how this work originated and developed


Hidden Links Appear In Red When Cursor Hovers Over Text

Early Signs

Sitting on a hilltop overlooking the Hudson River, Hackley School, with its visually inspiring surroundings, was the incubator of my creative life. As a boarding student on scholarship there in the early 1950s, I signed up for an elective class in art. I was the only student in a poorly lighted basement boiler room which served as a studio, and I don’t remember being supervised or instructed.

Nevertheless, the class was important: an existential place-holder in my memory, because fashioning the head of an imaginary man in clay opened me to my first conscious experience of exaltation and freedom. The memory of it, however, was buried by the pressures and distractions of schoolwork, athletics, and social life, and did not surface again for over a decade and a half.

Years later, just before my graduation from Penn in 1959, Charles Gwathmey, a classmate I met at the athletes’ training table, invited me to spend vacation time with him and his family at their home in Greenwich Village and at their Jersey seashore cabin. Charles had completed his undergraduate studies in architecture and was planning to enter the graduate school at Yale in the fall. His father, Robert Gwathmey, was a Social Realist painter and his mother, Rosalie, a photographer. At their summer cabin in Seabright, I got to know and admire the Gwathmeys and had several opportunities to watch Robert at work. My exposure to Robert Gwathmey that summer was to help shape my eventual decision to become a painter.

Sadly, my stay with them ended abruptly. My father had unexpectedly summoned me to London to propose that I visit my mother in France. I had not seen her since he and I were forced to flee Paris in 1939 (See About the Artist).

After visiting my mother, I attended Officers Candidate School and was commissioned an Ensign. Following a tour in the Navy as a junior officer in the Pacific from 1960 to 1962, I found myself in San Francisco looking for a job. Since I had graduated from the Wharton School at Penn with a degree in economics, I applied to and was hired by a New York Stock Exchange member firm in the financial district. After a training period, I passed the Exchange examination and received a broker’s license. My first son, Jacques, was born in June, 1963.


Several months later, my first wife and I had some friends over for dinner. One couple remained after the others left, and they invited me to share an experience with them. I agreed but my wife declined. It turned out to be 500 micrograms of LSD, and I would spend the next fourteen hours engulfed in a visual and emotional sea of hallucinatory impressions, the effect of which would gradually and imperceptibly gather strength as a catalyst of transformation.

After a listless two years, I washed out of the brokerage business. An attempt at self-employment followed and within eighteen months began to fizzle. One night, after an evening drinking with an old school friend, and clouded in disillusionment, I reawakened to the long-buried memory of the art class at Hackley

Teachers and the Creative Process

In 1966, with the support of the GI Bill, I enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute. Trying out a smorgasbord of classes, including film, metal sculpture, life drawing, and printmaking, I was eventually persuaded by instructor Norman Stiegelmeyer to focus on painting and drawing. Stiegelmeyer was a gifted artist and teacher who quickly noticed that my earliest line drawings revealed imaginative gifts of my own, and he was effective in encouraging me to recognize and develop them (See Folio 01). In 1967 Stephen De Staebler, my first sculpture teacher, saw the drawings and arranged a solo show for them at the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry in Berkeley.

The composition of my early paintings was dominated by line (See Folio 06), due in part to the drawings which unfolded in Stiegelmeyer’s class. Norman’s paintings had evolved from expressionist roots to a more linear and pictographic practice with flat primary colors and a scarcity of texture. My early inclination to use line, therefore, was reinforced by exposure to his work. Norman became a good friend, constantly encouraging my growth as an artist, and in 1968 promoted the inclusion of my work in the San Francisco Art Institute’s Drawing Invitational.

Meanwhile, my first marriage was crumbling. Separating from my wife, I looked around for new living and studio quarters. Painter Jay DeFeo, an instructor at the Art Institute, invited me to use a barn at her place in Ross, thirty minutes from San Francisco. One day, when I returned to the barn from classes at the Institute, I was bewildered to find my newly primed six-foot square canvas tarred in black paint with the letters MERZ. That was also the name of Jay’s black Labrador Retriever. It wasn’t until about thirty years later that Jay’s former husband, painter Wally Hedrick, revealed to me that MERZ was Jay’s shorthand for COMMERZ. One day -- to press her point -- Jay said that she admired my “decorator colors.” On another occasion, she sniffed ironically, “It’s OK for you to play in the mud.” Jay’s challenges to me over the years were to have far-reaching consequences, stimulating my progressively deeper probes into the darker dimensions of space (See Pen & Ink Drawings 1966-2016). In a more general sense, Jay’s prodding was my first encounter with teaching methods used by many of the second-generation Abstract Expressionists at the Institute.

