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Narrative: Jerry Wennstrom - Interview

Jerry Wennstrom

Jerry Wennstrom is the author of The Inspired Heart: An Artist’s Journey of Transformation. He is also the subject of two Parabola documentary videos, In the Hands of Alchemy: The Life and Art of Jerry Wennstrom directed by Phil Lucas and Mark Sadan and Studio Dialogue directed by Jim Friedrich. The Combined videos are now available a new single DVD distributed by Parabola Magazine: The Society for Myth, Tradition and the Search for Meaning.

Jerry’s web site is The Hands of Alchemy. In this interview with Brian Alger, Jerry Wennstrom explores the role of learning in art, creativity and life. With Jerry's permission, I have added a selection of his artwork that I feel relates directly to the insights he has offered...


1) Brian Alger- Transformation and learning are closely related. Education and learning are often distantly related. What are the key experiences in your life that caused you to make fundamental changes in how you were living? What specifically happened in the way you thought and felt about the world in each of those experiences that became the catalyst for change?

Jerry Wennstrom- There are two key experiences that lead to and support fundamental change for me - and by "fundamental change" I mean "The" event that changes life permanently and at the deepest level. First, there is the allurement of inspiration with its ongoing magic. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, there is the catalyst of change that comes from boring, useless suffering, which is often the result of living outside of one's true place of freedom in the world. It is often these 2 conditions that cause me to question my life, as it may currently exist. Through deep and honest questioning I can begin to open to some inspired new possibility that I may have been sensing at an intuitive level all along.

The most radical transformation that occurred in my life, which became the template for real and lasting change, happened for me in 1979. This was a period, real or imagined, that I felt I was at the pinnacle of "achievement" in my creative ability. It was at this point that I felt the need to turn away from the reasonable and controlled environment of my own creation and begin to trust something larger. Rather than looking for justification and support from the world around me, my journey led inward to some of the most undesirable and uninhabitable areas of both the personal and the collective psyche. It was the allurement of inspiration that drew me into this unlikely area of discovery. Inspiration was and is a mystery. In a sense, I was exploring the holy science of inspiration. I was asking, "What were the conditions surrounding that quantum leap that brought an inspired moment to life? And then -- "How could I give all of my life to the experience of inspired freedom?" Sustainable freedom is hard-earned and for the most part avoided by most of us. Perhaps this is because of the inherent discomfort, loneliness and formlessness we encounter, as we more fully inhabit our individuality and our freedom.

The studio was a kind of laboratory for me. Having dabbled in the mystery of creation and more specifically, the allurement of inspiration, I came to understand a bit about the strange reality of this very illusive gift. I began to trust and work with something larger than my will, intelligence and good intentions. My identity as an artist seemed puny compared to what I sensed life could be if I fully embraced what I was intuiting. I felt if I were to give myself to the formless allurement of inspiration it would completely transform and inspire both my art and my life. This is what I did in 1979, when I let go of my identity as an artist, (by destroying my large body of art ) gave everything I owned away, and decided to completely trust what I was sensing. Having given myself to such a complete void on the external level, I proceeded to take life as it came, without interference. Keeping myself open in this way, there could be no limits to where my exploration would lead. Paradoxically, it was some of the more undesirable areas of discovery that were rewarded with the most liberating, beautiful and inspiring experiences.

I sensed this single act of leaping into the void would set into motion the conditions that would require me to look to the source of inspiration for everything I needed, creatively and materially. My intuition proved to be correct and life began to unfold in new and unexpected ways - ways that required tending all aspects of life equally. I was asked to focus equal, creative attention on each new experience. With the conditions of this new focus in place, a moment of not doing was given equal attention to a moment of doing. Having been so driven as a young painter, finding substance in the experience of not doing was a huge, yet ultimately rewarding challenge. Doing nothing and finding meaning in the emptiness was probably one of the more difficult areas of learning for me. Generally speaking, this area of discovery does not come easy for men who tend to focus more on external goals and bringing expression into form. The inner power of emptiness is more feminine. It is vast, spatial and formless, and women are much more comfortable inhabiting that space.

