Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Steven Pattie : Tell Their Stories

by , Jun 11, 2021



Stained glass artist Joan di Stefano was sure Steven Pattie was someone I'd want to interview. She’d made some stained glass windows for him, for a gallery he was building devoted to the exhibit of outsider art on his property east of Gilroy CA - Pattie Farm. The whole thing sounded so exotic and surprising, I could hardly wait to met Pattie and see what he was up to. I gave him a call. It would be some weeks before it was ready to show, but yes, he'd welcome a visit. When the day came, I drove down from Oakland and spent several hours with Pattie out on Redwood Retreat Road. By then, I'd get a good feel for his ambitious vision. Besides its becoming a major locus for outsider art, it would be devoted to events for raising consciousness about the Ohlone peoples who had lived on the land he now occupied. The following conversation was recorded in his home at Pattie Farm and as we strolled around the grounds. There was quite a back story.

Richard Whittaker:   You went from high school down to Santa Barbara? 

Steven Pattie:   Yes. I graduated from Gilroy High. I was born in Alexandria, Virginia, and we moved out here to Mountain View in 1959. My parents bought this place in Gilroy and we moved down here in 1967. My dad was a mechanical engineer at Lockheed. During those days I was doing some writing, but music was really my thing. I was very big into clarinet and saxophone, and I studied with the former first chair in the San Francisco Symphony. At one point, I thought I’d make that a career, but in high school I got more interested in going into some form of ministry. So, when I finished high school, I went to Westmont College in Santa Barbara. I got there on a partial music scholarship, but then began to study theology preparing to perhaps eventually pastor a church. Then, after Westmont, I attended Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

RW:   Had you been a churchgoer when you were younger?

Pattie:   I was loosely affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. But at that point, I just felt a call to a Christian ministry. I’d had some success in high school leading groups. It felt like a good fit. So there I was at Fuller. I finished my Master of Divinity degree and graduated in 1978. But towards the end there, I began seriously wondering if this was really the path for me. I started considering myself a theo-artist, if you will. I was 25 and didn’t know what I was going to do.

I moved to Santa Barbara where I got a position with an interdenominational ministry in town.  Having not felt the call to fulltime ministry, I hadn’t thought through what I would do to make a living. I'd been out of the workforce for eight years thinking heady thoughts and discussing ideas with absolutely amazing people, but now, what was I going to do to survive? So, I started waiting tables and worked part-time at this ministry for two years. Also, I was executive director of the Fuller Theological Seminary extension campus for Santa Barbara/Ventura County, a half-time position. So I was cobbling things together to make a living.

RW:   So how did you get to be the executive director of that extension program?

Pattie:   Well, I knew the school. I’d been on committees and had a relationship with the president and some of the faculty. I was a recent grad and they offered me this part-time job.     

RW:   They thought, “We know this guy. He’s good with people. He can probably do it.”? But you didn’t have any training in business administration or anything like that?

Pattie:   No, none at all.

RW:   That’s kind of wild.

Pattie:   Exactly. So I let go of waiting tables and ran that program for five years. I got married about two years after graduating and during this time was also doing some building maintenance and washing windows to support my young family. This was in my late twenties. I was just doing whatever it took to support a new wife, and then a baby nine months after we got married. Nothing was well-planned, but there it was. And at this time I was introduced to painting.

My grandfather had been a painter and a writer. He’d studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, but dropped out and served in the First World War. Later, he was the editor of five different magazines which featured his and others’ writing, and even his illustrations. He was also a founder of the Philadelphia Writers Club in the 1920s with some other people and made a modest living as a pulp fiction writer during the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. This is one of his magazines. [shows me] It was pretty saucy and erotic, if you will. So doing art is in my blood. Over half of my cousins have made their living as artists.

But anyway, back to Santa Barbara. Maybe six months after I moved there in ’79, I met this artist named Andre Andreoli. At the time, he was well-known. He had a thick Italian accent, long black hair and dressed as a dandy. He’d recently gone through a conversion experience back to his Roman Catholicism from having been this playboy for 20 years. Just a couple of years before I met him, he’d been featured in GQ [Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine] as their Bachelor of the Month. But since then, he’d embraced the church again, had gotten involved in supporting Mother Teresa and gone deeper into his painting. He suggested, “Steven, you should take my class; you might find it interesting.”

