Interviewsand Articles


Richard Kamler: An Art of Engagement Part 1 of 2 - December, 2010

by Richard Whittaker, Aug 10, 2011



Photo: R. Whittaker

I met Richard Kamler at a party. Most of the party-goers had been on the program at the 2010 Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, California. Many were also listed in the Women's Environmental Art Directory. Looking around, I saw only two or three familiar faces. Intent on making some new acquaintances, I found myself chatting with one person after another. Among them was an older man, slight of build, who was particularly easy to talk with. After awhile, I realized I'd heard about him before: Richard Kamler. Didn't he have a radio program in San Francisco where he talked with artists? A friend had suggested I contact him, but I hadn't followed up. And now here we were. He was no longer doing the radio program, he told me. And I also learned a little about his work in prisons, with inmates on death row and other projects of a highly political nature. Some of what I heard was hard for me to imagine. Several of his stories were so compelling I asked if we could meet again to talk at more length about his work. Yes. He would be happy to do that.  
    Several weeks later we met at his home in San Francisco. I wanted to begin by asking him about something I'd found on his web site....
Richard Whittaker:  I took a quick look at your web site before coming over here and found your list of the ten reasons you make art. I'm really curious about one of them, the one where you say you make art in order "to see your face before you were born." Tell me a little bit about this. 
Richard Kamler:  People have asked me about that statement. My maternal grandfather had the soul of an artist. He was a tailor. He made me and my brother's clothes. They were beautifully made. He was from Saint Petersburg in Russia and he was a Communist. He believed in the Brotherhood. He was sort of a philosophical guy. 
     I think that's a poetic statement about the imagination. What are all these unseen things we look for? How do we imagine? How do we imagine our face BEFORE we were born? Sometimes the question I raise with my students is what would have happened if Picasso had painted Guernica before the bombs fell? 
     So he's asking where is your source? It was a direction to grow. That's what it really is. And if you take that statement in a Buddhist way, it really is about being present. 
RW:  Yes. I associate the saying with Zen Buddhism. 
RK:  Exactly. 
RW:  You must have been very close with him.
RK:   I loved him. When they came out from New York, they moved to a place on McCallister Street here in the city. There was a Jewish community in that neighborhood then. I would go to my grandfather's on Saturday morning and there was a synagogue in the area. Religious Jews wouldn't take the bus, so we had to walk. And I would sit with him downstairs-the women would sit upstairs and the men downstairs-and afterwards we'd walk back. And he would talk to me, say things like this. I remember wondering, what is he telling me? But it stuck. 
RW:   Would you say that became a life-long koan for you?
RK:   Absolutely! Show me the face you had before you were born! When I say that to anybody they say, hah, where's he going to go with that?
RW:  Except in the Bay Area probably every other person you meet would say, yeah, I've been asking myself that, too. 
RK:  [laughs] I sit on Tuesday evenings with a Vipassana group here in San Francisco and I really like it. I mean, they say the same thing every week. Be present. Be mindful. Follow your breath. But I need to hear it. 
RW:  Yes. But I don't think I understand how you relate that to the thing you said about Picasso -what if he'd painted Guernica before the bombs fell? 
RK:  My wife says, you just think art can do everything, can make the world a better place, all that kind of stuff--and I say, yeah, I do. So what would happen if art got involved? So when I say, what would have happened if Picasso had painted Guernica before the bombs fell-does art have the power to transform things? Be prescient? Who were you before you were born? - It's pretty much the same thing. 
     There's an apocryphal story about the imagination's power to transform. It has the power of myth, and whether or not it's true, I don't know. Robert Desnos was a famous surrealist poet in the 30s and 40s. In 1943 Desnos was in Paris. He was a Jew. He was picked up by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. When he was there, he was selected and put onto a bus and taken to the crematorium. There were about fifteen of them. They stopped and all get off the bus. So you have to imagine that, all the smells and the horrors, the crematoria. They're off the bus and made to line up. And Desnos grabs the hand of the person next to him and begins to read his palm. You will have a long life. You will open up a shop. You will have many grandchildren. He goes to the next person, reads his palm. He's imagining their futures: you will go to the university. Your wife will have seven kids. He goes down the line, imagining future after future and the Nazi guards were so transformed that they put them all back on the bus. They were taken back to the barracks and they survived the war. Okay? [looks at me and laughs] 
     So that story enforces this intuition that I have that art can do that. This idea, really, has guided me in doing socially engaged work. When I see the Arabs and the Jews, I see an opportunity for an artist to be there. An artist has more elbow room than a diplomat. I see most "situations" as opportunities for art to be inserted.
