Interviewsand Articles


Jane Rosen Interview: The Importance of Questions

by Richard Whittaker, Jan 1, 2000



Every time I visit my friend, artist Jane Rosen, inevitably in our conversation things come up that I’d call real questions. One day it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to bring along a recorder. Maybe we’d capture some interesting material. Jane agreed. This conversation was not meant to be a formal interview. There have been two of those with Jane on former occasions. Instead, this was our first conversation recorded with the idea of doing so when we got together for a visit.
     To put this in context, there is some reference to a phone conversation we had a few days before the visit. I told Jane about a couple of events. One was a visit to Pixar Studios and another was an art opening I had co-curated at the Berkeley Art Center. Both had gone very well. But afterwards I found myself acutely aware of how little these two very good experiences seemed to matter. 
     The day of our visit, soon after I arrived, we were talking about how important content would come up in conversation. That’s when I turned on the recorder

Jane Rosen:  I was wondering about this with like the Dalai Lama or with Paul [Reynard], for example, you don’t have enough time to repeat the conversation, and it’s actually not of value to you after you’ve had it. But you know it could be of value to others where they’re asking that same question. This happens to me. Alex will ask something and then Ann Hollingsworth will ask something, and then Celia will ask it in New York. I am basically talking about the same set of experiences a number of times.

Richard Whittaker:  Are you saying that there’s a conversation that needs to happen, and it happens—but it may not happen with just one person? That it ends up being talked about with different people in a kind of unintentional, but necessary way?

JR:  Well, I think that something gets in the air, some big question. What happens often with you and I is that you’re off doing something and I’m off doing something. And it turns out we’re coming up with the same dilemma, or introspection, or pondering, or wishing, or not understanding why when I always thought A + B = C and always strove to get A + B so that C would happen, I just had A + B and there is no C. You know? Then you see that in different places in your life, without knowing it. Like you and I get on the phone and we have discovered the same thing. Me through, let’s say through the art world; you through the Pixar event you mentioned, or the art opening. 

RW:  Right. 

JR:  We both always thought that these were the events that would have meaning. They were very nice and it felt very good to know that you, in fact, could function on what you thought was a fairly high level of exchange. But it turned out that it didn’t change anything, and it doesn’t mean anything. And it didn’t solve anything. It’s just nice.

RW:  Yes, it was nice. And it wasn’t that it didn’t mean anything, exactly. These two things lived up to all of my expectations. But then afterwards, nothing really had changed for me. Certainly no deeper questions had been solved or even moved forward a little.

JR:  Or brought up.

RW:  Or brought up. Somehow that just put something in focus that I don’t usually see. Yes that was good. It was very nice. And here I am today. And what difference did it make?

JR:  But you can actually extend that to my question, which is most people are struggling to get a nice life. As my friend said this morning at the gym, everybody has got all of these terrible problems. I’m on the Stairmaster and I’m thinking, “Gee, I don’t have them.” Actually things work out kind of beautifully in many ways—and whether they do or not, I seem to perceive them as being terrific, whereas someone else might think my life was a complete mess. It’s the same story as when I was very young. My dad was terribly depressed and he was in his library. My brother was in the library, too, and I was walking past. I heard my father say, you know, “Joe, I’m terribly depressed. My life is a complete mess.” And my brother said, “But dad, look at Jane. Her life is always a mess, and she’s happy.”

RW:  [laughs] How old was your brother?

JR:  Thirteen. I was fifteen. I suspect that when there’s difficulty and there are these obstacles and we’re struggling, that the struggling with them gives us a sense of meaning. Maybe the question I have is, is this a false sense of meaning? Are these obstacles or struggles changing something substantially in us, or creating something? But I have a hard time formulating this. Even if you had a life in which you resolved all of those things, where you made really good art, where you were really well considered and where you were financially able to really help those around you, where you were a mentor—you are still going to die, and you haven’t evolved.

