding sources, which was the case when I was with the Arts Endowment. And with the American Academy of Rome, I also saw to it that people who had received fellowships could indeed make the connections they needed in Rome, could continue the work they had to do without interruption. All this sort of thing. But, when I turned sixty, it was time for someone else to take those responsibilities.
One thing that happens if a person is locked into serving other people continually, without end, is that your batteries run down and before you know it you're giving outdated, irrelevant advice. I think you've got to constantly be regenerated and re-energized. There comes a time when you owe something to yourself that you had better take care of because you've got a few lessons to learn. You can't learn them unless you have a certain amount of time, a certain amount of solitude, just to think and to do a lot of reflecting.
So, as of last year I began spending a lot of time alone. And, when I say, "self-indulgent" it's not a matter of pampering one's self, but it is making sure that you can do what you have got to do. It means, for example, learning to say no. You have to protect yourself. There are many ways which you learn to protect yourself. I spend as much time as I can doing things that make me very happy. Happy in the sense of, not smiling, but doing something all the time. You know, the time is just gone...it just goes. Time, it seems to me, is the most precious thing you've got. It is more important than money, more important than materials, more important than spaces to work in even. And the irony of it is when work is going really well and you're really involved. suddenly there's no time.
I start work, say, at eight-thirty in the morning and I'll look at my watch. It seems like a half hour has passed, but it's already one o'clock. It's ironic. Obviously you know what I am talking about. You are just blissful. It has to do, also, with getting out of yourself in a way. There is some grand territory that you seem to slip into as you pursue your work. I suppose that for people who meditate, that meditation would be a reasonable alternative to art-making.
Svare: Do you meditate?
Melchert: No. I wish I could. In no time at all I get into a state of mind where suddenly all kinds of things come together. I can see something. I want to get back to work. It's wonderful for focusing, I must say.
Svare: I wanted to ask because I know you've read deeply, I think, in Zen Literature?
Melchert: I was fascinated by Trungpa Rinpoche. He was a Tibetan teacher who founded a Tibetan Buddhist school near Boulder, Colorado. Many years ago I read much of his work. It has had a profound effect on me. I never pursued it in that I have never gone to a Tibetan temple and taken instruction. There is a certain vision that you pick up about life that is quite different from what you are exposed to in your day to day living in America.
Svare: Would you characterize that?
Melchert: For example, if you just look at the Sunday newspaper you’ll notice the appeals made to facets of your being, your personality, to make you think that you need this, that you need that, and so on. You see that most of it is about advertising and the ads are very clever. Most people in the ads are very happy. One asks, what makes them so happy. Well, gee, it's this brand of cigarettes or that brand of automobile, or those clothes, or whatever.
Svare: Advertising, in some sense then, is an assault on human good.
Melchert: It is dreadful because the emphasis is on what you don't have. The emphasis is on directing your attention to what you don't have. You see, the thing that we need to pay attention to is what, in fact, we already have. I mean, there is so much that we have that is so fabulous that we tend to neglect under this pressure.
Svare: For instance?
Melchert: We talked earlier about our eyes. I am talking about the fact that you can sit and just observe things that are quite marvelous. You don't even have to be an artist. For example, I've become quite fascinated with shadow, light and shadow...
Svare: I remember the first time I went to your office in the art department at UC Berkeley around 1970 and you showed me shadows on the wall cast by the fire fixture.
Melchert: Is that right? Well. In any event, I just finished up a commission in Sacramento at a light rail and bus stop. It is such a windswept and hot section of town that I thought people really needed a place to sit and have a bit of shade while they were waiting for the bus. So I created a little shelter with bars across the top which gives you striped shadows. You know, if you go to some plant nurseries where they have the ferns they will often have those. It is something you will see in North Africa. If you are in Tunis and go to the bazaar you'll often find they have slats overhead that create stripped shadows underneath. It's very pleasant to be under them because everything becomes striped. It's very cooling, as filtered light is.