BFA graduation was approaching and I decided to apply for the Master’s Program in painting at the Art Institute in 1968. I can remember waiting in the cloistered courtyard for the results. Several members of the painting faculty on the selection committee emerged from their deliberations in an adjoining studio. One of them said that he wasn’t sure whether they needed “another Norman Stiegelmeyer.” I silently recoiled, but that same day I learned that I had been accepted into the program.

When the Master’s Program commenced, I continued working along lines begun earlier with Stiegelmeyer, creating large paintings with biomorphic shapes executed in a hard-edged, quasi-surreal vocabulary in primary colors (See Folio 06). Jack Jefferson, my instructor at the time, observed wryly that I seemed to have no problem using colors “right out of the tube.” While examining a series of paintings on paper (See Folio 05) around that time, he remarked  that my work had a “primitive” quality.

During 1968, a painting instructor visited my studio and looked over what was to be the last of those hard-edged creations. “Why don’t you spread it around? ” he asked. Sensing potentially catastrophic consequences of following this suggestion, I stood mute. Then he left; but he had surprisingly introduced an opening for me. Since I was already growing impatient with the inflexibility of my process, I accepted the advice with a certain relief. I destroyed the canvas and flew spontaneously into a fresh way of working. When he later saw the resulting painting, the instructor approvingly remarked that I had opened up new possibilities (See Folio 06, 1969 #01). That painting was the first in which texture and density were to emerge as pictorial elements, supplanting line as the dominant factor in composition.

Powerful New Influences

The summer and autumn of 1969, following my first graduate year, were about to introduce the most transformative succession of events until then. Although my work had produced dramatic changes in my experience, it was only mildly satisfying. I was beginning to feel stale.

Going through a slump for the first time, I telephoned Murshid Samuel Lewis, a Sufi who managed a mentorgarden in my Bernal Heights neighborhood in San Francisco. He had given me his card during a convocation of Eastern mystics in a Chinatown temple the year before. “Sufi Sam,” as he was popularly known at the time, made an appointment for me and asked me to bring examples of my work. At the meeting, he looked at a color pencil drawing and said, “You’re not a polyp!” Then he asked what I preferred as a portable medium. “Pen and ink.” We made a second appointment to which I was to bring a fresh drawing book.

At that meeting, without ceremony or delay, Sam Lewis gave me three injunctions: “Concentrate... Let It Do You... Balance the Lights and the Darks... And when you’ve filled up the book, come back.” Looking back now, I understand that his instructions were a way for me to register the impulses of my heart through the movements of my hand.

Having filled up the book (See Folio 09 and Portions of Folio 14) with new pen and ink drawings, I arranged a final meeting with Sufi Sam. When I arrived, he looked very thoughtfully at each work and then, with full conviction, he said, “These can be exhibited.” After a pause, he went on to say, “Look at Turner” [J.M.W. Turner, English Painter, 1775-1851].

That same summer, I began hiking on Mount Tamalpais with a small group led by Neville Warwick (“Dr. Ajari”), a Buddhist Yamabushi (“One who lies in the mountain”). He was another of the teachers I met at the Chinese temple a year earlier. I was fond of him because he freely answered questions which puzzled me. One day, I said, “I see things when I paint or draw.” He replied, “You have the power of visualization.”

The first semester of my final year at the Art Institute was approaching. In my studio at home, I prepared a large fresh canvas. Squeezing out a thick line of  ivory black oil pigment, I approached the canvas and felt an unusual intensity. As I touched the black paint to the titanium white surface, a new, visually riveting sensation awakened me as never before, alerting me to changes about to unfold (See Folio 11, 1969 #03). Later that week, I went to the Institute and told an administrator that I needed a large studio. He said that one was already reserved for the Master’s Program. Then I searched for a fellow student willing to stretch canvas for me on a piece-work basis. He completed around forty canvases roughly 5 feet square and I began to paint.

Typically, the Master’s Seminars were opportunities for graduate students to critique the work of their peers. Several painters were scheduled to show one evening per week, with each of them going through several cycles during a semester. By the time my first turn came, I had finished a dozen or so paintings, so I arranged them in a circle surrounding and facing the participants. I was puzzled by the largely neutral response of my fellow students, but I was nevertheless carried forward by my rising elation: the same feeling of exaltation I had first experienced at Hackley.