RW:  Right. Let me bring this up. It isn’t directly related, but sort of tangentially. I happened to be looking at some videos on YouTube and listening to Richard Shaw and Ron Nagle and Roy Lichtenstein. What I saw was just some artists talking. A lot of them said the same thing. One of them was Mel Ramos. Mel Ramos is still painting. He’s hit this plateau where his work now sells for a million bucks. He’s got it all sold before he even makes it. They were responding to the question “Do you think you’re still improving?” or “Why do you keep painting?”
     The common answer was “Yes, I still think my best work is ahead of me. Why else would I keep painting?” And Wayne Thiebaud was in there, too. It was a common refrain.

JR:  Yes. It’s where I am so terribly different from all of the artists I know.

RW:  Now I want to hear about that.

JR:  Okay. Well, here’s the deal. I don’t see the art itself as anything, but the residue of a fire. I see the art as a practice. The product that comes from that is fine. I don’t see the product as better or worse, or even the point. It’s not the point of my making art. The point is going into that studio and being in a state where I can see what I'm doing, or working with others where I can help them to see what they don’t see, and how to look in order to see. That is an ever-evolving thing that has no end, has no, “Oh cool, I got it!”
     My work changes when I cease to be aware or alive to what’s occurring. Then it’s time to start all over with another image, another material, another combination of things. So that it again engages me in trying to learn. The thing that gets made is no different than a planting season. It’s like some tomatoes are better than other tomatoes, but the act of planting and sowing the seeds is a transformative act.
     It’s the act of making that is interesting. I saw this beautiful 8” x 10” Manet painting of flowers. I was so curious. I asked Susan Walp about it. She said, “Well, he did those on his deathbed.” He had syphilis. He was missing a leg from the syphilis. He was in a hospital room, and he was well known. So all of these people are bringing him flowers when they visited him. He’s on his bed painting these flowers as they’re dying, because it was something that he had never understood. I mean clearly, it wasn’t about making a good painting. It was like he wanted to be loose, and what did he have to lose? The flowers were dying. He was dying. It was his last shot at making a loose painting.
     The thing that kept him alive was not to make a very controlled, big, important painting, but just this moment of seeing a flower, without over-articulating it. Just quickly, and again and again—and being so happy that these people are bringing him flowers so that he could keep working on that… Like nice to see you, now give me the flowers.

RW:  In other words he was still practicing, would you say?

JR:  He was questioning.

RW:  Questioning. Studying?

JR:  Studying. Learning.
RW:  So this wasn’t about getting the great object out there.

JR:  No. He’s dying. He’s on his deathbed.

RW:  When you say “to be loose”— is he still questioning this inner…

JR:  We have to come to it every time.

RW:  He had his eye on this inner part of it.

JR:  Being open is being loose, to me.

RW:  Okay. I see.
JR:  Being tight is making a "product." Now you can make a tight product, loosely. In other words, Susan Walp said to Alex [Rohrig], “You’ve really got the form. You’ve got the drawing. Now can you paint the details that well without getting tight?” 

RW:  Susan Walp was actually here in town?

JR:  No. I’ll show you the painting. He sends her an image and she does a critique.

RW:  Okay. 

JR:  Alex will do a series of works and then she does a critique. Then he reads the critique. And I also give him assignments. So one of the things that happened was that he’s been painting the field. It’s like every morning. It was like having Van Gogh walk past you in Provence. You know? The hat, carrying the easel, carrying the canvas, carrying the chair. He’d walk up the road. He’d go into the field. There is this view from the field, which is as close to a sacred lay of the land—I mean God clearly made it.
     I was teaching him about drapery, about the flow and the form of the earth, and how to see in a little piece of cloth—the largeness of God’s extraordinary vistas. The relationship is about scale. So we had been working on that and then she was working with him on color and composition. And he’s killing himself. He’s out there and I look at the painting on his way back. I said, “Alex, leave it alone. It’s beautiful. You got it. It’s beautiful. Don’t touch it. Start another one.”
     He got very angry with me, because here I am telling him not to be precious and to work to learn and not to get a product. He got a product and he hadn’t learned what he wanted to learn.
     He was trying to get at something. And I knew that with his getting at it, he was going to screw up that painting, which was a gift from God from all his effort. Up and down everyday. He was given a gift. But he was angry and he said, “What are you saying? Is it the painting that’s the important part? Or is it the learning and seeing that’s the important part?"
     Because I have drawings and pieces I see that aren't right. I want to see better and work on that. So it’s like if I'm going to screw up the painting, who cares?” So it was touché. Great.