I’d never painted in my life, but I soon discovered I was good at it. I had a lot of fun with it and soon started exhibiting in some shows around Santa Barbara and beyond. In fact, this one [shows me an announcement] is actually from my first opening at the Arlington Gallery where I was featured with Austrian artist Luigi Kasimir, Jamie Wyeth, and others while I was in Santa Barbara.

RW:   I take it your paintings were selling?

SP:   Yeah. I've been able to make a modest contribution to my earnings along the way, but I've always had day jobs. The most creative challenge an artist has is figuring out how to make a living. Right?

RW:   It’s a big challenge, to say the least.

SP:  So I began to seek out people who might steer me in some direction. I was asking, “Should I go back to school and really learn how to paint?” And I sought out a guy named Ken Nack, who was the head of the art department for Santa Barbara City College. I also set up an appointment with Howard Fenton, who was the chairman of the art department for the MFA program at UC Santa Barbara. I met him at his studio and brought a bunch of my paintings. I laid them against the wall and we talked. I asked if he thought it would be beneficial for me to go back to school to study painting in a formal way.

He said, “I wouldn’t recommend that. With people like you who have this natural talent, I just try to get out of their way. So keep doing what you’re doing.”

And then I met with Ken Nack. He didn’t know my background. We met in his office and he really liked my work. He said, “You know, you’re really a good draftsman. I need an instructor for my beginning drawing class. Would you be at all interested in doing that?”

RW:   You must have been mind blown.

SP:   I mean, he offered me this opportunity, but I said, “Respectfully, I don’t think I'm credentialed enough to do that.” He said, “Well, do you have a master’s degree?” I told him I did, but it was in theology. He said, “That doesn’t matter.” But anyway, that never went anywhere.

RW:   You declined? It never happened?

SP:   I declined. It never happened.

RW:   Wow. So you have that ability to draw or paint a good likeness that people generally don’t have.

SP:  Yes. You know, I've had different people help me out here with building the gallery. We had one gentleman out here recently, a lovely guy who is actually a member of the Hell’s Angels. Another artist introduced me to him, and I got to know him a little. He has a BA from an Evangelical Christian college, and a law degree from Boalt, and he decided to walk away from all of that. Anyway, he showed me some paintings he was doing. Again, completely self-taught. Richard, it was just like, “Are you kidding me?” These were portraits—like classic portraiture.

RW:  Amazing.  That’s always impressive. My granddaughter can do this—just knock them out. But going back to the art professor at UC Santa Barbara, I think that was pretty good— what he said to you.

SP:   Yeah. But I'm not at all against the idea of formal education, just so we’re clear on that.

RW:   Okay. He was saying some people don’t need to go to school. They’re going to be artists because they can’t help it, so to speak.

SP:   That’s right. There’s a certain viewpoint, a certain soul, they bring to it that’s just unique to them. That’s why I'm so engaged with self-taught artists. I immediately got deep into collecting, and spending time with these folk. I’ve done it over the last 30 years. I was fascinated by their art, fascinated by each story, and in most every case, they were the real deal—people who just woke up one morning in Montgomery, Alabama or in Boise, Idaho and said “You know what? I've just got to start painting art today!” Or, “I’ve got a story to tell, and I finally figured out how to tell it!” And they just do it.

RW:   So originally, you were moved towards the ministry, but found out it wasn’t quite the thing.

SP:   No.

RW:   So can there be a relationship between something deep that finds expression in art and, but in other ways, could find expression through religious or spiritual expression?

SP:   Whether a spiritual leader or an artist, they’re each doing what they do because they believe that’s the way they’re going to change the world. I mean, whether it’s through their art or some kind of formal ministry, they both have a passion to make a difference in the world. Like the Reverend Howard Finster who became so famous is a great example. He was to folk art what Elvis Presley was to rock ‘n roll.

