One morning I looked up from my cup of tea in a local coffee shop and was surprised to see a man at work on a little painting sitting at a table nearby. Such a sight was a first for me in this particular neighborhood. I walked over, took a peek, and was surprised again. It was really good. I complimented him on his work and we struck up a conversation.
He was just passing through, he told me. He’d been in Seattle and had come down to the Bay Area where he was staying for a few days with a friend. It didn’t sound like his accomodations were any too secure. It was clear he was traveling on a shoestring. Long ago I’d traveled in similar circumstances and was reminded of those times.
He seemed to welcome the interruption, and I asked him a few more questions. Before long, having had nothing of the sort in mind, I found myself in a conversation that had crossed into territory usually reserved for more intimate friends. All along I half-way expected to be hit up for a little cash, but nothing of the sort happened. The more we talked, the more I was touched by this total stranger and his story. Spontaneously, I decided to ask him for an interview. We met the following day in the same coffee shop and I asked him how he started out…
Terrance Meyer: I grew up a farm boy—dropped out of high school in 1973 during my second year and went into the work force for ten years.
Richard Whittaker: What kind of work were you doing?
TM: A number of things: factory work, crop dusting. I leased a bar and ran that for a year. I had a t-shirt shop and worked at an arcade for kids. I was into stock car racing, which was a first love. I bounced around a lot.
RW: Tell me more about that.
TM: When I started in hobby stock it showed I had potential, so I went to a school in Florida for the mechanics of it— setting up cars and racing them. There was a late model driver down there and I was running better times than he was. The potential was there and it really looked good. That first year I made a full investment in a late model car, but everything went bad. The engine blew up. Work went down to two days a week. And whatever it was that had made me so good at driving, I became conscious of it and somehow lost the fluidity of it, the feeling of it.
Where I grew up in Wisconsin it was very rural. It just felt like there were no opportunities. Even in school there was nothing in the arts. It wasn’t until the accident and I got into vocational rehab, that the doors opened.
RW: You were telling me earlier that you were driving a Harley at the time of the accident. A car made a left turn into you.
TM: Yes. I broke some bones in my foot. Cracked three ribs. Sheared a bone off on my ankle and lost a lot of skin off my head. I was thrown clear from the bike, which was a good thing because the car went right over the bike. A friend was there and saw the accident. On the way to the hospital he said I looked sort of okay, that it could’ve been worse. I had the biggest smile on my face because I knew things were okay. I felt like the rest of my life was gravy. It felt like I could do anything I wanted to because I was still here.
RW: That experience put you in a special state. Say more about that.
TM: That’s right. When I saw the lady turning I reached for the brake, but I didn’t even get that far. I remember the only thought I had was “I wonder if I’m going to remember this?” That was all.
From what I was told, I was unconscious for a while, but I didn’t realize it. I was on the ground and then I started flopping around because I thought I was still in the middle of the highway. After my friend told me I looked pretty much okay, there was just this euphoria. I’d felt that my life was over and it was as if all the chains had been let loose— total freedom! I could do anything I wanted now! Euphoria is the only word I can think of.
I had dropped out of high school, just like my seven siblings. Many dropped out. They went on to be farmers and factory workers. That was what my future looked like. I’d been a biker for ten years. It was a good life, and I still envy it. I did my job, rode my motorcycle in the summer, and shot pool in the winter, and was quite content.
RW: But as a result of this accident you ran across some new things. This had to do with the period while you were recovering.
TM: Yes. I had two friends who each had a handmade piece of jewelry which they showed me. That blew me away, in a sense, because at 26, I didn’t realize that jewelry could be hand-made, or that there was such a thing as pottery. It led to my working as an apprentice for a jeweler. I worked for him for three years. It was a good life, good money and all that. He had me take some classes at the local University and that’s where I just fell in love with the arts—with painting especially. I left him after three years and next I worked for a potter for about three years.
RW: I wanted to go back to where you said you didn’t realize there was such a thing as jewelry or pottery. I take it you mean you didn’t realize it could be hand-made.