RW:  It’s a good point. Yes.

JR:  Good point. And I guess probably the analogy holds with life, too, because for me a lot of people in California are very beige. Everything is done well; they make their good paintings or they make their good life or they make their good environment or they make their good money. But they’re not going to stretch, which implies you’re might fuck it up. I mean you’re going to have some problems. And a lot of us who had big problems early on do one of two things: we stay safe the rest of the time or you call into question everything and live a life that’s about a question.

RW:  Well, can we remember to return to this conundrum that you and Alex arrived at there? But first, I wanted to go back to where you said something about the relationship with the fire. That was the word you used for your art making, that it’s not about the next one being better. It was something about the relationship with the fire. I wanted you to say more about what do you mean by the fire?

JR:  We talked about this in the very first interview we did together where I spoke about the Egyptians and that their art was a by-product of their investigation. It was the by-product of their teaching, which was an alive thing. The teaching wasn’t the art. And the objects were simply—’m not sure this is right—but for me, the objects were the by-product.
     To me, the fire is the energy that is created by trying to understand the relationship between the growth of a pinecone, the circles of that loaf of bread, the Aurora Borealis, my own hand and the tree. There is a connection that you wish to understand. And the fire is this work that you do with your heart and your hands and your eyes to understand. That produces a certain kind of energy. It produces a certain kind of energy in the same way—it’s almost like listening.
     I had that experience yesterday—listening because you have a goal in your heart. You have a goal. Maybe it’s a dead friend whose child you want to help. And your goal is to honor him. So you have to listen to this person you’re not particularly interested in, and then that listening is not something you want to do. That activity of attending in another way is to me, exactly the same as attending to a form, to listening to the form. Not to make a good form, but because there’s this larger goal and this form is in relation to that—which you need to attend to.
     It happened the other day. I had a piece down in the studio. I’ll show it to you. I had Alex carving and he was carving kind of tightly. So I went outside with the diamond blade and, to help him find a flow, I said, “In my understanding, when you watch the cliffs, you have these strong lines pulling, much like drapery has weight. That gravity is pulling; those are straight, vertical cuts. When you have a soft curve, that’s a slower horizontal touch. It doesn’t imply speed or force. So you have to know what kinds of movements are in you, in a form, in nature which gives the viewer a certain response.”

RW:  That’s very interesting.

JR:  So I go outside with the diamond blade on this small, soft form and I go, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. And all of a sudden, there is a monk, not a bird—because a bird is a different movement. And I just took off the face so it was a hooded monk, so it looked like Moses or Jesus or Mohammed. I said, “When you want to slow it down, it’s like the waterfall when it hits the rock and it starts to open out.” So those energies are the same energies that are happening inside of us.

RW:  That reminds me of a quote from Louise Nevelson. She said “We have measurements in our bodies, measurements in our eyes. We walk on two feet. So we’re vertical. All these things are within our being: weight and measure and color. And if the work is good work, it is built on these laws and principles that we have within ourselves.”
     But I just wanted to add that last night when I was thinking about these artists who were saying they always felt that the best one was still out there. There was something about it that bothered me. And what you say feels closer to what I’d think is really true.

JR:  When I talk to students at school, the hardest thing to explain to them—which I don’t think most of them ever believe—was something that for me was a signifier from early on. It’s that, as an artist, you have three careers.