RW:   Can you say more about that? 

SP:   Well, Pattie Farm is my canvas. I believe people who are creative and live in the world of art see that as a means by which they, in their own ways, can make a difference. In terms of my work here at Pattie Farm and Redwood Retreat Gallery, its focus is on self-taught/outsider artists—and giving voice to my own vision and expression. 

In a second gallery space that’s already built, I’ll be featuring materials and stories of the local Ohlone people who lived on this very land for thousands of years.  I want to help people understand the importance and relevance of this indigenous history and native spirituality. Towards that end, for example, we recently hosted a Native American drum maker who led a workshop with 20 people. Together we created these wonderful drums. I've got one over there. Twenty people came and we played our new drums into the evening. The next morning, we were sitting by the campfire and our workshop leader was looking at the fire that had been burning for maybe 24 hours and he said, “We made a lot of great ash here together. This has been the best workshop experience I've ever had.” Of course, it was exciting to hear that. So events and things like that here are all part of how I want to make a difference.

RW:   That’s beautiful. Can you say again something about what kind of a difference?

SP:   Exactly. What difference? Well I'm trying to capture something—like in a landscape or that painting of my dog over there, or that still life of artifacts and some sage from the property—so people might have a response to it. I like to be kind of a reporter making notes on the world this way. I can think of other artists who would approach this differently. What I'm offering isn’t particularly dramatic, except that I want to somehow create a space here where there are opportunities for people to come and be present, to be in this environment, and to see the art.

RW:   It can be a challenge to describe some of these things.

SP:   Well, let me give you a good illustration. For example, you see that redwood post over there? Out in front, there’s a circle of eight of those posts. I began discovering these discarded old redwood posts and they captured my imagination—these naturally sculpted pieces of redwood— I looked at them and realized, “Man! They’re souvenirs of the past. They’re relics.”

They’re a testimony to the forest that once covered this coastal range. All these posts came from these Santa Cruz Mountains. I began to think there was a story to be told with these discarded things. And I took eight of them and created this installation called Eight Trees. Basically, I wanted to make a difference by re-presenting this story about what happened to the original people who lived here—and to these forests. I’m talking about the connection between genocide and ecocide.

The Amah Mutsun tribal band had been here on this property for perhaps as long as 8,000 years—a part of the Ohlone nation. The Ohlone Nation is made up of different tribes in the Greater Bay Area. Before colonization, there were about 58 tribes with a collective population of about 17,000 people, and several language groups within those. So, the territory of the Amah Mutsun stretched between Santa Cruz and into Hollister. One of their original villages is on this property.

So this assemblage of posts is really about that. It is about connecting the ecocide of these lands with the removal of the indigenous people who’d been the protectors of these forests for thousands of years—taken away to the missions in San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz. It’s a terrible history. The chairman of the Pomo tribe described these people as being “the guardians of the forest.” Then 70 years later what happens? The land barons move in. These forests are clear-cut, and there’s ecological devastation.

RW:   There has to be great sadness here.    

SP:   A lot of sadness. There’s really a lot. It’s a terrible story in terms of the Native American peoples. And then the devastation of these forests. Yet today when you go up the road to the summit, you can witness the recovery of the forest. There are 200-foot-tall trees. It’s nothing compared to the grandeur it once was, but there’s hope in this. And Eight Trees  speaks to that. These old wood posts had stood in barns and were used in fencing in the South County for maybe 130 years. These very pieces are from that original forest.

So with this particular work I wanted to tell people that story. It’s a story of our interactions with the Indian peoples and with our ecology over the last couple of centuries. And besides the tragedies, it’s also a story about hope. My piece is just trying to bring a remembrance to this whole thing. A write-up was done about these posts as being kind of quiet sentries to that story. I felt like it made a difference.  

RW:   You’re seeing and feeling the reality of what happened with the trees, and the devastation of the lives of the Native Americans and their suffering—and the echoes somehow hidden in those posts almost carry some kind of beauty, too, wouldn’t you say?

