The Well Known Photographer
I met Jon Kerpel at an opening in Alameda. But let me backtrack. Like countless other openings, this one was a modest affair. I’d arrived a few minutes early and, looking around, saw no familiar faces. Someone from the library had provided a nice spread, I noticed.
Thinking about the exhibit, I’d guessed maybe ten people would show, but it looked more like twenty-five or thirty were already there. Some were loading their paper plates at the food table while others were sitting around in folding chairs, glass of wine in hand, chatting amiably. No one was actually looking at the photos on display.
None of these strangers were homeless, I guessed, but I suspected several were there for a free meal—retirees on fixed incomes, probably.
The Alameda Library hosted such openings on a regular basis. The exhibit space in their new building is large and quite nice. Lemony Snickett, I was told, had been a guest there that very afternoon. The library person who would be the master of ceremony hadn’t yet arrived, so I walked over to the food table and poured myself a little punch.
According to the library’s announcement, the well-known photographer would give a talk about his work. I presumed I would be introduced first. And I had to smile. For a change, it me who was being hyped. So I waited. Where was the man in charge? As the minutes ticked past the starting time, I counseled myself: remember, you agreed to this, and now here it is
Thanks to years of such humble art-related activities, I’d found myself obliged to talk in front of gatherings several times. It was a way of carving out a space of self possession from the block of dread these things summoned in my chest. Still, that dragon hasn’t breathed its last.
Ten more minutes had passed, and I sized up the situation. Here was the space, the food, the people - and my photos lined the walls. Whatever happened next appeared to be up to me.
Leading up to this opening, library staff had been very helpful and I was impressed by their exhibit program - a real gift to the community. And being in Alameda at the library to help hang the show brought back many fond memories of the years I'd lived there. It’s where I began publishing (The Secret Alameda
). I was reminded, for instance, of the moment I got my first subscription. It was from Peggy Williams, a local treasure deserving of at least a civic monument. With her typical mock-formality, she handed over $10. It was one of those moments where one sees - most often in retrospect - that joy cannot be calibrated in terms of dollars.
First, Get Their Attention
As I sat there pondering how to rally the attention of this collection of strangers, the man from the library finally walked in. I experienced an inner sigh of relief. He would bring everything to order. And indeed, he did mumble something. I couldn't make it out. Then he glanced at me. For a moment, I was at a loss. At least half of the people in the room hadn’t noticed he was actually talking to them and had continued to chat.
“Okay,” I thought. “This should be interesting.”
“Good evening,” I said dailing up the volume. "Good evening!"
A couple of heads turned my way.
“Hello,” I said raising my voice another notch.
A couple more heads turned.
“Hello,” I said again, yet a little louder and waited a few seconds.
Now more than half of the people were at least looking my way.
“Thank you for coming tonight. Thank you.” I said, not quite shouting, and waited as more heads began pointing in my direction.
I was looking out at a crosscultural group of mixed ethnicities and ages. Among them was a young, tattooed Latino man, a middle-aged Asian woman and a very professorial-looking, silver-haired man probably in his eighties. And finally, I’d gotten everyone’s attention. But who were they? And what was I going to say to them?
“How many of you are artists?” I asked.
About half raised a hand.
I had some general points in mind and improvised. I'd gotten everyone's attention and then I asked for questions. The beauty of it was that we all ended up having a real conversation, quite genuine. Afterwards some people stayed to chat with me and a couple of them, to my astonishment, remembered The Secret Alameda.
The last person I talked with was Jon Kerpel, a man in his 60s, long-haired and sporting a walrus moustache. It was soon apparent that Jon was an arts old-timer and, I guessed, a veteran of the counter-culture of the 1960s.
I enjoyed talking with Kerpel. He lived in Alameda and, swapping stories, we discovered we knew a few people in common. I asked him about his own art. He worked with found objects, he told me. As we parted, I handed him a few copies of works & conversations
and, leaving that night, I felt quite pleased with it all. If nothing else came of the exhibit, my experience that evening was enough.
However, something more did come of it. I heard from Kerpel several weeks later and remembered him. I was curious to see his work and arranged a visit.
“It’s the house that looks like a gray bunker,” he told me, and I remembered how he'd kept it light and amusing when we'd spoken at the opening.