TM: I was in awe! That beautiful pendant! I had assumed that it was all factory-made, that everything came out of a factory!
Art class in high school was nothing more than a study hall, an easy out. I had a cousin who said he remembered some of the work I did, but I don’t. Those were foggy years. Teen-age alcoholic. I was the first born in the family and was driving a tractor before I was in first grade. I was helping to take care of my brothers and sisters behind me and working the farm. You know, everyone has their traumas and that was one of mine.
I think I skipped a lot of being a child. You know, I’ve worked in group homes also, and I talked a lot with my bosses. We talked about my earlier life, and there’s a term for it, a “parentified child.” It helps explain my teen-age years and the alcohol. Those years were very foggy, just a cloud.
I started reading somewhere along in there—everything I could get a hold of—but I’d just read particular parts and get little insights and go on. It was a search of sorts and it kind of steered me in the right direction. That went on for maybe ten years, on into college, and a few years afterw:ards. It gave me a foundation, my own identity, or at least the realization of my own possibilities.
RW: Do you still have a problem with alcohol or is that behind you?
TM: I had so many blackouts as a teenager I’m lucky to be alive. But now I can take alcohol or leave it. One halloween a friend asked me if I wanted to take a hit of acid. It was just a wonderful experience and I firmly believe it was that experience that knocked me out of being an alcoholic. It was after that that I started tenaciously reading anything I could find.
RW: So, after your accident, how was it again you were led toward the arts?
TM: I was given funding to get some sort of job training. My foot was banged up so bad it was thought I’d never walk straight again. But I was a runner before I got into my accident, and I was so persistent about getting back to being able to run I finally got it back into place, although I still have chronic back problems. Anyway, when my friend showed me this piece of jewelry, that was when I got hooked up with the jeweler in Wenomony.
RW: And I think you said you ended up going back to school.
TM: I found I didn’t like jewelry making. It’s too small and very unforgiving. The money was great but I didn’t like sitting in a chair and there didn’t seem to be enough room for expression.
I remember walking through the doors of the art department. I felt, “now I can do anything I want! I can express anything I want!” It turned out this wasn’t totally true. I had my share of arguments with the professors, but in general they were good to me. There was always a compromise, but I kind of held on to my own way, so to speak. I could listen. It was one of my attributes. In fact one of the professors said I wasn’t like most of the others. Half the people would totally reject everything they were told and the other half would totally swallow everything. I would think about it and find compromises.
RW: You got your GED then, and went back to the University of Wisconsin where you ended up with a BFA. You mentioned something earlier—that at the age of 14 a thought went through your mind, “I wonder if I could be a painter?”
TM: The thought was, “if only I could paint.”
RW: This was at the age of 14?
TM: Yes. It came so much out of the blue, it puzzled me. I wrote it off as soon as it crossed my mind, because it was so whimsical, coming out of the blue like that.
RW: But you remember that moment.
TM: Yes. Actually I did try a little painting then. I just tried to copy something out of a magazine.
RW: Any speculations on where that might have come from?
TM: Not a one. My parents say that the only story I have from childhood that’s interesting is that they had a party once, and I came downstairs with my coloring book. All of the sudden everyone made a fuss over it because everyone thought I was colorblind. The only color I would use was black. Every page was just black crayon.
Maybe there was something from the subconscious, I don’t know, but to think about painting was ridiculous.
RW: So how long have you been painting since you’ve been out of the University of Wisconsin?
TM: I gave away all my paints and brushes twice. I actually quit three times, but the third time I was smart enough to hang on to my materials. I knew painting was a precarious, ridiculous way to make a living.
I had really decided to be a potter and was okay with that, but what happened was that my friend came back and told me he’d give me a raise except I couldn’t make my own pots anymore. I had just consciously decided to be a potter, but when he said that I said, well, I can’t work with you any longer.
I moved to Minneapolis on a dime, and thought I’d give painting a shot for two years. If there was any kind of progression, I’d continue. If there was none, I was just going to get out and find something else. So it’s been seven years now of exclusively painting. I’ve been very persistent at it.