RW:  Okay. And they are?

JR:  There is the making of the art, which is a career of the nature we’re speaking about— your deepest questions that you are devoting wholeheartedly a life to searching for. And if you want to be an artist, you have to have two other careers. So the making of the art is one. Then there is supporting the art, the art career, which is going out and talking to people and hustling and being a part of the art world. And the third is supporting the other two, because neither one is really fiscally sound.
     The artists you are speaking of are possibly supporting the art with their art career, which has perhaps chewed into the first career. So they’re making art products.
     I’ll give you an example. My student, Joshua, who is teaching at Harvard and U. Mass—this semester he’s got these students who are illustration majors. He was trying to give them an assignment. They want to learn how to draw realistically, because they are illustration majors without the fire, or the art part.
     The way I explained it to my students (which he tried on them) was that the difference between art and illustration is the same as the difference between pure science and applied science. Pure science asks the question. Applied science asks the question in order to make a better refrigerator.

RW:  Okay.

JR:  Applied science has a point ahead of itself. Pure science doesn’t; it is pure questioning. So he said, “I gave them your great example about the refrigerator.” And he said, “They wanted me to illustrate that.”
     And I said, “But Josh, they’re illustration majors.” You know? I think it’s exactly what you’re talking about. They haven’t done the best work they could do. If they did their best work, they would stop. Or they might say “I am making a million dollars a painting. I don’t need the money, so why should I paint?

RW:  Yes.

JR:  They are illustrators. They started out as artists and the other two professions, supporting the art and the art career, getting famous, in some cases, took over. 

RW:  Or maybe—because this was a live interview—they said stuff they’d heard before because it seemed to fit, but they weren’t really able to think deeply about it. Do you know what I’m saying?

JR:  Well, a lot of artists are not good talkers. If you’ve taught for 30 years and you’re not a good talker, you are in deep shit. You either learn how to talk or you teach refrigerator design. But I am a talker, after all. I was always a talker. For example, Judy [Pfaff] on Art 21—this is just completely great. They’re interviewing Judy and she’s like saying, “Well you know, here I was. I’m drinking beer and welding. And uh, you know.” I said, “Judy. You don’t drink beer. You don’t like rusty metal. You don’t—what were you doing?” She said, “I got nervous. I lied.” She can be a great talker and is a great artist and teacher, but when Judy gets nervous, she clams up.

RW:  That’s wonderful. I was just listening to Terry Gross interviewing John Updike.

JR:  He gets depressed.

RW:  It was a wonderful interview. Apparently once John Updike had said or written that the interview was one of the most disgusting forms ever invented and it should be reviled. So Terry Gross brought that up. She said, “You know, here I am interviewing you. And I’m just curious. Are you suffering?” In his very wonderful way he said, “Well, no. But here’s why I think I said that. The public wants to hear from people, and they do an interview. So here’s a person speaking off the top of their head. They don’t really have time to think about it. They say something and it may not be very good. It may not be deep. It may not even be true. And yet it goes down in the record and is given the same weight as anything else they’ve ever written.”
     I totally understand that. That’s why I approach interviews the way I do. I see it as collaboration.

JR:  Which is why Judy [Pfaff] said you are the best interviewer, that it was the best interview that she’s ever had in her life.

RW:  Well, that’s really nice to hear. I understood why Updike said that, though. You know? 