SP:   Yes. Oh yeah. They do.

RW:  I mean, there’s terrible loss. Native Americans and many people would say the real human intelligence resides in the heart.  So what I'm getting is that this is a work where you’re saying, “Please try to feel the reality of what we don’t see,” and “Here, this little remnant here is a real thing.”

SP:   Yeah. Some people would walk up and go, “Well, it’s just a chunk of wood.” But I look at it and go, “That’s a small tree. That is the whole thing.” It came from out of some barn somewhere, right? But that tree stood young and healthy 150 years ago, and that’s the evidence of it right there! There’s a quiet power in such a piece for that certain eye that finds it, and sees it.

RW:  Yes. A certain eye that finds it. And sees it. That’s true in so many things. How did the idea of doing this circle come about again?

SP:   It just started with some piles of wood. I found the posts and I'm going, “I don’t know why these are so beautiful to me, but there’s something important about these.” I realized they were like fossils of the original forest—and they should be beautiful. So I buffed them up and just with that, they just almost shone.

RW:  So you looked at these old pieces of wood and realized this is a real thing. Then you start working from that, and something grows from there.

SP:   Yes. It begins with the wood. Then I'm seeing several of them. I'm thinking, “Gosh, there are lots of these that are just…oh, my God, they’re just so beautiful! Look at that knothole that comes out of there, just in the perfect spot!” Maybe in one case, there might be a little enamel from an old barn that’s in one corner. In some cases, there are burn marks on them. In other instances, there’s a chunk of barbed wire or an old, rusty square nail. There’s this whole panorama. When you’re really focused on it, you’ve got this whole story going on with just one piece. There’s a whole story attached to it. And now all I'm really doing is reintroducing the story to people.

But then the story even goes beyond that when you begin to realize “Well, why were these trees even cut—that magnificent forest? Well, it was because they were no longer protected. They’d stood for millions of years, and then for the last 8,000 years, were protected by the Amah Mutsun.  And then beginning in the late 1700s, at the onset of the Mission Period, these Native people were all rounded up and died, most of them from disease, or from being worked to death. It’s not a good chapter of our history.

RW:   This all opened up for you starting out with seeing these old pieces of redwood, these posts. Right?

SP:   Exactly.

RW:   And then something happened where you thought of doing a circle.

SP:   Right, exactly. Because I wanted to present it as an event.

RW:   So how did that idea of making a circle happen?

SP:  First I thought I could do a stand-alone post, which is what I did. Like that one out there [pointing]. It hadn’t been chiseled down. It’s actually the whole little tree, the original sapling, which is what’s important about it. The others were hewn from huge redwoods.

But in terms of the circle, I wanted to do something that made more of a statement. And presented so that people can walk into the circle that I created from eight of these posts, each on these big, iron stands. It is powerful. Woven into it is the retelling of the story of the original people, and letting the audience just take it in, bringing their attention back to something that is so significant. I think it’s a way of helping people be instructed in how to see the world.

RW:   Does the artist hope—do you hope—that a work of art can be a door or a window this way?

SP:   Yes. It is; it’s a door or window.

RW:   Something you care deeply about.

SP:   Something I care deeply about that you put out there and give people the chance to respond to.

RW:   It’s a way of making the invisible visible, isn’t it?

SP:   Yeah, I think it is. It is a way to make the invisible visible.

RW:   Because the story is not visible unless you wake up enough to look at that post and actually start thinking where did this come from?

SP:   Yes. Many of us prefer to allow the art to speak for itself and let people bring their own journey to it. In this particular case, there is a didactic element to it, right? I mean, it’s the preacher in me. You know, “Let me tell you a story.” It’s not just about these posts. It’s really about the story attached to those posts. In that sense, there’s meaning to my work. At least once in a while I can capture it, perhaps.

I feel good about this work because there is meaning to it. It is instructive. I capture people’s imagination with the posts, and just the art of the wood—the nicks and scratches, all the evidence of time that had passed, how they had been buffed, and how beautiful they are.