The seat I made is a four foot block with black and white stripes on it. If you happen to be standing there you can see how the shadows relate with the stripes of the seat. Sometimes they will line up depending on where the sun is, or they might not even touch. They come together at different parts of the day. It’s something to observe and, I would hope, enjoy while you are waiting for your bus.
Well these are all things that you can see here or anywhere. You don't have to go to North Africa to see that. The light here in the San Francisco Bay Area is just spectacular. In the late afternoons the quality of the light changes a lot. You find that certain colors, again, are intensified that are just out the back door in your own yard. It's really marvelous to be able to follow these changes!
Svare: Moving from advertising to seeing then— and dealing with the aspect of art which is perceived as non-utilitarian, non-productive, and self-indulgent— it is a community service to give the gift of seeing or to make a structure which affects our perception.
Melchert: Yes. I think you are absolutely right. But it is easier to see what contribution I am making as a teacher, for instance. I can easily point to things I feel that I have done with groups of students that have enabled them to see things differently, to use their imaginations more freely. But as an artist it is not as easy to see or to point to the things that make a difference for people.
For the people who pick up on what you're doing you can make a big difference. I find, for example, that people who have some appreciation for craftsmanship can go to a building which is beautifully done, and they will just marvel. What marveling does to you is, I think, very good. To marvel at something does something to you physically as well as something to you psychologically. The sense of wonder, for instance, that a person can be filled with must certainly benefit you in a very positive way. Yet, I think to a certain extent, that they way you are brought up, who your teachers have been, who your classmates have been, can affect your capacity to wonder, to marvel.
But you see in this country as much as possible is made for sale, to be sold, to be available to you only if you can buy it. This distracts you from things that you can marvel at. Television, for instance, is a very mixed blessing.
Svare: I don’t know if you listen to the radio, but it's not even possible to work when you watch television.
Melchert: That's right. When I was a kid I listened to a lot of radio. One of the things that I must say about radio is that at least you were constantly projecting images. But I'm staying from the topic. Let's go back to the "indulgence" topic.
Svare: When you say you're self-indulgent, you are speaking not paradoxically or ironically, but there is a very positive kind of thing. While you may not meditate in a formal sense, you contemplate.
Svare: I assume you sit and contemplate your work while it is in progress and when it is finished. Also, you notice and watch shadows. It takes time to watch shadows change. You spend time seeing. It is a form of contemplation.
Melchert: Yes. But, you know, there is another aspect of it. There is something about pursuing a process which is quite wonderful.
Svare: By process you mean, the art process?
Melchert: There used to be a commercial for travel—they’d say that "getting there is half the fun." In art it is very much that way. The process of making something is really quite wonderful to experience because you don't quite know where you’re going. You somehow get this thing organized and before long it's going and you are almost doing things that it's telling you. That's a wonderful thing to experience.
Svare: Do you have the experience of starting out on purpose, but then having a point come where it almost comes automatically and part of you can relax and you can almost watch yourself work?
Melchert: That's right. I happen to like dinner parties a lot. We had to give a lot of them in Italy. We also had to attend a lot of them. I found, to a certain extent, they have many aspects that remind me of art-making. You don't have the solitude, but it is certainly something that demands your attention and rewards your attention. I much prefer a situation where you don't know how it's going to look when it comes out, and a dinner party is that way. That's what made me think of it.
Svare: You can also construct a dinner party in ways where it might turn out otherwise just by where you seat people.
Melchert: Exactly. Probably the most important factor in having a good dinner party is who you chose to bring together. You just have a hunch that this is a group of people who will interact in a way that will make for a memorable evening. The next important thing is seating. You have got to pay a lot of attention to who you place next to whom. Also you think a lot about the menu just as you put a lot of thought into what the table is going to look like. Mary Anne and I work together in terms of planning something like this because, you know, it takes a couple days work..
Svare: And there’s even the lighting.