JR:  Yeah, sure—because it’s funny. I was watching some stupid program on HBO called Game Change. It was about Sarah Palin and John McCain and how that whole thing happened—why they chose her and how they were trying to prep her. It was fascinating because once it’s out there everything you say is national.
     One of the fears I have right now with the amount of sales—and it’s not like I’m having museum shows, but all of a sudden I’m getting an email a day about somebody wanting to buy something. My gut level instinct is to back off. It’s really great not to be broke and I know you’re supposed to have a retirement fund. So this is really helping with that, but there is something fishy about “You make birds. This is what you do.” Or “I want a horse print. That’s the kind of work you make.”
     You think, well jeez, at this point, Jane, you’re in your 60’s. Of course, this is the kind of work you make. You’ve been asking the same dumb question for 45 years—and laying it out slightly differently every year. But every year it’s like Groundhog Day with you. You don’t have any recollection that you’ve already solved this problem.
     And then I realize it’s not about what I make at all. I mean I could make the same bird for the next 40 years and get a different result, because it depends on the state I’m in when I’m in there. That’s why I was making a bird yesterday and I got a monk. I was making a monk and I got a bird. That’s how that happened. It doesn’t matter. But there is a dilemma about being quotable.

RW:  Well, he was saying that I might say something off the top of my head that just isn’t very good. Then that would be out there. But I mean to be quotable is a little different.

JR:  I agree with you. But I guess my question here is like when we did Parabola, the seeing issue. I was pretty involved with the raven and the coyote, because that’s what I was working with.

RW:  Right.

JR:  I guess what I’m saying is now all of a sudden I’m getting all these emails about ravens. It wasn’t like they weren’t about my deepest thoughts. They were, and are, very strong studies. I guess this goes full circle back to the beginning of the conversation. It doesn’t sum up life. That’s not the thing I want to be quoted on—the mind of the raven. If anything, it’s that each thing we talk about each time we speak is a facet on a crystal, one facet. That’s different than what Updike is saying. But what I’m saying is that my wish is to see the whole crystal, not just one facet. And in my life so far, the only way I’ve been able to search for the crystal is one facet at a time. Now maybe I think I’m getting to the point where I can see five facets at a time, because I’m just making the facets smaller so I can see them together.

RW:  I’d be interested in hearing about the mind of a raven. [laughs]. I think it’s interesting that you’ve done a number of raven pieces lately. And the hawks go back a lot further, don’t they?

JR:  This reminds me of the Conference of the Birds by a 12th century sufi poet named Attar. The birds set out to seek the Simurgh, which is God. Oddly I read this book first when I was 20 after seeing the Mevlevi dervishes at Carnegie Hall. And recently Cynthia Reeves gallery calls to ask me if I knew the book Conference of the Birds and would I be willing to be in the show of that title that she is curating!

RW:  When did this happen?

JR:  The show opens May 3rd.

RW:  And you're in it?

JR:  Oh, yeah. What’s hilarious is she’s doing a full page in Sculpture Magazine. And she’s using one of my birds that got screwed up in kiln casting. The mold split. I said, “Why are you doing a full page ad?” (She’s got 30 artists in the show.) “Not only are you only using this image, which is not in the show, but it’s a broken image.” We couldn’t figure out why she would want the piece. [shows me the piece]

RW:  Oh, I could see why. I don’t know what she said, but I can imagine.

JR:  Yes. She loves the fragmentation and the shadow of it on the other thing. I said do whatever you want. I’ve calmed down quite a bit about how I’m seen in the world. It’s fine. You want to use that and make it brown. No problem.

RW:  You were saying these girls didn’t know that you’d read The Conference of the Birds a long time ago.

JR:  No. They had no idea that this book was a seminal part of my whole life, which I quote: “The hawk makes an excuse.” It’s a great story. But they went ahead to curate the show and thought I would be interesting in the show.

RW:  That’s why I thought that the flawed bird would be perfect, because all the birds in that story have their excuses.

JR:  They have their excuse for why they can't go to find the Simurgh.

RW:  Exactly.

JR:  And so I think it’s great that she chose the image, and I’m fine with it. But it’s also, you know, like I’ve worked out how to blow glass with these master blowers. And what do I do? I’m working with like somebody who has got a kiln in Princeton on the harbor and we’re breaking the molds and the colors aren’t coming out right. Why? Because I have to smell my way through it again. I have to learn something. There is something I don’t know. I said let’s bake a bird using frit [a type of material which isn’t normally used].
     Why not? What would happen if we tried that? I said, “Let’s see.” And we bake a bird that looks just like my goddamned material. It doesn’t look like glass. And it’s solid glass. And they can go outside.

