Interviewsand Articles


Needs of the Self

by Richard Whittaker, Dec 10, 2010



     In our last issue of works & conversations, the theme was visible/invisible. On first thought, it seems the world is all about visible things while the invisible is a realm of spooky or make-believe and airy-fairy things. But just stopping to think about it, one quickly begins to realize that life is absolutely full of invisible content. Take sound and smell, for instance. Heat and cold. Is time visible? Thought? Feeling? Sensation? The whole of interior life? Some of these things-heat and cold, radio waves, magnetism, the slow movement of landmasses, etc.-can be made visible, in a way, through the measurements of instruments. And we get a sense of the feelings and thoughts of others from outward signs, what is said, a smile or frown and so on. But aren't there things that simply cannot be made visible? A hunch, for instance. And there's actual experience itself. Is joy visible? I'm not sure, but perhaps there's always some evidence. 
     That takes us to Gale Wagner. Just talking with this well known Oakland sculptor one is going to feel the effect of one of these invisible things: his ebullience. And it comes through in our interview. Gale mentions how people often think about his large steel pieces as being macho, "the fire and the anvil." But as he said, raising his eyebrows and looking up at me with an expression of surprise, "It was never that way for me. I was doing a slow dance to the music. Everything that I build, it's a dance." In our conversation, Gale describes how his work has evolved to the point where it takes flight, literally. And everyone who has spent time with Gale can tell the same story, I'm sure, of being lifted by his spirit. 
     In our conversation with high school home economics teacher Cherri Farrell the invisible she makes visible is truly moving. Here is a picture of the hidden side of teaching, the most important part. It all comes through as she talks about her work with her students, "I try to have an atmosphere in the class so that what the child feels inside is to be willing. That's what I'm interested in, that they feel willing. ... Their family may be falling apart or they're having trouble with a girlfriend or some other kind of drama. But underneath all of that, there's something you get from being willing inside. You can come to a place where you look at something and it's not so hard to shoulder it. A lot of it is giving kids attention. It's tender, loving care. You teach them things. They get results."
     San Francisco poet Ron Hobbs' story Witness of Two Worlds shows just how powerfully a good writer can evoke hidden realities. A word is visible on the page, as black lines of ink. But what is the content of these lines? Is that visible? Magically, it seems, it is-in this case two lives, two ways of being in the world. The tale is sketched out with the economy of a haiku. 
     And Bay Area filmmaker Tom Weidlinger shares an account of an uncanny encounter that took place of a morning's walk. (Filmmaking itself is a great example of the marriage of the visible and the invisible, come to think about it.) But this is the story of something that happened when Weidlinger was faced suddenly with the cutoff of all his funding. He was led-it's hard to think otherwise-to a silent oracle by an invisible guide. This is a story that challenges one's ideas about how things work in this world. Is there an invisible dimension or agency we are never able to see, but which surfaces sometimes in astonishing ways? 
    Finally there is the interview I did with the late Irene Pijoan, artist and long-time art faculty member at the San Francisco Art Institute. Meeting and interviewing Irene is an experience I'll never forget. Here's one of the many incisive things she had to share, this one pin-pointing an invisible struggle: "for the artist, the needs of the work, the needs of the self, the needs of the lived growth involved, these are perpetually in conflict with the needs of the marketplace, the expectations of success, the building of a career, the strictures of money and basically the world in general, the worldly world. That conflict is the central paradox of the position of the artist." 
     What are "the needs of the self"? Maybe there are some clues in the material here. 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.


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