Melchert: The lighting, yes. Then there's the question of what you do with people when they first arrive. Do you just follow a formulae where you hand everybody a drink and hope that they somehow start talking? No. You figure this all out because it's a form of theater, really. You set it up. Everything becomes a kind of prop that will support the activity that you want to see. But, you don't really know how it is going to go or what the drift of the conversation is going to be.
If things go well you'll find that, as you know from your own experience, the evening begins to take off in a way that you just thoroughly enjoy. You simply wouldn't want to be any place else. Then, it begins to wind down finally to a point where there's a certain sense of satisfaction. It could be left alone now. People leave, and you're in a kind of ecstatic state if it's succeeded.
Well, there are aspects in that like aspects of making your art.
Svare: It is interesting. You made the analogy between the dinner passing and time passing, and the artist by himself in the studio and time passing.
Melchert: Well, you see, you need both. I think that all of one or just the other would be bad for you. You see, what you don't want is just sort of to have the bad aspects of both, which is say to feel alone in a crowd. You want to be alone by yourself. You need to get some focus in your life and what you are doing. At the same time you want to balance that with meaningful time spent with other people in which you gain energy and a sense of reassurance, confidence, just the pleasure of human company.
Svare: I was curious. That balance carries over into the studio because, in a sense, when you are in the studio you are not by yourself.
Melchert: Not at all. Not at all.
Svare: Within your focus you may keep an attunement with Duchamp, or Pete Voulkos, or Lao Tzu.
Melchert: That's quite true. For instance, here’s is a print that I did in memory of a friend of mine, Scott Burton, who died about a two years ago. He was someone who would say things that would stay with you. For example, he pointed out to me that you must pay attention to what's in your peripheral vision. That what you are looking at, in the long run, is probably not as telling, as informative, as what you are not looking at. He found, for example, that the decorative arts were much more informative about a period -- the feeling of what was going on— than the art of the time. And, you know, there's truth to that. If you pay attention to furniture from a period, for example. There's a lot it tells you about how people lived that you don't get from the painting of the period. At any rate, there are several artists I think of who sort of reside here in a way. There are certain artists, friends, whose standards you respect so much that you want to adhere to them. Somehow they are there when you think, for instance, "Oh. I've put in a long enough day." Then I think of Mel Bochner [spelling?]. If Mel were here right now he'd be saying, "Jim, take a break. But come back."
And there is another thing. There is a part of us that takes care of us if we pay attention to it. I'll tell you a story that I think is quite wonderful. I knew a young artist many years ago. He did a lot of environmental art work that I thought was really quite original. Instead of pursuing it he went into a business where they designed booths and things for commercial fairs. Not long ago he called to say he was going to be in San Francisco and we got together. We had Sunday breakfast which was very pleasant. Anyway, I knew from another friend that he had gone through a very hard time. His wife had died. I am talking about somebody in his early forties, mid-forties. I knew they had three kids and it was going to be very hard. This was the first I'd seen him since that had happened. Well, he had quite a long story about how his wife's death was very hard on the children. He was becoming increasingly more alienated from his oldest son who is probably about fifteen, sixteen. He told me he was seeing another woman and how he wanted to marry her. The reaction of the children was so negative. And he was going through this situation during a year when things were also going bad at work. It was more complicated than I could possibly relate, really dreadful. At one point when it looked like his whole world had come apart and that there was no way out, he had come back to the house. He went to his room and fell on the bed. He was in absolute agony—the worst situation had ever come to. And, this number came through his head, kept coming through his head. A number, a number. He finally realized it was a telephone number—someone to call. And he realized he could call. He could get help. It was his own telephone number.
He realized that the person who could pull him through this was himself. When he realized this he gained some kind of strength through it. And, little by little things started coming back together. Enough time has passed since then that now he's well on his feet. I loved hearing this. It confirms what I feel: that within us there is a capacity to take care of ourselves. There is within us a capacity somewhere that is about love and caring that we have built in. That's really quite wonderful. It is not to be forgotten or missed or, how should I say, abused or subject to mistrust.