RW:  Wow.

JR:  And you have absolutely no control whatsoever. So you have to be in a state when you’re dumping all of these different colored chips of glass in, to think how are they going to melt. Talk about fire. Okay. What are they going to do? They have to slowly go up to a high temperature and then slowly come back down. And then how are they? Right? But the days that your energy is very good, amazing shit happens. And I don’t know how it knows. Somehow, something much larger is pulling the strings.

RW:  That’s fascinating.

JR:  You know? You’ve seen the kiln cast pieces, haven’t you?

RW:  I don’t know if I have. 

JR:  I mean we did some crazy stuff with glass blowing, too.

RW:  I just saw these wonderful pots by Clayton Bailey. He calls them “exploded pots.” He goes out in his backyard and digs up the clay and throws these pots. He glazes them with a white slip and fires them. And because it’s just unprocessed clay from his backyard, these things just –

JR:  Blow up.

RW:  They expand. They crack. They explode. They do unexpected things. But these pots are some of the most interesting ones I’ve seen in a while.

JR:  The question I have about that is, is it art? Because I just looked at these mountains in China, these sandstone mountains that are all these different colors that look like phenomenal paintings. And it’s the earth. The woman that I’m working with in Princeton, Ann Hollingsworth, has got some really interesting sort of stuff that explodes with the glass and is coming to a place in her work that is trying to include both intention and experiment or process. So then it comes to a question of intention and attention, because if you don’t intend anything, if you put stuff out in the field and it blows up and it’s beautiful and it’s interesting then where’s the fire? You see?

RW:  Well, that’s a question.

JR:  I was watching Angelica Huston talk. She was married to a sculptor named Robert Graham who did these figures and sculptures. I knew his work. And he died three years ago. I remembered there was a moment where he was peaking in his career. He became much more interesting to me knowing that he married her. What an odd combination. You know? But while I was watching her talk about him getting sick and dying, and the fact of her seeing somebody die who she loved, and going through that process and realizing how out of control we are and not knowing how to think about it, she got real for a second. Like her mask came off and she said, “I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t fix him. I couldn’t. You know, your life is here and now your life is gone.” That question. He was a sculptor. He was a good sculptor. He did all these things, and then he died. So what’s the point?
     You know that conversation you and I had about my student at SVA? The one that never spoke the whole year in class? All the other students were having this big philosophical conversation about the difference between objective art and subjective art. I asked, “Is there anything that’s objective, that’s always true no matter what?” And out of the back of the room comes a voice I had not heard for a whole year, “We’re all going to die.” It’s the only time I heard him speak.

RW:  Wow.

JR:  So then what do we do in the meantime? If you approach it from that point of view, you could be immobilized because you have to fully engage in life.

RW:  I’ve got a couple of stories just in the last few days that are on the other side of that.

JR:  Related to this question?

RW:  Tangentially, I think. I had dinner in San Francisco with this woman, Gail Enns and her husband John. She’d put together this exhibit near Monterey that included a photographer who had portraits of these Nisei men who fought in World War II, beautiful portraits, straight-ahead, but really well done—Tom Graves. I looked on his website and there was a picture of him. I just took a look to see if I got a feeling, you know?

JR:  What’s a Nisei?

RW:  A Japanese American who fought in World War II on our side.

JR:  Okay.

RW:  So Gail and her husband have come up from Monterey and we're eating in this Chinese restaurant in SF. I notice this guy who comes in and sits down at the next table. I'm thinking, Holy Mackerel! that looks like Tom Graves! You know? I mean how many Chinese restaurants are there in SF? A ton of them. But now here’s this guy. He doesn’t look at us.
     I’m thinking I’m not even going to mention it, because what are the chances? So we eat our dinner. Finally, at the end I can't resist and I say, “You know what? That guy over there looks like Tom Graves.”
     Gail turns around and, “That is Tom Graves.” So that’s one story—highly improbable. Right?