In painting, success is hard to measure but one of the things I’ve pushed for is to work 40 to 50 hour weeks, and I’ve been very persistent about putting in the time. My theory was that if I put in that kind of time, something was going to happen. It’s inevitable, and basically, it did. Something built up just like in athleticism. Fluidity came about.
I sketch, take down ideas, and do preparatory work. The sketching is always included in the painting, and hence the layers. Many layers come with that, layer upon layer.
I also felt that rather than hook up with any kind of movement or theory, the best approach would be to paint from direct experience— from the things that affect me, and in a way that I could do quickly so I wouldn’t lose the moment. So the paintings have an animated quality.
This one, for instance, came from a conversation where two friends were talking about painting wild-life art. One said to the other, “if you were painting duck-art, I picture you standing at the edge of the water with a loon by the neck in one hand and an easel in the other.” It was funny. But a day or two went by and I thought, what a perfect analogy for man and nature! They look at nature in awe, on the one hand, but on the other, we stifle and strangle it.
RW: That’s quite an image. So you can tell me what’s behind each of these?[pointing to the ones he was working on]
TM: Oh yes, but it’s a combination of things. Nothing absolute. My own experience, my own observations on society and where I think we’re at in this day and age. I believe that what I experience is a little bit like what everyone else experiences. And dream imagery. It’s amazing the number of times, all of the sudden, the memory of some dream comes up. I can feel I had it several weeks ago, but all of the sudden, it comes up. That feels good, like being on the right track.
RW: It sounds like you have some concerns and thoughts about what is going on in our culture today.
TM: Yes. Absolutely, I do. And I don’t think I’m a radical. I think life is going so fast, the acceleration…I think about my grandparents not knowing about motorized vehicles, and before they died, they saw a rocket go to the moon! This awesome thing. The acceleration, the technology, the black box. We can not predict what the future will bring. Maybe the human race will wipe itself out, but the world will go on.
I think it’s worth being aware of that acceleration and having some compassion for it, I guess. I think that awareness is the first step. Nothing will happen overnight.
RW: That reminds me of your saying you’d changed from motorcycles to bicycles, and that bicycles were better.
TM: My friends thought I was crazy, but my feeling about it is that on the bicycle I can hear everything around me, smell everything, have more time to look left and right and it takes ten times longer to get there. It’s just an excellent high.
RW: Yes, I’d come to this also. I even think there’s a formula for it: the speed at which one travels is inversely proportional to the consciousness involved in the traveling.
TM: I like that, and maybe that could be applied to what is going on in a larger sense. Everyone is involved in so much stress and commitment. Life is going so quickly. All you can do is react, and that’s it.
RW: Now you grew up on a farm and you had to work very hard. I just wonder if— from your experience of the farm with its seasonal rhythms— if you have a particular rootedness in a relationship to a world that is slower?
TM: I think you’re right. My feet were in the soil. As a small child, first, second, third grade—we moved after that—but I remember being miles out in the woods by myself. I still have vivid memories of that—just knowing I had to turn this way and go that way to get back home. A slow pace. We lived at the end of a dead end road. Very few people around.
RW: You have a realistic way of looking at things, a practical way—that may come from your farming background, but you find yourself painting. You mentioned a phrase in talking about painting, that it’s—what’s the phrase?
TM: Precarious and unnerving.
RW: Would you mind saying something about that?
TM: Well, I’m completely in the hands of the Muse, or intuition. I don’t know what is going to happen next. I can let it happen. How to explain that? In jewelry or pottery, I know what’s going to happen. But a good piece of painting is completely out of my hands. The energy has to be there. Maybe just that. I cannot explain how it happens. I let go, and it leads me.
RW: Yet there’s something that makes decisions, right? This color okay, that one not so good, et cetera.
TM: Yes. The inner aesthetics. I love color and composition. I can feel it. But even if I think a painting is completed— one day I look at it and see that if I did this or did that, it would be stronger. That would nag me and I’d always go back into the painting rather than live with the nag. I’ve had this happen with work I’ve hung in shows. I had to go back and change it.
RW: There must be paintings that are finished that stay finished, right? A year later you look at them and they’re still finished.