RW:  How long would say you've been doing socially engaged art?
RK:  I'm going to say thirty, thirty-five years.
RW:  I'd like to hear about some of the things that have given you hope and have confirmed your faith that art can affect some kind of social transformation. 
RK:  As an artist in the eighties, I'd done tons of work around prison issues and I was getting tired of it. There was nothing more to say about it and the prisons were still there. But in conversations with friends they said you've never once spoken with the victims. I said, you're right. I never have. So I began to go to meetings of parents of murdered children, which is a national organization. It was like other 12 step programs. You sit around a table and tell you story and when it came to me I said who I was, that my child was not murdered, thank God, that I was an artist and wanted to work on a project and that I wanted to tape their stories if they'd be willing to let me do that. I ended up with about 47 of their stories. I went to their homes and got their stories. And because I had a lot of familiarity with the prisons I was able to find the perpetrators of lots of them. And so I began to pair these things up. 
RW:  You talked with the perpetrators? [yes] And you asked each one to tell about the murder? 
RK:  I asked each one the same four questions. The first question was what were the circumstances that got you here? The perpetrator would tell me their side of it and the family member would tell me their side of it. 
    The second question was, how were you treated by the criminal justice system? And that blew my mind. They were both treated pretty much the same. I mean, the parents of the murdered child were a bother. They were too emotional. They wanted to have answers. Gee, isn't that strange? 
RW:  You mean they were a bother to the system.
RK:  To the police, to the court system. The third question was, if you had the opportunity what would you want to say to the victim (or to the perpetrator)?  The fourth question was, what thoughts do you have on the larger picture? So that this kind of behavior can be dealt with in a much more community way, okay?
     So I ended up creating The Table of Voices, this long table, lead and gold, which are transformative materials, alchemy. The table had phones on it. You pick up the phone and it activates the stories-real voices with both people. 
RW:  These would be tape recordings, right?
RK:   Right. You would pick up the phone on the lead side and activate the story of the perpetrator then you would go around to the gold side and pick up the phone and that would activate the story of the family of the child. So the effort was there to create the common ground, the context for the effort to occur. 
     Now you ask me why I still have hope and it's because that particular piece was part of what created a victim/offender reconciliation program-that piece of art, in the San Francisco County Jail. 
     One of the things I do in all of the work is to create community conversations where I bring together the actual people, a range of people from the parents of murdered children to the perpetrators' families, to attorneys to community leaders to religious leaders-to sit around a table just like this and dialogue around these issues. So there's a bit more space, a bit more elbowroom.
     I've been working since 2002 on a piece called Seeing Peace.
RW:  I saw some pretty amazing things about that on your website. So where is it now?
RK:  Seeing Peace really came from Vaclav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic. 
RW:  Wasn't he a playwright, too?
RK:  Right, and he was an artist! Imagine that!
RW:   It's amazing. 
RK:  So that really hit me. Havel came into office in 1989, and he brought the creative community of the new Czech Republic to the table-the poets and the painters and the sculptors and the architects and the dancers-to participate in the creation of the new state, okay? Not as experts in defense or transportation or politics, but as experts in the imagination. 
     Havel was smart. So that stimulated this thought: why can't we get the artist to the table? Seeing Peace evolved around the idea of bringing the artist to the table. The introduction to Seeing Peace was up at USF. There are forty-six consuls here in San Francisco. I went and talked with whoever would speak to me from among them and told them what I was doing. I invited them to come up to USF for this introductory gathering of Seeing Peace and about twenty of these counsel generals came. The president of USF made a (big) statement. The honorary consul general from Nepal made a statement. The Egyptians were up there. The Greeks were up there.
RW:  How did that work? 
RK:  This was in a large auditorium. I had a big table where the consulate people could sit and I invited a bunch of artists, and the public was invited. There were a hundred people, at least.  At this time the Swiss Consul General was what's called the Doyen of San Francisco. He was the head of the diplomatic core of all the consul generals here. He was a real supporter and made some opening comments after the president of USF spoke. Then a friend of mine, Richard Blum, who was the honorary consul general of Nepal, made some comments. Then I introduced Seeing Peace and talked about the benefits of having the artist's imagination being part of their dialogues. Then we simply had an open conversation. So that was the thrust initially. 