JR:  Actually, no. I don’t think so.

RW:  You don’t?

JR:  To me that makes absolute sense. My experience so far has been that you attract these things in certain ways. And none of it surprises me in that way. I would have been surprised if it wasn’t Tom Graves. I love that it was.

RW:  [laughs] Okay. Here’s the second story. I’m involved in and we’re having our monthly meeting, a few of us, at this place in San Francisco called The Happiness Institute. That’s an interesting story in itself. Anyway, Sam Bower and Anne Veh and Pancho [Ramos Stierle] and I are there. I’d sort of dragged myself over there in the rain. Okay? These are all very special people.
     About two hours into the meeting, Anne goes off and comes back with another woman, who joins us. We’re all being friendly with her. Before long Bhutan is mentioned, out of the blue. It turns out this woman, Anne Muller, went photographing in Bhutan around a book project. It was focusing on Bhutan’s gross national happiness policy. They try to maximize the gross national happiness rather than their gross national product. It’s a real thing. It’s not just a joke. She’s got this beautiful book of all these photographs.
     So we’re there at the Happiness Institute. and all of a sudden here’s this woman joining the four of us telling us about Bhutan’s gross national happiness. Her friend—a Bhutanese man—who was at Harvard, I think, came up with the idea as part of his PhD thesis.
     I’d just dragged myself over there and all of the sudden I’m thinking, what are the chances of this happening?
     It wasn’t like someone had orchestrated it. Gross National Happiness at the Happiness Institute. It seemed like the universe put her in front of me. And of course, I wasn't going to pass it up; I asked her for an interview. Later I did interview her, in fact.

JR:  Yeah, see you’re also—and this is a question I’ve had with several people—there’s a line in Conference of the Birds where there is an idiot of God, which is what a Sufi is, an idiot of God. He looks up to the sky and he says, “Oh God, open the gates so that I may enter.” And God looks down and says to him, “Oh idiot, is the gate shut?”
     My gut level instinct is that if you are open to the universe, the gate is, in fact, open—that these things are daily miracles. And let’s assume there is something of a much, much higher quality that can move through you. I don’t care what you call it; God, the intelligence that is supreme intelligence. And if you are shut or preoccupied, you are not open to these things that are happening all the time.
     I mean I went outside the other morning and there is a great blue heron sitting on top of the dining room, you know, just sitting there. A four-foot great blue heron is sitting on the roof. And I don’t know how often he is there. I don’t usually look up. I’m busy trying to get my coffee. We’re walking the dogs there’s a white-tailed kite, amazing bird, flying right over our head, hovering. It looks like an angel.
     So I mean this level of occurrence happens all the time. It depends on what you’re open to. But I think this doesn’t happen for most people. It depends quite a bit on what you’re open to. What I hate, for example, let’s say in the last few days there was too much talking. I get dislocated up in my head and I am no longer open. I am in a conversation, but I am not open while being in the conversation.
     If I haven’t been in my studio then I’m not open. The studio opens you to the surprises that occur. The studio itself does it.

RW:  That’s pretty important. You mean working in the studio? Or just being there?

JR:  Almost just being present in the studio. So in the morning I get up, I have my coffee, I do my sitting. Then I walk the dogs to the studio. I do that every morning. Alex meets me in the studio and we sit in those two chairs—the energy at the beginning of the day.
     Then the day happens and, at the end of the day, I like to walk down to the studio and sit in the chair and see what’s happened. Right? I have an idea that somehow the sculptures get up and they’ve been moving around all day. Then they go back to their places when they think I’m going to show up. You know? Sometimes I swear I’m going to go down there and they are going to be in new places.
     But I think the thing that’s happening in me now is if I don’t meet the beginning of the day with quiet and I don’t meet the end of the day with quiet, that during the day I am less likely to be in an open place. I so believe that there is this other reality that’s going on all the time. Perhaps being in nature has alerted me to.. I’ve often got my eyes open even when we’re talking. Now there are the two ravens. They want that food. Somebody else is around and I’m aware that there’s a hawk in the vicinity, or there’s an interloper raven. There is this extraordinary complexity of things that line up like your meeting with these people that can happen at any given moment, if you’re available. And there’s the fact that we don’t know that.