Then they go from that to reading my gallery notes, like, “Okay, read about what you’re looking at.” Because they wouldn’t have got all that otherwise. That’s not a judgment. It’s just we’re all built differently. Right? So putting it out there in written form was a way to be didactic and to tell the story.

RW:   Or instead of didactic, what about "hermeneutic"?

SP:   There it is, exactly.

RW:   I mean, let’s get back to theology.

SP:   No, you’re right. Exactly.

RW:   It took me awhile to get a handle on that word, hermeneutics. It refers to teaching, an opening up and showing the meaning of something, right?   

SP:   Exactly. And again, Richard, that’s what connects me to outsider, self-taught art. It’s very, very hermeneutical. It’s about getting the story out there, the artists’ work can be very instructive, if you will. I think it’s very exciting. It’s telling with love, without judgement.

RW:   That’s a key thing.

SP:   I could have maybe toned it down a little, but that’s the real history. The colonizers rounded-up the indigenous population.  They couldn’t speak the language. They were moved from these places. And this is the other reason why I'm connected. I live on their ground here, right? And since returning to Pattie Farm eight years ago, I've been in touch with the Native American community.

The chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band as well, as other indigenous people, have been to this property.  They still consider it part of the territory originally entrusted to them, and I honor that. There are no people buried here, but they lived here. We have an open relationship in that this land is still theirs, and together we co-steward. The Chairman and his tribe had never known his ancestors had a village here until I told them.

Again, this all relates back to this one piece. Right? That’s why it’s so passionate for me, because I feel like I'm in touch with these people. Their blood is here in some ways. So their spirit is here, too. They lived on this place for at least four, maybe eight thousand years. I mean, we don’t even know. We never even think about it. I guarantee you, when people are at a nearby winery tasting and enjoying this valley they have no idea that there were people living here for up to 8,000 years. That’s why part of what I do as an artist is telling the story. That’s why I represent certain artists because I want to tell their story.

RW:   It’s your ministry, as you mentioned.

SP:   It is. And it’s why I'm passionate about representing other people’s stories. I hope you’re in no rush today, because alongside all these self-taught artists, I have been always interested in the Beats. So about 25 years ago, that led to me developing a relationship with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which was just a joy to me.

RW:   When I look at photos of him it seems he was a loving, sensitive man.

SP:   Lawrence, he was an absolutely loving, quiet guy. He was a very private individual—and very modest, actually. The public rarely saw that in him, because he was such a public figure, maybe the most public of the Beats. But he never really considered himself a Beat, even though he was right at the center.

RW:   Thanks to his publishing them all, right?

SP:   Yes, in City Lights Books. He published people who had never been in print before and gave leadership to a whole new movement in literature. So when Lawrence had finished his service in the Second World War, he enrolled at the Sorbonne and completed a Ph.D. Then he returned to the United States and worked briefly in New York as a writer. He made his way to San Francisco about 1950 and began to establish his presence here with City Lights Books.

So I was in SF one day and went over to City Lights. I said, “I’m Steven Pattie. You don’t know me, but I know you and your work.” He was tall with piercing blue eyes. I told him I appreciated his writing, his poetry, and especially his paintings. He looked at me like, “How do you know about my paintings?” I mean everybody knows his writing, right?

RW:   Did he paint in the space above his bookstore where there’s that row of windows?

SP:   No. He had a studio in Hunters Point. So I told him “I liked these pieces I've seen online.” He said, “Well, I really appreciate that.” He was again, very kind and soft-spoken, very interactive. And afterwards, I sent him a note thanking him. I asked if he’d ever be interested in selling me one of his paintings. He immediately wrote me back, “Steven, thank you for your inquiry. Hey, absolutely. Why don’t we meet at my studio at Hunter’s Point? And by the way, here’s my private number.”

RW:   Wow.

SP:  I'm thinking, “Really?” So my family came with me, and we went in there and looked at his art. I bought seven or eight pieces for crazy, unreasonably good prices—paintings like that one right there, one of my favorites.

RW:   That’s a beauty.