During that time, one of my instructors saw the drawings which resulted from my meetings with Sufi Sam. He liked them enough that he offered to trade two of his for one of mine. I accepted and, after making our selection, he took the opportunity to describe a path open to me on a blank page: With the tip of his finger on the upper right-hand corner of the page, he said, “If you want to go there...” Then he moved his finger to the lower left-hand corner and said, “...start here.” I was initially puzzled by this lesson, but eventually I got the message that movement towards a goal, such as becoming a successful artist, required climbing the ladder. But what struck me as ironic was that I was already experiencing the electrifying success of happiness in my work! Were the two principles contradictory?

Those instructive comments went even deeper because they reminded me of a conversation I had sometime earlier during my brief period in psychotherapy. Apropos of nothing specific, I asked the therapist why certain people have power. “Because you give it to them.”

Challenging Authority

As time passed and the number of my new works grew, the exquisite pleasure of doing and completing them was slowly replaced by anxiety: a thirst for external verification. Norman Stiegelmeyer was quick to recognize it and to warn me: “Leave the heavies alone.”

Ignoring his warning, I invited Jack Jefferson into my studio. It’s clear to me now that I was about to challenge his authority as a teacher. He looked carefully at the thirty paintings in the studio (See Folio 11) and finally said, “Well, I think you’re talking about painting.” Not waiting for the next shoe to drop, I responded, “Why don’t you show me how it’s done?”

A freshly primed canvas was hanging on the wall and I invited Jefferson to use it for a demonstration. He walked over to the palette, picked up a large brush and squeezed out a whole tube of yellow ocher. He swept up all the pigment and attacked the canvas. Then he looked at me and said, “Painting is war; work the paint; show me some signs of the battle.”

I knew that Jefferson and others on the painting faculty had what I interpreted as a fervent regard for the life and work of painter Albert Pinkham Ryder [American 1847-1917]. Their view of Ryder’s work had been substantiated by critical analysis linking his methods to those of the Abstract Expressionists. There were similar conclusions drawn about Turner as a progenitor of modern painting.

The following evening I arrived at the studio with a jug of red wine. I was not accustomed to drinking while painting, but I nevertheless drank enough to fortify myself and approached a canvas which I had earlier primed with thalocyanine blue and damar varnish. The surface was slick as glass. I squeezed out ample portions of alizarin crimson and hansa yellow light pigment and dove in (See Folio 11, 1970 #16).

Jack Jefferson notified me later in the week that my new crimson and yellow painting was chosen for the annual graduate exhibit, but that it would hang in the section called the Salon des Refusés. Before the exhibition, a friend of mine came by to see it and remarked, “I’d have to be very angry to paint that.”

Exile Prefigured

Some time later, an instructor told me that he and the faculty thought my work merited a solo show, and he suggested one of the Institute galleries. “Where do you exhibit?” I asked presumptuously. He named the gallery and was instrumental in arranging a show there for me, but no paintings were sold and I was disappointed by the experience.

My first daughter Jeannine (“Nini”) was born ten days after the gallery reception.

It became clear to me in the weeks that followed that the opening shot in my career as a public artist was a flop. As if this sense of failure needed additional emphasis, my increasingly fevered imagination was pricked sometime later as I was working on my pickup truck at the foot of the hilly street where I lived. A ball wrapped in black electrical tape rolled past me and stopped at the curb. A sign?

At the neighborhood grocery store a few days later, I was standing in line at the checkout counter and a fellow shopper evidently read the distress on my face. In a sympathetic voice, he said simply, “Don’t worry, success is getting what you want, but happiness is wanting what you get.”

My prospects dimming, I sought refuge working long hours on pen and ink drawings (See Folio 17). To support my family, I found odd jobs and eventually joined the carpenters’ union. But my art was exposing wounds of uncertain origin and depth: I was becoming delusional and paranoid. The drawings were becoming increasingly, alluringly, black. Sufi Sam’s injunction, “Balance the Lights and the Darks,” had slowly faded from memory.

The national political mood was ugly and people all around me were angry about the war in Vietnam and Nixon’s landslide victory over McGovern. The SLA captured Patty Hearst and news reports conjectured that she might be in Bernal Heights! The FBI came to my door one day asking whether I had seen or heard anything.

My drawings were dense and alarming to me (See Folio 18), and it seemed that every step I took led to greater alienation. Finally, in 1974, I built a miniature house on the back of a 1946 Dodge pickup truck I had purchased for $25, then I rebuilt the engine and made plans to leave San Francisco with my family. My younger son Abe was two years old.