RW:  I just love that. It gives me a kind of hope whenever I hear these kinds of stories, and I’ve heard some more lately. It speaks to what you’re saying about there being this other level of reality.
JR: Well, I’ll give you another example. See now my raven is hungry, but won’t come because he knows that someone is in the house. See the hummingbird? Right here?

RW:  Yes.

JR:  It may be a more open or exposed area where he doesn’t feel safe. I don’t really know. But three days ago I was outside. I had my silver pen and had been writing something. Then I came back into the house. I’m at the computer and I look outside and the two ravens are on the ground in front of the swimming pool. My raven has got something hanging out of her mouth. She’s got the silver pen in her mouth and she’s flipping it up. And the other raven is flipping it back to her. They’re playing with it, you know? My suspicion is that it’s a shiny object and it’s my object. Right? It’s something of me.

RW:  Right.

JR: Okay. So I go outside and the raven, she’s there with this pen in her mouth. I don’t have the lid on the pen, so I’m thinking, oh, the blue ink isn’t going to be good for her little mouth. And I look at her and I just said, “Mama Raven, drop that! That is not for you.” And she went like this [gestures with her head]. And she spit it on the ground and walked away from it. You know?
     How does she – I mean I am sure she didn’t know “drop that.” But I think there was something in my tone that made her aware. Like this morning they don’t—birds don’t come out that much during a storm. They seek shelter. So you can almost really predict what’s happening with the weather based on when they’ve really disappeared.
     So she wasn’t out first thing this morning. I got up, did my ritual. And then she was there by herself and I heard [makes one knocking sound]. It was a quail. It hit the window and broke its own neck, because on occasion they do that.
     I’ve learned something now really important—that when they have freshly died of natural causes like that, you have to say, “Go with God.” Then you have to have them provide a meal for another. So I picked the bird up and I walked the bird over to the railing. My raven knew that the quail was about to do that. I mean, I don’t know how they know, but my raven was over here. I put the bird down and the raven picked up the whole bird in her beak. And she just looked at me like “thank you,” and then flew off. Then she came back with the bird and stayed there the whole time eating it. I watched how she ate the bird. But there are these things that you learn—like I used to always feel badly when I would see a bird die. I don’t anymore. I just think, “Oh, okay. Let’s walk to the studio, because the weather is going to get…”
To learn more visit:     


About the Author

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


A Man Impossible to Classify photo: r. whittaker One of my first experiences in San Francisco ... Read More 749646 views

The Dumpster       “We can’t use these. They look like ... Read More 161963 views

Cotton and Silk Vorbeck quilt, detail I’m working on the last panel of a pair of ... Read More 14662 views

Say Grace I am deeply delighted to live on a planet that is so big and varied that I can ... Read More 13382 views

An Interview with Betsy Damon I first heard about Betsy Damon from Sam Bower of Water ... Read More 48834 views


A Man Impossible to Classify photo: r. whittaker One of my first experiences in San Francisco ... Read More 749646 views

Interview with Bill Douglass - Jimbo's Bop City and Other Tales At the time I'd first gotten to know the widely respected ... Read More 371586 views

Greeting the Light It was thanks to artist Walter Gabrielson that I was able to get ... Read More 326894 views

Interview: Gail Needleman Gail Needleman taught music at Holy Names University in Oakland, ... Read More 196953 views

The Dumpster       “We can’t use these. They look like ... Read More 161963 views