Over a half century ago, the Berkshires in Massachusetts during midsummer offered an air that was as sweet and thick as honey. The smell of roses and grass and maple trees wafted up through my nostrils like candy. I was just four years old and bored with my little red wheelbarrow. The woods behind my grandparent’s home, beckoned to my curious little mind. I waddled down through the tall grass to the fence that separated the New England pasture from the wild woods of the Berkshires. Something was abuzz inside me, but I was too young to have words to describe it. The mysterious woods called me and I climbed through the wire fence and entered the woods. I wandered into a luminescent clearing filled with giant boulders and multicolored flowers that were exploding out of the earth. I heard some clanking and movement and saw giant cows coming into the meadow, stopping to chew on the grass while the sun cast its rays down on their backs. I climbed up on big boulder and sat there watching the magical scene. There is an overwhelming sensation of life unfolding and light washing into the meadow. The top of my head felt like it is vibrating and I started to giggle and laugh uncontrollably. There was a sense of pure joy and love mixed with the smell of decaying wood, giant ruminants, mushrooms and wildflowers. The air was filled with insects and the humming got louder. It felt like something was radiating out of the top of my head and I had an amazing vision. It was like I was flying and looking down across an amazing world of green and blue. Forests and lakes reached out far beyond the horizon and I swooped down to get a closer look. The forests are teaming with life. There is an overwhelming sense of joy! My heart and mind were on fire, and I felt my chest pounding with a long slow deep thumping sound – it was my heart! It felt like I was looking out of my heart! How strange and glorious! All of sudden I was back in the meadow, drawn to the sound of cowbells clanging while the massive cows lumbered by like giants. I was afraid but realized I was safe as long as I stayed on the boulder. The sunlight was blazing down through the treetops but it felt like energy was shooting up in to the sky from the top of his head. It is an experience unlike anything I had ever experienced in my short life span. I felt somehow connected with the life force all around me, and this moment is the beginning of a master narrative that it is still unfolding, one that is filled with powerful love.
Photo: Me with mother Cella and my sister Elizabeth in the Berkshires (at my paternal grandparents home).
You can see the woods in the background.
This shouldn’t have happened. I was just four years old. They wouldn’t have left me alone – “you must have dreamt this” I’ve been told. However, I can take you on to Google maps and show you the exact spot, all these years later. I can point out the rock in the middle of the pasture on the way down to the woods, although it has moved across the field since then.
If I had to trace the beginnings of my consciousness as an artist, then this is a seminal moment… a moment of magic and rescue. To me, it doesn’t matter whether it really happened or whether I dreamt it – the experience and memory lives in my soul like a perennial, primordial bonfire.
Seminal experiences early in my life embedded art into my development both consciously and unconsciously. Because my mother modeled for painters in New York City, I was exposed to artist’s studios before I learned to walk. This left an indelible impression on my memory, perhaps because the highly sensory smell of turpentine and oil paint was so strong, but also because the experience held a certain numinous quality that captured a part of my soul and imagination, the part that is an artist, the part where the artist lives. I think that we are all born with the creative urge or artistic talent, and that certain moments in our childhood have a magic quality of awakening us to our true potential and creative/creation being, and, for me, these moments awakened the artistic urge in me.
My evolution as a self-taught “primitive artist” was fertilized along the way by my mother’s own creativity that was a guiding compass in her life. The finest of artists seem to engage the realm of the sacred, and coming into contact with artists that are truly dedicated to their work, is like being around a high priest or priestess. In their presence, you encounter the art spirit, and the best of these experiences not only impact your senses, but also the soul. For me, art is a powerful compensation and response to deep emotions, and emotional pain, of which there was plenty in my childhood – dealt by shadowy men, men who cast shadows, and men who were but shadows of themselves.
My mother struggled through her life challenges and manic depression with poetry and writing as her constant companion and self-implemented mental health program. As a single working mother of three children, my mother was an “outsider” to the mainstream of society. Her poetry and her many forms of artistic expression captured my attention and imagination and taught me to cope with my own life challenges and sadness in a similar fashion. I was, after all, born on her birthday. My emotional pain and frustration over not having a father figure thrust me into the realm of art, a medium that helped me find another language (besides anger and sadness) to tell my story and to work through life’s adversities. While I had trouble speaking to others about what was going on with me in literal terms, I nonetheless carried on a rich inner dialogue, conversing in a swirl of emotions and images… Life’s circumstances encouraged me to become visually and symbolically oriented and created my own language for interpreting life.
In a psychological assessment, I was informed that my strengths and virtues include: “Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.” The assessment explained, “The person who appreciates beauty and excellence in various domains of life has the character strength we identify as awe. This is a virtue of transcendence because it connects those who possess it to something larger than themselves, whether it is beautiful art or music, skilled athletic performance, the beauty of nature, or the moral goodness of other people. They notice excellence and appreciate it profoundly.”
Friedrich Nietzsche said “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.” In my case, I believe life’s challenges, while exposing my weaknesses and vulnerabilities, also gifted me certain strengths, including the development of my artistic potential. Life can be full of contradictions and pain and joy and marvelous synchronicities. In response to my early experiences of emotional isolation and alienation, I developed empathies and sensitivities that drew me into the realms of art, social change, and environmental interaction. Art became an inextricable thread, woven into my self-development and individuation. The term “primitive artist” is illusory because my alienation and separateness from others was ultimately mitigated by my artistic abilities to speak to others who were also alienated in society — perhaps “primal artist” is a better way to frame my work.