The initial shift that occurred for me at this time was and continues to be the most important event of my life. I am convinced that high art and the cutting edge of the creative human experience can only be accessed through a direct relationship to the source. The absence of any interface, sacrifice and outrageous trust in something unseen are required of this relationship. It is in our willingness to turn and walk into those areas of consciousness where our identity as an ego may come undone that we have the potential to find our own true life. This conscious, directional shift requires all of our courage. The personal and collective ego does everything in its power to resist the possibility of fundamental change. The ego interprets any radical departure from a personal or cultural fix as sure death to its existence - and it is entirely correct in this assessment! Something old and calcified must die; yet, it is in this dying that we are able to bring forth the truly inspired life that is our birthright.

I find it ironic and something of a cosmic joke that this metaphoric 'dying' of my identity as an artist is what essentially brought my art to light in the context of a cultural expression in the world. When we do what is necessary to sacrifice our identities as egos and allow the mystery a say in what we do, there is a universal quality that comes through our work. The world recognizes and experiences this quality in a personal way, as they would a myth. The boundaries simply fall away and our universal, creative expressions belong to everyone. An encounter with art of this nature awakens the best in all of us and reminds us of who we are - separate from our
individual egos.

2) BA- Dan Eldon embraced, "Life as safari." Erik Weihenmayer embraced life as, "I want to summit." These are fundamentally artistic perspectives on life and living. At the same time, these are perspectives that are not seen as the norm, but as something unusual or unique. The various life paths that people explore are of critical importance to learning, yet we often reduce them to data, facts, information, knowledge or just biography. And in reducing them, we limit their ability to be a healing force and reaffirming catalyst for action in people's lives. Simply reading about them or trying to mimic them is not nearly enough. How can we more effectively learn about the power of other people's lives in order to embrace them as a means to finding and beginning our own unique and individual life experiences?

JW- What is essential in both of these statements, "Life as safari" and "I want to summit" is the requirement of outrageous trust in something unseen. To seek the summit or to venture into unknown territory with the poetic sensibility suggested requires courage and personal vision. These statements are not the voice of complacency. There is reference to a wild and potentially dangerous universe. At the same time, the statements leave open the unreasonable possibility that our adventures may be informed, support and celebrated by a conscious universe that we can trust. Whatever we choose to call it, there appears to be a longing in the human heart that overrides reason and awakens the spirit of outrageous trust and adventure in us.

The power of this longing will send us into unknown territory where the path is defined only as we move forward. To come to terms with the discomfort and unknowing of this override and to jump into the adventure anyway, is where the creative heart comes most alive. It is often the visionaries, the artists or the more intuitive among us who are first to do this. They are the gatekeepers who point to the wilds outside the gates while inviting us through. They may inspire us but we have to set off on our own adventures and establish a dialogue with the mystery and the unknown ourselves. The fruit of this dialogue is what defines our creative individuality. Personal access to the creative source is the birthright of anyone willing to trust and remain open to the adventure.

3) BA- Joseph Campbell talks about the fundamental importance of finding and embracing our bliss. You surrendered yourself, courageously, to the experience of life and the mystery of survival itself. You claimed your life as your own. This is a critical learning process for everyone.

Third Body
JW- Yes it is critical to the learning process, however very few of us are willing to surrender ourselves to bliss and the mystery of survival without a certain amount of kicking, screaming and surviving. For many of us the choice of bliss does not always appear blissful, especially when viewed through the lens of reason. Following and inhabiting our bliss, as prescribed by Joseph Campbell, requires a certain amount of fearless and deliberate irresponsibility. Many of us cannot go beyond our ideas of what it means to be "responsible." We feel we cannot actually do what we love to do as responsible adults. For most of us, the ability to follow our bliss, with absolute attention, needs a certain amount of material justification.

