Interviewsand Articles


Life As A Sacred Reality

by Richard Whittaker, Feb 19, 2009



Welcome to our tenth newsletter. As usual, it's packed with special content. Here are some powerful stories of giving. Let's begin with our interview with Jane Baker. Former Chief Operating Officer of Working Assets, Baker has also been an artist for over twenty years. The two vocations were not easy to fit together. Even after Baker retired, her time in the studio was plagued by the nagging sense she could be doing something more effective for social change by using her business skills to help some non-profit instead.

Then one day an inspired idea appeared.

Each painting could be turned into a working asset. Every sale would be converted into a contribution to one of her favorite charities, one hundred per cent of each sale would be donated. Baker doesn't do things halfway. All her artwork would be priced at the same affordable rate: $300. (Or, if you wanted to contribute the money to a charity of your own choice, then you'd pay $350.) There are a couple of things worth noting here. It's a radical decision and throws light on the meaning of a radical act. Violence is not required, nor some kind of theater. But no hedging can be involved. And there are always things that can only unfold after the real first step is taken, benefits beyond anything that could have been foreseen. I hope others will find Jane's story an inspiration. You can visit her web site at

Our conversation with Juan Negrin, who has devoted most of his adult life to a selfless work with the Huichol People in Mexico, is no less relevant today than it was when we talked years ago. As he said in 1993, "People like the Huichol are becoming fewer and fewer in the world. There aren't any people from Mexico to Canada, I believe, who have a culture as extensive and as unsyncretized as theirs. If we simply watch this culture get destroyed-which is what I am seeing myself most of the time-then what we are also seeing is something equivalent to a jungle being destroyed before the plants and creatures within it are even known." Negrin recognizes this as a deeply spiritual problem: "I feel Western man is screaming for some sense of the spirit, some understanding of the spirit. I think that very few people have abandoned the idea that there is something more to us than birth and death, and the body's emotions in between."

Negrin's original involvement with the Huichol came about via art, through his encounter with their colorful yarn paintings. At the time, these were seen mainly as tourist items, but Negrin recognized something powerful in what he saw. On behalf of the best yarn painters, one of his missions was to demonstrate to others that this Huichol art was deep and vital. Largely through his efforts, decades later, this indigenous art was finally given its due. Today this work is recognized by scholars and shown in Mexico's most respected museums.

One of the first things I remember Juan telling me about the Huichol is that, not only had they never been colonized in their entire history, but that they were among the few remaining living peoples with an entirely intact culture organized around life as a sacred reality.

Juan and his wife Yvonne most recently founded the Wixarika Research Center for the purpose of raising awareness about Huichol issues and events in their struggle to maintain their way of life in the context of the various forces of contemporary life in Mexico.

Our interview with John Toki came about because I ran into him one day as he was preparing to donate his outstanding ceramic arts collection to the Oakland Museum. Few individuals I've met are as supportive of artists and the arts as is Toki. I thought it would be interesting for people to learn about all that goes into such a project. "It took five years," he told me. Toki himself is a quietly remarkable man: sculptor, businessman, teacher, manufacturer and several other things. Reading the interview one will get a glimpse of all this and hear some inside stories of the artists in the collection-De Staebler, Arneson, Voulkos, Nagle, Melchert and many others-all of whom were personal friends of the Toki family.

Then there's an excerpt from artist Janine Brown's journal. "Here we are at an art exhibit. What is this we are looking at? The traces of someone who passed through here, living. Someone who lived in such a way that during the minutes that were her life these images appeared on this paper that was part of the space she was part of and now is part of the space you are part of during the minutes that are known as your life." I think you'll find Brown's poetic, stream of consciousness evocation a bit magical.

And finally, thanks to painter Leigh Hyams we have some excellent advice for painters of all ages. It comes from Leigh's four-year old granddaughter, Annalena. Leigh wrote this all down and it sat in a folder for years. Then, not long ago, she rediscovered it and mailed it straight off to me. I couldn't resist sharing.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.


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