SP:   The French [words in the painting] means, Not always accepted ideas. Isn’t that great? So I bought a few pieces and then we stayed in touch and occasionally painted with him in his studio with a few others.

RW:   Who is this? [looking at a photo on the wall]

SP:   That’s Howard Finster—the guy we made the movie about.

RW:   What an interesting face.

SP:   He was a preacher his whole life at little Baptist churches in the Deep South. Then an angel came to him in the form of a little face on his finger that spoke to him. It said, “Howard, you need to stop what you’re doing and paint sacred art.”

RW:   What’s the name of the film you made?

SP:   I Can Feel Another Planet In My Soul.

RW:   That’s an intriguing title.

SP:   That’s how Howard sometimes imagined himself feeling. So anyway, I have a lot of correspondence with Lawrence. I think I showed you a picture of this book. This is when he was still going by Lawrence Ferling. And these are paintings from about 1952, right before he opened up City Lights Books. He hadn’t even changed his name back to Ferlinghetti, the original family name. And this is his high school yearbook right here.

RW:   My gosh, how cool is that?

SP:   This gets back into the collecting angle of things, Richard. When I get into somebody like Lawrence, as I did with Finster—particularly, those two personalities were influencing my work—when I fall in love with a person’s art, I also get interested in their backstory.

I had a relationship with Howard Finster, and along the way acquired some his early work and ephemera—like some of the doll furniture and things that he’d made, picture frames in the early ‘40s, thirty years before he started painting—that becomes another piece of the story of his journey, which I think is really crazy fun to have. [pointing] This is a Howard Finster sculpture from his garden. It’s made of concrete and broken mirror fragments. He created a whole, three-acre environment featuring major sculptures, paintings, buildings and more. He called it Paradise Garden.

RW:   Amazing. Tell me about the movie, like, whose idea was it?

SP:   It was my idea. There had never been a full-length film about him. He’d been on TV including the Johnny Carson show, and was an increasing fixture in pop culture. By that point, he was exhibiting at the Phyllis Kind Gallery in NYC which in the ‘80s, was one of the places on the gallery trail. In fact, Howard’s art featured on the cover of Talking Heads’ Little Creatures was Rolling Stone’s Album Cover of the Year in 1985. David Byrne had wandered into the gallery and saw Finster’s paintings. Howard was being discovered by everybody.

RW:  You’ve got a lot of great stuff here, Steven. So let’s talk more about what you’re doing with your gallery.

SP:   I'm going to have an online gallery, but I also have this space where I can show the actual work. There aren’t many galleries on the West Coast featuring outsider art / folk art / art brut work. I bring my experience of many years as a collector to it, and I’ve written a little about it. I’ve done the movie and I’m an artist myself. So all that combined, this focus made sense for this next chapter of my life.

RW:   Do you see yourself making another film one of these days?

SP:   Probably not. But I had a relationship with Howard and happened to know a filmmaker who was the perfect fit for it. I’d gotten written permission from his daughter, and we went to Georgia and into NYC to shoot. We recorded him for two days, and it ended up being the last interview he ever gave. He died two months later.

RW:   Wow. And it’s a wonderful film, I have to say. How many artists’ work do you have and plan to present to the public?

SP:   Maybe 75. And I probably have 60 to 70 works by Howard. And many by Jimmy Lee Sudduth who painted the turkey you admired—I probably have 30 or 40 works by him. Then there are others where I may just have one work—like Clementine Hunter, the daughter of a slave, who did primitive, wonderful images.

I want to hold onto some of the work at this point for my own storytelling. But I'm always picking other things up. For example that landscape photo by Christopher Burkett. He’s a former monk who became a photographer and got married. That photograph of a tree was featured at the Whitney. He presented it as his self-portrait.

RW:   Now you’ve also spent some time studying calligraphy with the Japanese master in the East Bay.

SP:   Yeah, Kazuaki Tanahashi. I’d read something he wrote and thought, “I want to meet this man.” It turned out he was doing a meditation and calligraphy retreat at Tassajara Hot Springs, a Zen Buddhist study center. So I signed up for it, and that’s how I initially got to know him. We’ve stayed in touch and together meet with a few others each month for tea, conversation, and to make art.