This is particularly true in America, where money and the things that money can buy have become the only reason for doing a thing. There are no guarantees and no deals to be made when it comes to bliss. In order to truly follow our bliss we would have to go about it as if the world depended on our creative involvement, and personally, I believe it does! Awaken we must! Exactly when we choose to waken to this bliss is particular to each individual. Our current circumstances offer the best possible opportunity for our individual growth. I trust that the universe is in perfect order and that we all create the most perfect conditions needed to awaken to our bliss.

Many of us create conditions of enormous suffering, and these are the conditions needed for those particular individuals. However, it is important to remember that we do have options. Deep listening and an appropriate response to the moment's calling can eliminate excessive and useless suffering for anyone. We experience great freedom working in the area of our bliss. This freedom would terrify anyone who, out of the light of obvious reward, could not hold a selfless, steady vision or see the inner workings of their creative enterprise. To develop the discipline of bliss one also needs a sense of being in the service of a higher calling. As we blissfully make our way forward, the universe will help by better defining our path and meeting our efforts more than half way. Success comes in unexpected ways -- ways those banging the begging bowl of obvious achievement overlook completely.

4)BA - Where does this learning originate? What is the source of this learning? What are the roadblocks in front of us? How can we set this learning free?

JW- As I said earlier, our true path originates in the present conditions of our lives, or as Lao Tsu says, "The journey of a thousand miles begins where your feet are." The source of learning is WHAT IS in your life! What is right in front of you? What are your allurements? What is your innocence calling forth in you - right here and now? This is the stuff that sets our learning free and allows for joyful, creative manifestation in the world.

5) BA- Art and artistry are often confused with the production of material things that have an aesthetic quality. Yet artistry is a much more potent force in our lives that serves to guide our intuition about who we are and how we should live. In a world that seems more and more bent on equating progress with capitalism, how can art and artistry be elevated in people's lives, regardless of their age or walk in life, in order to allow it to play the essential role it should?

The Seeker
JW- First I must say, that art is no less than a powerful force that changes the world! Equating Art and artistry with material things that have esthetic value misses the mark completely. There are such an overwhelming number of these things being made and set out on the surface of things, for all the world to see, that it gets confusing. The muse in her transformational power goes underground at such times. And yet she exists where she always has - in the depths and out of sight of surface reality. This is the place few are willing to venture because there is no fan fare or reference point to surface reality. What is required of the artist who attempts to access the muse today, is the same as it has always been -- no less than everything!

True creative breakthrough comes out of an inevitable moment where the artist knows he/she will have to risk it all in order to win the favor of the muse. If he/she is lucky enough to win her over and receives the call to inspiration, his/her response will be an outrageous, defining act of power and his/her creation will reflect something universal. Creations of this nature express the spirit of the time for all of us. The product of this creative act will be something the world has never seen or experienced before. Having courageously made this breakthrough in the loneliness of his/her own experience, the artist leaves the ground he/she has covered, bushwhacked for the rest of us to explore. This level of artistic experience is what changes the world and, as you say, it serves to guide our intuition about who we are and how we should live our lives. In his book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Joseph Campbell writes, "The most sublime form of artistic expression is formless and simply leaves one in awe." This is the stuff that establishes the creative breakthrough and defines the organic progressions we see in art history.

This being said, I will also add, in varying degrees we all have access to inspired breakthroughs, no matter who we are or what we do. Handing the realm of creation over to "the artist" is a way of avoiding responsibility for our full potential. Fine-tuning the requirements of a creative life will inevitably make us better and more sensitive individuals with the capacity to contribute something unique to the collective. When we live creatively and begin to receive the subtle gifts that come, the gross allure of materialism no longer appeals to us. We all value what we perceive as valuable and these values change through the insights and epiphanies that come with the experience of creative awe.

6) BA- Artistry and the artist within seem to be in steep decline in our institutionalized systems of education. Without taking care of our artistic sensibilities I believe we deny ourselves a fundamentally important perspective on life and living. In other words, without art we simply do not learn to appreciate the fullness of who we are and what we are meant to do. What is the antidote to an education system that views art as the production of things instead of a close companion in the journey of life?