TM: Yes. Still finished. But I don’t know that ahead of time. That’s one of the unnerving things. Weeks or months could go by and all of the sudden I look and see that I could do this or that. But there are paintings that resolve themselves very quickly and years go by and they stay resolved. It’s just that inner thing that makes suggestions and changes. It can be unnerving.
A friend told me that a good painting is the product of intellect, emotion and experience. The emotional part is where some of the unnerving part comes in. It’s still confusing, a question I think about. So much depends on faith and trust, on letting go, not knowing where it comes from.
I was in a show where the director told me someone had had a hard time believing I was Caucasian because of how the work came about. Well, there is a little native American blood in our family. I don’t know if that pertains to anything at all.
RW: Maybe I should ask if there is any sense in which you are aiming at a result, a kind of look?
TM: That would get back to that foundation, that unnerving, precarious thing of developing a foundation I could be very sure of, and could live with. Part of that would be of spiritual progression or life development. Could I direct what is going on within, and use painting as a tool? If my growth could continue, it would be a success even if no one ever bought a single painting.
Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning knowing exactly what I have to do. To me, that’s golden. It seems to have something more to do with the inner state of sleep. There is more depth. When I get my day going I walk around and think, “I should do this, I should do that.” Sometimes all that just gets in the way of whatever it is that’s deep down.
RW: Wouldn’t part of the precariousness of painting also relate to the fact that in our culture, the possibility of success, of making a living, is very, very limited? There are, of course, these little street fairs where people are selling their art. Have you thought about that at all?
TM: I don’t think I could go there. People say “this is art and that isn’t art, that isn’t real.” But I think whatever people do, it speaks some truth about them. It could be totally different than my own. I don’t even know— really, absolutely— what my own is. I really feel uncomfortable speaking what another person is doing or why they are doing it.
I don’t go see much of it. I told friends, before coming out here, that I’m probably supposed to go to museums and look around at work, and all I want to do is go outside and run around in parks and see hills and land, and things like that. That might even lead back to where I grew up. I loved walking around, being outside. I love living and experience of living.
Sometimes it seems there’s too much chasing after “the right” way of doing things—but to each his own. For me, it’s more about looking within and finding out what one is about, and going from there.
I remember being in school and having trouble coming up with ideas. It was the time of the Iraq war. It was my first experience of realizing how apathetic I was, and how I didn’t know what was happening. I was kind of flipped about it. I was working in the group homes at the time. I’d watch the war on television, just got caught in it for 24 hours at a time. I cried over what was going on and got really emotional, and there was nothing I could do about it. But it inspired me to do a painting. And it led to other things.
I was looking through a photo album of when I had the bar. It was like watching a movie. Things happened there at the bar, some of them not so good. I painted about that. It was an emotional release about some of the things that had bothered me. It helped, and I thought, if I could get through the emotional baggage and the traumas— if I could get through all that—then I would find a place where I could start making some real decent observations and commentary, just on life in general without finger-pointing or being vindictive, in more of a philosophical and thought provoking sense.
Even being on Amtrack—if I’m painting, it provokes a little awareness. That’s an inspiration for me, because even if I don’t sell anything, if I provoke a little interest in painting maybe somewhere down the road a person will buy something from someone else. To me that would be a success. Then it was worth my being there. Or maybe a child growing up will watch what I’m doing and get a different view about art.
RW: You also have a sort of expanded view of the role of creativity, I think.
TM: When I worked in a group home I used to problem-solve there, and there were wonderful moments of creativity in working with people with the different ideas and different approaches and ways of thinking about things that would come up.
It’s ironic that painting is working so well because I really do understand how life is its own creative canvas. The things one does with one’s life and with the people around one, the way one exercises compassion and problem-solving— compromise and all that— it’s just the most beautiful thing. I just saw an article on environmentalists and awards that were given to them, and I thought about what those people had done and were doing. Those are really pieces of creativity! It’s a hell of a lot more courageous than what I’m doing, because it’s just direct. It’s direct life—not about a product you hope to sell. They didn’t do that thinking they were going to get any kind of reward.