RW:  So you had to explain your vision. Now how do you do that?
RK:  First I'd tell the story of Vaclav Havel, which almost everybody knew something about.
RW:  Do you think Havel's embrace of art as part of the political process actually helped during his tenure in office?
RK:  Well, that's a tricky question. 
RW:  I wonder if anybody has been able to do any kind of evaluation of that.
RK:   No. They have not.  And I still struggle with people saying, "Well, it's "just art." That makes me bristle. On one trip I was back in New York and I went to the Indonesian Consulate. They were having a meeting about the destruction of some forests in Indonesia, really important to them. They said, "Could you wait. You're an artist. People aren't going to understand what art has to do with this issue that's confronting us immediately. 
    So how am I going to get them to understand that what I'm doing is really crucially important to their issues. I told them about Vaclav Havel and said, if you have to build a bedroom, you have to make sure a bed's in there so on. Well, I can come and I can put an elephant in your bedroom. That's what an artist can do. That's the role of imagination. 
     You guys here are thinking about how can we get the U.N. to support our efforts to keep these forests alive? What if you just spent a half-hour with me and we brainstormed. Like what would happen if we just paved over the whole thing? What would that look like? I just said whatever popped into my head. They gave me about 30 minutes and at the end some of the people came up to me and started asking questions. One guy said, what if we made architectural models of these things? They hadn't thought of that before. What if we began to show people what could happen? What if we made it really beautiful? I'd tweaked their imagination. 
RW:  Opening up the creative faculty, right?
RK:  Exactly. And once that opens up, you can't stop it [laughs]. It just opens up! So that's one example. 
     Another time I went to the Philippine Embassy in New York. At this point I was asking everybody, don't talk to me, show me what peace looks like. So I went into the Philippine Embassy and the guy said, "Give me a piece of paper." He took it made a quick drawing and said,  "Here. This is what peace looks like to me." 
    It was a Venn diagrams-those three over-lapping circles. One was government, one was society and one was the United Nations, and where they all overlapped, he said, "That's what peace looks like to me." He gave it to me. 
   I went to the Columbian Embassy in New York. A woman did this gorgeous drawing for me of pregnant women going across mountains with streams and trees. It was beautiful! She gave it to me. So once that opens up... 
     I began thinking about billboards and they're really expensive. If it's on the freeway it's about $50,000 a month. So I went to CBS, who owns a big percentage of the billboards in this country, and asked, can you donate ten billboards to me? 
    They gave me ten billboards with my choice of location for $10,000. Then I went and found ten artists from ten different parts of the world and asked each one, what does peace look like from your unique cultural perspective? 
     I had an Iranian, (I had) a Japanese, (I had) a South African. I had an El Salvadoran, (I had) a Cuban, A Puerto Rican, an Israeli, a Tibetan, me from the U.S. and I forget the others. These billboards were all around San Francisco for about two months. What does peace look like? Well, here were ten visions of it!
RW:  That's a great idea. Today, as far as I can tell, there seems to be a growing wave of feeling about the importance of social responsibility, even in the business sector. And there's this idea of social entrepreneurship, of trying to help solve societal problems using some kind of business model. 
RK:  I'm so sick of people asking me, or other artists, could you donate? So I committed myself to pay each one of the ten artists an honorarium of a thousand dollars. It's not a lot, but it's better than nothing. I asked people I knew, wealthy people-could you pay for a Tibetan artist and a Tibetan billboard? One friend said, of course. Monday my secretary will have a check for you. So there is a level of responsibility among some. 
RW:  What you're saying is that the artist is the gateway, the figure, through which creative energies can be brought into play in the processes of facing social problems, and that, joined with social entrepreneurship, sounds like a nice combination, doesn't it? 
RK:  [laughs, looking at me as if I'm finally getting it] Thank you! Absolutely! [laughs]
RW:  Take Ann Hatch and Oxbow school. They're using artists to teach a standard high school college prep curriculum. She's interested in how creativity in every walk of life is a great benefit. 