When I pulled up at the address, I was surprised to find myself gazing at a perfectly tidy, two-story house. Gray, yes, but devoid of bunkerness, and no counter-culturality was anywhere in evidence. Kerpel welcomed me warmly at the door. Walking in, I immediately recognized I’d entered an artist’s home. Sculptures and wall pieces had taken over much of the available space. Yet in spite of that, everything was quite neat and orderly. Many of the sculptures were carefully wrapped in plastic. The wall-to-wall carpet was perfectly vacuumed.
Would I like some coffee? Yes. But first, could I look around? Camera in hand I began taking photos.
“These are all yours?”
“Most of them.”
Kerpel took me around the house. Here and there the work of another artist was pointed out, but every room served as an art display and storage area. Kerpel’s assemblages—stand alone and wall-mounted—are carefully constructed. His prints, which date back to an earlier period, are meticulous. He’s a craftsman. Everything is in perfect order. I don’t know why I was surprised by that. One makes assumptions.
Long ago I realized I feel at home with most artists. It was how I felt sitting with Kerpel at his kitchen table over coffee. I learned that Kerpel is a New Yorker, born in Queens. He graduated from New York’s School of Visual Arts in 1974. In those days his work was all figurative. After graduating, there were a few years of the high life, Studio 54 and the like. He stopped making art. And then Paolo Soleri’s utopian vision called him west. For two years, he was part of the community at Arcosanti. “It was around that time that I began making art again,” he told me—in 1980, give or take. And ever since, he’s been at it.
Get a Life
What does having a life mean? The question comes up because it occurs to me that Kerpel is someone who has lived, who has a life.
“What keeps you going?” I asked him.
Unless an artist has achieved a level of acclaim, it’s a question I always wonder about. From the way he looked at me, for a moment I feared my question had been inflammatory. His first response was a kind of joke. But then he began looking for the words to describe it, finally culminating in, “I have a mission.”
Jon is passionate. I asked him to talk about how his art and his concern for the environment went together. “Everything comes from the environment. And we’re trashing it. We need a new attitude about the environment. That’s why I call a lot of my pieces temples. If we don’t start waking up, we’re going down! I hope my work will make people think about that. If you can reach one person it’s worthwhile. But you never know.”
He’d given a little talk at one of his openings, he told me, and a couple of years later he ran into a woman who came up and thanked him. She’d been there and told him he’d said something that had changed her life. It was a stunning affirmation. “And I had no idea.”
There was a point there. I think the point was, you do the best you can for the right reasons.
During a pause in our conversation as we sat together in his kitchen over coffee, he smiled and said, “This is a special day.”
I asked him why that was.
“Well, it’s my birthday. I’m sixty-four.”
That set our conversation off in a new direction. Just days earlier my wife had turned sixty-four. Mercifully, the mention of the Beatles and “When I’m Sixty-Four” came and went quickly. Family came up and, at one point, AA.
“What’s your connection with AA? I asked.
“I’ve been clean and sober for 27 years now,” he said.
I congratulated him and we sat there for a few moments in silence. Kerpel must have been thinking about all those years and what keeping to the program meant. I’d had the good fortune to go to one AA meeting as an observer and I’d been astonished by the depth of sharing and the atmosphere. “This is what a church should be like,” I’d thought to myself.
Kerpel told me another story, this one from his life in AA. A woman friend called him about her alcoholic ex-husband. He wouldn’t answer his phone. He hadn’t been leaving the house. It had been going on that way for too long. She was really worried. For Jon, her timing was inconvenient. But it was something more important than his convenience, so he drove over to the man’s house. He knocked on the door. Nothing.
“Well, he was an alcoholic,” Kerpel said. “I knew that and I figured, it’s going to take more than a couple of knocks. So I just stood there and kept knocking. Finally, he came to the door. He didn’t open it, so we talked through the door. I was persistent and somehow it made a difference. It marked a turning point. He stopped drinking. He lived several more years and was very grateful for that.”
He stopped for a moment and continued. “You know, later on, after he was back on his feet he told me something about that day. He asked me, ‘Did you know where I was when you came to the door?’ And of course, I didn’t. Do you know what he said?”
“What did he say?” I asked Kerpel.
“He told me he was sitting on his bed in the dark with a gun at his head.”
“Oh, my God!” I said.
“He told me he had a gun at his head and just before I knocked, he had asked God for a sign. That’s when I knocked on the door.”
Kerpel went on. “So you see, you really don’t know. I didn’t feel like I had anything to do with God. I was just doing what I thought was right.”