JW- Art will take care of itself and it will invariably inspire original creation elsewhere if it is thwarted. Creativity that is limited to finance in the classroom is sprayed out for free on the subway walls. An educational institution that attempts to tame the wilds of creation or eliminate the poetic sensibility of its people does not survive for very long. It is true, as you say; there is a decline in this area. Decline too is natural -- it exists in the cyclical nature of things. As ideas eventually take on the weight of mainstream acceptance, they begin to grow cool and calcify. If you think, in a personal way, how we often shut-down and are forced to surrender just before we are about to have an important and inspiring breakthrough, you will see that this process reflects our collective decline. Dueling concepts, fear and fundamentalism are often symptoms of decline - personal and collective. To fear the place in the cycle where things come undone will only create a blind spot and the creative, third possibility, as it naturally emerges will not be seen. In the end the only defense against decline and calcification is to live a truly celebratory life -- under any conditions!

The creation of such a life can only come by properly navigating all aspects of the cycle. Inspiration is a free agent. It is never unavailable, so can never be in decline. It is up to each of us, as individuals, to befriend this source and allow it to continuously awaken our joy and our passion - even, and especially, in the atmosphere of collective decline. As you say, art does bring out the fullness of who we are and it does so because it is a force, powerful and complete in itself. We become keepers of the flame when we can align ourselves with this force and allow it to keep our personal and collective fullness alive. There is no greater service to society than this.

7) BA- If you were to create a learning environment designed to help people explore and enhance their ability to use artistry as a means to influence and inform their journey in life, what would you create?

Sacred Wound - Face
JW- To establish a genuinely creative environment we must bring our creative focus to everything else we do, and make doing this a priority! We can create such an environment by turning our creative attention in the direction of each present challenge as it appears in our lives, naturally. The best-equipped person to establish this atmosphere for others is, of course, someone who is living this way themselves.

My wife, Marilyn, and I attempt to create this atmosphere in our work with groups, which includes working with the creative process. We begin by establishing openness, and gratefulness through drumming and chanting and conscious invocation of the sacred as a container to hold the experience. We then use the telling of personal stories as a tool for group building, and to establish innocence, sensitivity, trust, and vulnerability as a foundation for our work together. Discipline is used as we engage whatever intellectual material we are working with, and applied to the creative aspect of the learning experience as well. Ultimately we hold all these of elements in the place of reverent unknowing and step into sacred ceremony together, where something in the mix has the potential to culminate into a transforming experience for each person involved.

8) BA- Fear can be a powerful influence in our lives. It can be healthy or, more frequently, debilitating. Some fear comes to us unexpectedly while other kinds of fears are manufactured by society itself. Sometimes it is as if society says to people, "If you don't follow our plan, bad things will happen." How can our artistic sensibilities be used to help people learn from their inner fears in order to transform their lives?

JW- Starhawk says, "Where there is fear there is power." The good that is available in fear does not come from reaction, it comes from an energetic boost to the system that renews our determination to turn and face the fear. For the most part, fear is the single most destructive force in our lives and this extends outward to include the destruction in our world. We develop elaborate strategies to buffer ourselves from fear, which only gives it more power and turns it into the tyrannical, false god of our own creation. You see this most clearly with political leaders who use fear to manipulate their people. They become unaccountable tyrants doing what they want and continually playing the fear-card if their power or behavior is questioned. Denial and tolerating this behavior from our leaders is an external projection of the fears we have denied and not faced within ourselves.

Creative inspiration comes from the conditions existing at the opposite pole of fear - Courage! Courage and the power of conscious innocence create the antidote to the contraction and restriction that fear brings about. When in small ways we can give priority to trust rather than fear, we move forward, even as we feel the fear. Living this way, we eventually come to a moment where we have the opportunity to give ourselves to a larger expression of courage. This is a moment where real transformation occurs. When it does, we establish a new stance where surrender and renewal is able to move through our lives like the tides, empowering everything we do. It is as if we let the gods know we mean business one good time and something larger takes over. Transformation and the gifts of empowerment and renewal are the natural byproducts of a life lived with courage.