RW:   He’s in Berkeley, right? [yes] You must know about the GTU [Graduate Theological Union].

SP:   I was actually president, briefly, of one of the small schools there - New College Berkeley. But I was only there a year. They’d been a small graduate school, but by then had evolved into being more of a study center. It was on a downhill slide, frankly. They wanted me, mainly, to do fundraising, and I took the job. I did it for a year, but then got my old job back at an ad agency doing fundraising for nonprofits based in Southern California, and I’ve been working remotely for them (or spin-offs of that firm) ever since.

RW:   Your story is so interesting, Steve. I’m drawn to the stories of people who are doing things their own way.

SP:   Yeah. I just found outsider artists so compelling and passionate about what they do. I put together a show from my collection that traveled around the country to colleges and museums for about four years — Ordained to Create, the Self-Taught Art of Preachers, Artists, and Visionaries. I also did a catalog for it that featured 40 pieces. I've always been interested in those artists who bring a religious component to their work. It’s like a real toxic mix of passion and religion.

RW:   Why do you call it toxic?

SP:   I mean, in the sense it’s having a lot of power—like nitroglycerine. I meant it in the friendliest of terms, like “These guys are off the charts!” I mean, Howard Finster was just so passionate about his Christ. There’s an artist, Myrtice West, who went on to become a major self-taught artist who did these landscapes about the Book of Revelation. I mean, all this visionary stuff from this poor Alabama woman.

Where did that come from? In her case, she’d had a nervous breakdown because her daughter had been killed by her son-in-law. And in an early episode of her breakdown, she got up uninvited into the pulpit of a church and spoke about the Book of Revelation. And the next thing you know, she’d completed 15 masterpieces on the Book of Revelation. Now they’re all in major museums. I have a number of her works in my collection, too. So it grew out of brokenness, really. But then also, her love of Christ.

This piece [pointing] is by Bernice Sims. She worked doing nominal jobs in schools. Then, in her 50s, she took a painting class at the city college. She got deep into that and used painting to tell her story about growing up Black in the South. This [shows me] is a clash of protestors and police with police dogs in a neighborhood in Alabama where she lived. This one [pointing] is about the Edmund Pettus Bridge where John Lewis was beat up during the Civil Rights Movement in Selma, Alabama. This particular image was actually featured on a U.S. stamp around 15 years ago. (part of a series of stamps by African American artists about the Civil Rights Movement).

This one [pointingJ is by Jimmy Lee Sudduth. It’s mud mixed with Coca Cola and white paint. He’d paint these flowers and petals with his fingers.

RW:   It’s so alive because these untrained artists aren’t worrying about measuring up to some standard. 

SP:   Exactly. This one [pointing] is by Buddy Snipes, Crackerjack Mermaid. It’s created from sticks and old pieces of tin he finds, puts together and paints. He lives next to a swamp in Alabama.

This little one [pointing] is the first piece I ever got from Howard Finster. I wrote him a letter and it was offered to me for $75. He writes on the back of each of his paintings. [turns painting around and reads] “34,114 works of art by Howard Finster. Composed 3:29 p.m., July 1, 1994. Prepare thy soul for the City of Gold where blessings are felt, not just told. But best of all that will ever be is the real heavens you will see. Only one picture you will be in is the whole heavens that has no end and will never grow old, not to one’s soul, not too hot, not too cold. It’s the delight for every soul. A million years, not one tear, no such thing as fear. It will all be very clear.”

He lived to be 85. I mean, the whole art world in Manhattan was all over this guy. Among others, Keith Haring and Allen Ginsberg were huge fans. Both made special trips to Georgia just to spend time with Howard – Keith, just three months before he passed from AIDS.

RW:   Wow. It’s all right there for you.

