Interviewsand Articles


The Slender Thread: Newsletter #34

by Richard Whittaker, Aug 4, 2015



One of the consistent joys of my work is meeting artists and others who have found a way to follow the slender thread of an authentic calling. In this issue of our newsletter, #34, we meet five such individuals, each with a different path. The Reverend Heng Sure, Abbot of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, grew up in middle America in a Christian family. At the age of 14, thanks to a mysterious attraction to the Chinese characters in an art catalog, he began a study of Chinese. It’s fascinating to read about the journey this seemingly trivial moment ignited.
     I met Roberto Fierro thanks to my friend, artist Tony May. Growing up in a family of migrant farm workers, Fierro’s love of drawing—fueled by winning a grade school art award—would have to wait for over 40 years before this became his life’s work. And seeing Fierro’s stunning work it was hard not to wonder how many truly gifted artists there are in the world working in isolation. In Roberto’s case, each day he walks to downtown San Jose to draw and paint and socialize with people out and about. It’s a good life. Maybe all such stories are improbable.
     Gale Wagner’s path took him from an early love of making things to Viet Nam where he was one of the youngest men to reach the rank of Captain. Leading his men through many engagements, eventually he was severely wounded and left the Service with life-long disabilities and a government pension. “Perfect!” says, Gale. “That made it possible for me to spend the rest of my life making art every day!” Wagner is one of the more irrepressible people I’ve ever met, and a superb artist. And now, having earned great respect for his large-scale steel sculpture, he’s turned his talents to making finely-crafted, rubber-band powered, hand-launched model airplanes. “Is this art?” his friends ask him. “The highest form!” he answers. “These are my flying temples!” Wagner’s is an art of joy.
     When I first learned that Mary Stein was nearly eighty, I simply couldn’t believe it. Then, when I learned she was an aikido expert who worked out at a dojo five times a week, I was further astonished. It took only a couple of minutes to imagine she was probably flying upside down in the air every time she practiced. “Is that true?” I asked her. Mary just smiled and answered, “I guess it is, come to think of it.” I couldn’t wait to see that—and to take some photos. Here’s an excerpt from Mary’s fine book on Aikido—The Gift of Danger.
     Finally, we share writer Kathleen Branagan’s essay on her friend and mentor, Senator Mike Mansfield from Montana. Here’s an inside glimpse of a man who lived his ideal of public service. Reading Kathleen’s loving essay, one can only wonder what tremendous forces exist that are always subverting the genuine wish that so many must feel when they enter the world of politics. And what could make it possible for a man or woman to hold fast to such a deep wish to serve. Welcome

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.


A Man Impossible to Classify One of my first experiences in San Francisco was of being flagged down by a ... Read More 721525 views

The Dumpster      “We can’t use these. They look like ... Read More 141234 views

Cotton and Silk Vorbeck quilt, detail I’m working on the last panel of a pair of ... Read More 8389 views

Say Grace I am deeply delighted to live on a planet that is so big and varied that I can ... Read More 5569 views

A Conversation with Silas Hagerty I met Silas, a young man in his twenties from New England, at a ... Read More 61397 views


A Man Impossible to Classify One of my first experiences in San Francisco was of being flagged down by a ... Read More 721525 views

Interview with Bill Douglass—Jimbo's Bop City and Other Tales At the time I'd first gotten to know the widely respected jazz musician Bill ... Read More 363680 views

Greeting the Light It was thanks to artist Walter Gabrielson that I was able to get in touch with ... Read More 294026 views

Interview: Gail Needleman Gail Needleman teaches music at Holy Names University in Oakland, California. ... Read More 189020 views

Interview: Stephen De Staebler John Toki encouraged me to interview his old friend and mentor, sculptor Stephen ... Read More 150429 views