9) BA- It has often been said that it is the artist's sensibilities and insights that are the foundation for discovering the best uses of technology for humankind. At the same time, much of our modern technology is guided by corporate or political motivations. We are either trying to make money from it, produce material things, or use it to control people. The role of the artist has become more important than ever before. How can we learn to better embrace our artistic sensibilities in order to make technology subservient to living a life worth living?

JW- It all comes down to what values we establish - first, within ourselves, then, as those values translate and extend outward to include culture and society. Anything can be either incredibly beneficial or incredibly destructive, depending upon its application. Beauty is a pretty good standard and, generally speaking, artists are concerned with beauty - whether it is in the creation of beauty through form, or through a kind of holy longing where the final expression becomes the beauty of one's presence and behavior. If we fearlessly move toward an intuitive sense of greater beauty, one way or another, what we do in the world will reflect this beauty. In this context, technology becomes just another (and perhaps more efficient) way to serve the greater whole in some beautiful way.

I just read an article about a wonderfully creative organization called "Kick Start." The organization is creatively involved in a kind of reverse technology. They are developing more efficient, inexpensive human-powered devices to help feed and house the starving and homeless populations of the world. They are inventing and refining such things as hand-operated presses for extracting cooking oil, and foot-powered water pumps. In a village that hand carries its’ water out to the growing things, a device as simple as a water pump is saving lives by vastly improving food production.

10) BA- Why is it people need to "leave" society in order to go and "discover" themselves? Is it possible for society to provide an organizational foundation that meets the needs of the many while allowing a healthy sense of individualism to flourish?

JW- To leave society in order to discover and establish one's place in the larger scheme of things is the ultimate act of social responsibility. When we can follow our own natural rhythm and move away from the activity of the world for a while, there is an inevitable return that occurs. With this return we bring back a deeper sense of purpose and the unique gifts that can only be established in the desert of self-discovery. It is more often the case that we mindlessly jump into life, purely for reasons of financial gain or out of fear of missing out on a “bigger piece of the pie.” When we do this without finding out first who we are, we end up operating with knee-jerk reaction to anything that reflects back to us our insecurities and unresolved issues. To establish a sense of the sacred and to go about our lives with a deeper sense of purpose places us in the best possible position to be of real service in the world.

To answer your question as to why this is, it seems that when we remain in the ocean of established reality for too long we become steeped in its collective fix. Although most of us pay lip-service and do small insignificant things to establish our individuality, few of us have the courage to really stand alone in the place where there are no social reference points. Our true and unique voice can only come from establishing a one-on-one relationship with the larger mystery, and this happens differently for each of us.

Providing help in this area is not necessarily a social issue. Extroversion and materialism go hand in hand and American culture is exceedingly extroverted. A good start might be for a society to value the introspective experience. Years ago, I read somewhere that there is a culture that actually has a word in their language that acknowledges and respects an individual's conscious withdrawal from conversation and the activity of daily life. Interpreted, the word roughly means, “she is with the gods right now and not communicating, so leave her alone.”

11) BA- "How did you learn the things you value most?" If you were to create a list of ten principles/ideas for this question that other people would benefit from, what would they be?

The Alchemist
JW- I learned most by jumping into those areas of my life that inspired and terrified me. Doing this leaves me no alternative but to learn! In 1979, after creating a large body of art and establishing my identity in the world as an "artist," I made the decision to destroy my art and give everything I owned away. In the laboratory of the studio I explored the mechanics of the “inspired breakthrough” with its power to bring about real transformation and soon came up against the limits of will, strategy, intelligence and good intentions. I developed an intuitive sense that my life could be carried, completely, by the inspiration I was exploring. I realized the only way to access this level of inspired buoyancy was to trust it with my life, which is what I did. I have been living this way for the past twenty-six years.

When you jump into life, trusting what comes, exactly as it IS, and you live that way without security or interference, the journey will take you into territory that you might otherwise avoid if you left open the option to do so. The efficient environment of discovery and learning that comes from living a life without interference cannot be improved upon. What you come up against is the purest form of WHAT IS and not what could be, what should be or what we want it to be. This positioning places one firmly in the NOW. Here and now, without interference, is the “best seat in the house” for one's individual learning process. The journey defines itself and our unique contribution to society will be formulated as we go.