From the darkness of my childhood came light. My experience of what seemed a shallow and shadowy world forced me to search and develop my own depth, and to make my own light. I imagined myself as a sort of modern shaman or alchemist, transforming myself through the rituals and spiritual distillations of the art experience. I connected with animals, trees, weeds, and rocks. My fear of conformity to what seemed like an unfeeling world bore a passion for creativity and a way of approaching life that is “out of the box.” I found art to be my therapy and was able to carry this experience forward into my life works. I have been able to sustain myself in social and environmental change work for over four decades now, without burning out or going insane (although some might challenge this assertion). For many years, art was the “other life” that ran concurrently with my social sector career, sustaining me, and nourishing me to continue in service to humanity. Now, I’m bring my art career forward to center stage.
In the realm of mythology, Chiron was a centaur, half-man, and half-horse. Wounded in the knee by an arrow, he sought a cure for the remainder of his life. Because he was immortal, he was not released from his wound; yet he became a great healer. He became a practitioner and teacher of the healing arts, including herbs, ethics, music and archery. In archetypal terms, Chiron represents “the wounded healer.” I associate deeply with the lessons of this myth. It is said, “Healer, heal thyself.” I found art to serve as my own source of healing and then sought to turn that “skill set” outward to others, and to the environment. Joseph Campbell, the renowned professor of comparative mythology, encouraged us to “follow our bliss.” I have taken this advice to heart, and have worked long and hard to pursue those activities most inclined to bring me this sense of connection, rooted in love and creativity.
This medicine of art is far better than Prozac or Valium in terms of fighting off the darknesses and sanding down the rough corners and depressions of life. I believe my persistence has paid off in a career that enabled me to develop my art on a variety of levels, intertwining it with my career, the people I serve, and the environments I interact with. For me, art has become a therapy of self-exploration as well as transcendence, a way of caring for myself, and for others. This has carried out so far as to transcend even my own humanness, connecting me deeply with the environment, with the plant and animal kingdoms, and places of refuge that are under merciless attack.
As I grow older, I see ahead my ultimate end, and perhaps my next beginning, in my corporeal return to the earth as dust and water. As I create art now, I want my “artworks” to also eventually return to the earth, as free from toxins as possible, providing fertility beyond their corporate being. I want to walk my talk, and truly be an environmental artist, providing therapy not only to the human soul, but also to the soul of nature, God’s creation. To this end, I have designed and built a number of “giant living tipis,” “giant green domes,” and countless gardens.
While I am a lifelong student and practitioner of art, I am primarily self-taught (but grateful for all the important influences in my life) and remain a primitive artist by some standards. To be clear, I use the term “primitive” in the sense that I strive to stay centered in my authentic being, my personal mythology, my connections to the earth, to find inspiration for my work. I also happen to have more neanderthal genes than 70% of the population, according to my DNA analysis. Neanderthals might have been the earliest known artists. My artist-being is a dedicated member of the tribe of humans who care deeply for the planet and for social justice. No matter how fantastic or imaginative my artistic visions may be, they are rooted in the same place where my passion for social and environmental justice comes from.
“Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.”
-Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments
Early in life, an art teacher told me I couldn’t paint the sky purple, so I developed a resistance to becoming more “cultivated.” Although I have been making art since I was a child, I came out as an Artist (with a capital “A”) publicly when I was 30 years old and working with Cuban refugees. When my Grandmother Winifred Coffin passed over in December 1986, her spirit communicated to me in a powerful way that I am an Artist. Thankfully, at that time, I happened to be working with a world-class Chilean artist and professor of art Leonardo Ibanez, and he encouraged me to flourish and shared my “junk yard dog” attitude toward materials. Watching an artist like Leonardo work is liberating – you see that, despite his considerable education and advanced experience with art and art techniques, he approaches every new work like a child who knows no limits and disobeys “the authorities” with glee.
My circle of influential and supportive artist friends also includes artists and friends such as Solomon Huerta, Yolanda Gonzalez, Dolores Carlos and Rude Calderon. As a child, I was fortunate to spend some time with Calvin Douglas, a member of the Spiral Arts Alliance, among other New York artists that were close to my mother. I’m also grateful to have taken a neon course with the great Neon Artist and Light Worker, Lili Lakich, and was blessed to exhibit my work in one of her shows. The term “self-taught” is clearly inadequate when I factor in how important these artists have been as friends and mentors. Knowing a few real-live artists helps one to imagine a life as an artist – to believe it is possible. I encourage you all to believe it is possible!
Painting of Wolfram Alderson by Solomon Huerta
Painting of Wolfram Alderson by Yolanda Gonzalez
“Becoming an artist does not always begin with formal lessons or study in an academic setting. For many self-taught art artists, following their impulse to create is the unintended first step towards a life-altering passion.”
– Oakland Museum of California (at an exhibit of Roy De Forest‘s work)
Running wild through Michigan woods and having a garbage dump next door had major influences on how I think about materials, both natural and unnatural. My art mentality and focus live somewhere between the woods, the junkyard, and my personal mythology – an insider/outsider artist. My mother’s writing, art, poetry and inner light resonate through my life and creative works. She wrote about moonshine, getting on the love bus, and life as it is. A dominant theme in her writing, which I carry forward in my own work, is “Moments of Magic, Places of Rescue.” I am thankful to my mother and the many artists who have appeared in my life to inspire me and blur the lines between poetry and art and expressions that jump into my heart and soul.
My current work features illuminated sculpture-paintings that focus on a mythology I have been creating for the last few years – to be published as a science fiction epic that I call “Pupazzo Universo.” The work is based on the idea that love is the most powerful thing in the universe. I launched the Love Icon Show and Puppet of Love Show which featured characters and themes from this epic. During that time, William Moeller and Edgar Espino Barros made a documentary about my work, for which I am eternally grateful. How many artists get the opportunity to tell their story in some depth?
“Make your life a work of art.” -Sheila Rubin, Therapist