SP:   Exactly. It’s very accessible. And even if you don’t know exactly what’s going on, it makes an impression. Howard Finster had a passion for making art because he wanted everybody to hear about Jesus. Basically, he was in his church one night and said to the congregation, “I have a question I got to ask you. Is there anybody here in this church tonight who remembers anything about the sermon I delivered this morning?” Finster looked around and hardly any hands went up. “Thank you,” he said. “That’s basically all I needed to know.”

And he decided to leave the pulpit and to create art full-time. He thought God had a way to plant visions in his and other’s brain cells, and that doing art was the best way to get his visions across to others.

RW:   That was the turning point?

SP:   It was. But a lot of other things happened at the same time. He’d always been good at making and fixing things, like making clocks and selling them at the county fair, fixing bicycles and appliances. He was doing all kinds of stuff to support his work as a minister.

I mean, these guys are hard-working people! Howard had three or four churches! Then he had this vision of a little face on his finger tip (which he tells about in the movie) and a voice said to him, “Paint sacred art.” After that, he took all his tools—his wrenches and pliers and files and screwdrivers and saws, all his tools that were the means of his livelihood—and, as a testament to God, set them all in concrete spelling out his name. Basically, it meant, “I'm done! I'm moving on.”

I mean, that’s amazing to me. All this poor guy had was an old car and his tools. He took them all and made art out of them—never to be recovered.

RW:   That’s all quite truly amazing.

SP:   Yeah. That piece with the tools set in concrete is now featured at the High Museum in Atlanta. When he began making art he made a pledge to do 5,000 pieces of sacred art. And he got there. Then he thought, “Well, I guess I could do five thousand more.”

He kept records. I have some of his original records. They’re all on sheets of paper: 10,601, 10,602, 10,603…. He was obsessive about this. And most of his art pieces are one-of-a kind. He also did some lithographs, assemblages, and much more, which are all really fabulous.

But let’s walk around. [we walk outside]

SP:   Now, these stone carvings - are you familiar with Shona art? [yes] They’re a tribe in Zimbabwe and their whole culture is based in stone carving. Beautiful, right?

RW:   They are. [we continue walking]

SP:  This trailer is actually a 1890 cook shack I brought here to Pattie Farm and restored. Originally, it was pulled by horses. The cooks would live in it and cook for the men. Now it’s a little gallery.

RW:   [pointing] Is this piece by John Abduljaami?

SP:   Yes. I haven’t talked to John in a while. That’s another piece by John [pointing] and it was featured in Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum. Let me take you to one more building. This apple orchard is probably 125 years old. My son still harvests these trees and together we care for them. This is the Apple Chapel [we enter the building] where Ohlone history, artifacts, and native art will be featured.

RW:   Sweet.

SP:   There’s a story behind these stained-glass windows. Joan [di Stefano] did that one for me. And (thanks to Joan) these windows came from the Abby of Gethsemani where Thomas Merton had lived. Here’s an Ohlone skirt [displayed in a case]. It’s probably over 100 years old. When I first saw it I thought it was just packing material. Then I learned it’s actually an original, a tule skirt. The guy who had it said “You can have it for $100.”

I put the skirt in a show I did about two years ago. I want people to look at it and be brought to the point where they ask, “What’s the meaning of all this?” I didn’t buy any of this to flip and make money. My point was getting it to a good home in order to help me tell the Ohlone’s story. Otherwise, these things will be lost to history.  That’s among the many roles of the serious collector.

RW:   And the stone bowls you have were also found on the property?

SP:   Yeah. I’d mentioned earlier I’d invited the chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band out here and when he came he brought with him an archeologist from UC Berkeley. and an ethnobotanist from UC Santa Cruz.

RW:   Listening to you and seeing all this, it brings how in this culture so many people  never find a work that comes from their hearts.       

SP:   Right. To your point, I've seen my work as a calling—and part of a calling may be the awareness that this is important to do. It’s important to live life consciously with purpose and passion for something you believe in.

RW:   Indeed. And I think you can feel this in a person when they have that.

SP:   Right, absolutely. I recognize it in you, in your voice with works & conversations.

RW:   Well, thanks, Steven. Maybe it’s a good note to end on.


About the Author

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


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