Before listing the 10 principals that might be of help to others I should tell how the paradoxical nature of transformation, in relation to these principals, has worked in my own life. The interesting paradox, which speaks to the elements of inspiration and the dream-fulfilling "product" of this way of life, is in the fact that I have touched the world more, as an artist, by destroying my art than I ever have by creating it! I feel my life has been blessed by the experience. I say this in gratefulness and humility and not out of any sense of personal accomplishment. Life for me now is a self-sustaining victory over limitation and fear, and I do not feel I am the "self" in "self-sustaining." Victory and renewal is sustained by surrender and defeat, which leaves little for the ego to call accomplishment.

Conquering our worst fears translates in the personal psyche as victory over "death." Yogananda poetically explains this paradox well by saying, "To set out on any holy purpose and to 'die' along the way is to succeed."

As far as a list of principles/ideas that other people might benefit from --

1- Trust! ~ Trust that you are not lost and that no experience (however difficult) is out of place or without meaning in the larger scheme of things.

2- Reverent Inquiry ~ Take quiet-time away from the world to simply BE and ask inwardly for what you need. Life is a mystery, with gifts that reveal themselves as we courageously move forward.

3- Remain open to the mystery ~ Unknowing is natural to the human experience.

4- Courage ~ The path we walk as we attempt to live our lives with awareness is sacred ground. Simply meet life as it comes and avoid nothing. The personal mantra I say to myself as I face challenges is, "This too is God."

5- Intuition ~ Develop and pay attention to intuitive feelings, insights and allurements and take risks based on what you perceive.

6- Humility ~ In the highs and lows of any direct experience you might have, remain grounded in humility.

7- Have Fun! ~ Fly with creative freedom while holding your vision, and accept whatever form emerges joyfully, and with gratefulness.

8- Give ~ Give freely to others what you have discovered and received.

9- Patience ~ as Lao Tsu says, "Important things take a long time."

10- ~ I will leave number 10 blank – a place for the mystery a place to BE.

BA - Jerry this has been a great pleasure. I hope that those reading this interview with you take time to visit your website In the Hands of Alchemy. There is much to explore here - to learn from - and to step directly out into the larger world with. Thank-you for sharing your insights and experiences with us.


This interview can also be viewed on the In The Hands Of Alchemy website.


  • Jerry Wennstrom The Inspired Heart: An Artist’s Journey of Transformation
  • The Art of Jerry Wennstrom

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Congratulations to Brian Alger for yet another inciteful and thought-provoking piece. Your interview with Jerry Wennnstrom not only highlights some important ideas that your subject has considered, Brian, but it also showcases your talent for engaging in effective dialogue.

Thanks for sharing your discussion with Jerry! It is clearly full of worthwhile ideas.


Thanks Cynthia and Rob.

The idea of a "creative life" is one I find quite compelling as well. Purpose and creativity are inseparable, but more importantly, they are essential in exploring the question, "How do we learn the things we value most?" The things we value the most are learned during the process of living creatively? Learning is definitely not limited to the artificial processes we see occurring in education and training today.

I'm going to take some time and revisit the people I have mentioned here in this weblog as examples of creative lives. There are likely to be some patterns of interest there.

Thank you too Brian

I am awe struck by this piece Brian. Absolutely facinating. I don't know that I've ever read or heard anyone who has been able to put into words as much about the creative life.

I'm particularly struck by this wonderful explanation of purpose:

"Fine-tuning the requirements of a creative life will inevitably make us better and more sensitive individuals with the capacity to contribute something unique to the collective. When we live creatively and begin to receive the subtle gifts that come, the gross allure of materialism no longer appeals to us. We all value what we perceive as valuable and these values change through the insights and epiphanies that come with the experience of creative awe."

I am without words.
Thank you Brian for sharing this.
This is life-altering.

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