RK:  You know, what I really love about these kinds of conversations is that it is not rocket science! You know what I mean? Why is the first thing cut here in San Francisco--and all across the country--the arts? We have to cut the arts. Art is the thing that will save the damn city! I've worked with some gangs and I've found that if you give them a piece of paper and just say, draw please, it's incredible. Everything just settles down. 
     I'd been in jail when I was younger, just political stuff in Berkeley-Peoples' Park, Viet Nam war, the whole thing. But I'd never been in prison. And a friend invited me over to San Quentin one night-she was teaching there - and I was just knocked out. I was scared and I was also really excited and interested, even titillated. The sound was so intense. People were screaming at the top of their lungs. Not in anger, but just to be heard. TV was blaring. It stunk of people, of fear and anger. And I thought, Gee I think I want to get a job here! [laughs]
RW:  Because it was so alive? So raw?
RK:  Yes. And I thought it was a place to do art. So I applied for one of those artist-in-residence grants from the California Arts Council and I got it. The art room was about as big as my living room here. In the beginning it was just me and these ten guys. They gave me a whistle to hang around my neck. They said, if anything happens, blow the whistle! [laughs] 
     I'd be so damn scared I wouldn't be able to get any air to even blow the whistle anyway, you know what I mean? [laughing] But nothing ever happened. We would just get there, we'd make art. We'd talk and begin to get to know each other. And those experiences always would sort of reinforce the art. We would talk about whatever cropped up. So that sort of stuff has just fueled my concerns and passions over and over and over again. 
     That's why I'm always a bit angry when I hear, well, we have to cut the arts. I say, you cut the arts, okay, see how many more beatings you have on the street, see how much more of that stuff goes on. I have so many friends who do this work in prisons, do the art, and it's so transformative! So that just reinforced what I began to learn intuitively from my grandfather. That the imagination can bring about change. 
    You asked me earlier about one of the projects, this piece about Muslims and Jews, which was censored back in New Haven. It's never been shown. I have hopes for its interfaith possibilities. It's been about common ground. 
RW:  That's so important, that's what's needed, really.
RK:  I'm always looking for that aspect. A friend and I began to go to these meetings in Berkeley, to a group called Neve Shalom, which is an effort to bring together Palestinians and Jews. We thought we might be able to do something with art with this situation. Muslims and Jews both come from the same source. They both come from Abraham. They have very similar dietary laws, similar rituals. They have contention, of course. But this piece that was censored, was censored because people have fear, are frightened. 
RW:  Some things are so freighted down with fear and tension you can't even touch them. So to find a crease through that would require tremendous skill and vision.
RK:  I think it requires skill, creative vision, fairly tough skin and some fierceness and courage, a range of things. 
RW:  It has occurred to that we don't have a career path for becoming a real person, an authentic self. But it seems to me that, on some level, a lot of people who go to art school feel the hope of finding something true there, something authentic-I'm sure it's mixed up with a lot of other things, too. Does that make any sense to you?
RK:  When I left Berkeley in '63, I went to New York to apprentice myself to a man named Frederick Keisler, a famous visionary artist. I was going originally just for the summer. When I first got there I was walking up the stairs to his studio. He'd left the door ajar because he knew I was coming. As I got to the door I overheard him talking with a museum director from Switzerland. He was saying, "Through art we can change the laws of the world." I remember thinking to myself, "My God! I'm coming home. This is who I am, what I want! Art can change the world!"   
RW:  It's an interesting statement, but what about changing oneself? Everybody always thinks the problem is out there. Am I perfect? 
RK:  I think the self-inquiry comes when you're confronting the work. I mean, there's always the question, who am I? Why am I doing this, not that? Does this have any meaning, to me or anyone else? There's no judgment in any of those things. If it has meaning to me, that's sufficient. If it has meaning to five people, that's cool. If it has social meaning, that's cool. The work cannot have any authenticity unless it means something to me, as I'm doing it.
RW:   That's one thing. But let me ask you this, what if it means something to me that I've got to fix you? 
RK:  You've got to fix me?
RW:  See what I'm saying is that you have the problem. I don't. But is that always true? 
RK:  That's a good question and people have raised that before. I think it is important for the artist to take responsibility for what they do. Okay? I can't put a piece of art out there and say, I just did it. This is what I do. That's not enough for me. I put that out there and I need to take responsibility for what I've done.  
     One of the things I ask my students is what is the social responsibility of the artist? Even someone who makes a painting. When that leaves the studio, are you finished with it or do you still have responsibility for it, for what you've made? Leon Golub sure as hell didn't deny his responsibility for all those mercenary paintings he made, not in the slightest. So, to answer your question, I put it out there and I take responsibility for that. 
RW:  That's important because, as you know, anybody can say, "I'm hearing the voice of God." There are a lot of people who think they have a piece of the truth. That's why I ask what about self-inquiry? 
RK:  So when someone says, "my way or the highway," well, okay, cool. What if we tried this? I'm not saying your way is insane. Let's see what happens if we take your way, put it in there and we just play with it for ten minutes and see what happens? I think that this is the responsibility of the artist as well. 
RW:  That's good. In other words, let's see if there isn't another way to look at this?  And also, let's see where this is going to go. And I'm struck by your stance about taking responsibility. What I typically hear is "when I make a piece of art, it goes out and it's on its own." 
RK:  If that work goes out into the world, you've got responsibility for it. And the work gets much more rich, much more dense and resonant if it's part of it. I mean I can be the biggest baddest outlaw I want to be in my studio. And if I was a big bad outlaw down there and someone says to me, man you were an idiotic big bad outlaw, I'm responsible for that idiotic big bad outlaw stuff that's now in the world.
       And do I want that stuff to be in the world? If I want that stuff out in the world, I need to look at it in a way that might still be edgy and sharp and confrontational AND it has the understanding of who made it, why I made it and how I made it out there in the world as well. That's where the authenticity comes from-that the piece is out there and I'm responsible for it. 
RW:   Well, I wondered if you have any stories about how art can change people that give you hope? 
RK:  I see it in my twenty-year old students. I teach a class called The Artist As Citizen. I've been teaching that class for about fifteen years. It's a class about civic engagement and how you fold art into that civic engagement. The students work in a range of contexts from prisons, senior citizen homes, environmental places-not as interns where they might file something, but as artists who can be at the table with you. And at the end of the semester it's still moving to me, after all these years to see these students, to see how they've transformed themselves. They'll say, My, God, Richard, this was an incredible experience! I couldn't imagine this happening! And how the people they worked with transformed. 
     One example, right up here on 19th and Lawton, there's a seniors' home. I had some students two or three years ago who decided to do an event there. It was right when the Academy Awards were on television. So they thought they'd do an award system up there. All the residents up there, 70, 80, 90 years old, were all dressed up in fancy clothes and my students had made this gorgeous visual environment for them. And they had this academy award event up there-for surviving, for having the prettiest earrings, for all this kind of stuff. Everyone got an award and when my students came back, they were sobbing. They told me they'd never seen a transformation like that in their lives. The students were transformed. The residents were transformed. And now, after all these years, I'd be shocked if that kind of thing did not happen. That's what I'd be surprised by. 
     The semester I had a student working at Booker T. Washington, which is a middle school for at-risk students. So the first thing we had was a month-long discussion of what the hell does "at-risk youth" mean, anyway? Who's at risk here? Where are you getting labeled like that? We had that discussion and then the students ended up with hmmm... let's do a mural. 
     Doing a mural is really laden with a lot of pitfalls like, who designed it? Are the students just filling in the spaces? I didn't want that to happen. So they worked at Booker T. and the students ended up making all these eight and a half by eleven designs for murals. Then they learned how to blow up the drawings. So what happened at the end, they see what they've made. I mean, you can't imagine the sense of pride. We did that! I made that blue thing over there! One of the things I asked my students to do was to write down what the long-term impact of these things could be. 
   So that gives me huge hope. And I've seen this kind of thing that over and over. I see it in my own professional life. It's a little bit trickier because of the scope of some of these projects. But I saw it when I was in New York at these embassies asking people what things looked like. All my friends out here have said, "Don't waste your time. Don't waste your money." I said, "What's the worst that could happen?" Well, maybe I'll be embarrassed. They could laugh at me. So what? Big deal! So I went back there and when I came back, I had this stack of drawings. People said, "My God, you did it!" So all these things give me a lot of hope. 
I followed this interview up with a second one with Richard Kamler, a week or two later.

Kamler died November 1, 2017.


About the Author

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


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