Escape to Parts Unknown

As we made preparations to leave the city, my father came to visit from Caracas, Venezuela, where he was an  importer. He asked me where we were planning to go. “North,” was the only specification I could offer. Dad evidently was aware of the risks my wife and I were about to take. We had children, few resources and a clouded outlook. Thinking it over, he told me that he had more income than he needed and he offered me a monthly stipend. I happily accepted.

The appointed day arrived and we left San Francisco with all my art and our few possessions loaded into the house truck. Using a public campground as a base (See Photo in Articles and Reviews), we limited our search to Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin Counties.

One day, driving from Point Reyes Station, we rolled into Tomales in northwest Marin County, a visually splendid agricultural landscape dotted with dairy and sheep farms, and we decided to ask around for rentals. It turned out that the town’s cafe on Highway 1 had recently gone out of business and that the building was available. We took it and started a gallery called Tomales Art Works (See Photo) with living quarters in the rear. An opening celebration at the gallery brought in curious townspeople including painter Byron Randall, the owner of a local guest house which was filled with his work.

I resumed painting and drawing regularly (See Folios 19 and 20) and combined long walks around the countryside with daily visits to the tavern across the road where I got to know the regulars. My younger daughter, Aerielle, was born at Marin General Hospital while we lived in the gallery. I was 37 years old.

Birth of a Community Organizer

During one of my daily walks, I passed the Tomales Town Hall and noticed a sign on the door indicating that it was a branch office of the Volunteer Bureau of Marin. Mary Arenander, the Coordinater, was a retired school teacher with a talent for enlisting people to help with community work. After a brief conversation, Mary asked me whether I would write a disaster plan for northwest Marin. I did a double-take because her question seemed to mirror my life on the edge. Despite that private moment of perplexity, I succumbed to her warm persuasion and agreed.

My life began to enlarge and accelerate. In 1976, we moved into a spacious Victorian house on ten acres at the edge of town. Rent at first was in exchange for making physical improvements to the property. Later it was set at an affordable rate. The disaster plan I had written was approved and incorporated into Marin County’s plan and I was appointed Disaster Coordinator for Northwest Marin. Several of the town’s newer residents met to organize the Tomales Volunteer Fire Company and I was elected Secretary. The Tomales Film Series, featuring classic movies with potlucks in the Town Hall, was organized and energized by my wife Anna.

One thing led to another (See Marin County Independent-Journal newspaper article). It was rumored that the old and abandoned Tomales High School, with numerous buildings on five acres, would soon go up for sale. Bill Yates, a local artist and musician, suggested that I apply for a California grant to acquire the skills for non-profit executive director. The grant was approved with his help and recommendation, and I subsequently attended a state-funded seminar where I learned the requirements and protocols for buying the old school and converting it into a regional art center.

I circulated a petition among Tomales residents asking Marin County Supervisors to support the purchase of the buildings and grounds for that purpose, and in the fall of 1977, I went to Sacramento to file articles of incorporation for Northwest Marin Cultural and Community Center. We established a five person board which met at Byron Randall’s guest house, and I was appointed Executive Director. But less than a month later, the main school building burned to the ground. The Point Reyes Light newspaper headlined, “Arson suspected in school fire.” Coincidentally, it became clear then that the local school board was unsympathetic to the community’s expressed wish to buy the property. Byron Randall, who became a founding member of our non-profit board, asked me, “What now?” I replied, “A community park.”

In1978, I was finishing a series of figurative pen and ink drawings in which the dramatis personae emerged mysteriously from the paper as I worked (See Folio 22). Those drawings were among works which demonstrated the “power of visualization” described by Dr. Ajari. Others completed during that period included several oil paintings (See Folio 23).

Speculation about the fate of the old high school property lingered. County Block Grant Funds for our project totaling $50,000 were recommended for approval by the Board of Supervisors, but among old-timers in the community there was sharp opposition to the use of the high school property for the purposes proposed. So it was convenient to our plans that Mary and Gene Arenander owned a lot suitable for a park in the center of Tomales, and that they were willing to lease it to our non-profit organization for that purpose should the high school cease to be an option.

Art Institute Redux

For whatever reason, I got a totally unexpected phone call from a former painting instructor one evening in late summer 1978. He asked whether I wanted to show at a gallery in Washington, DC. Feeling some anxiety at first, I hesitated, then agreed.

We made an appointment and he showed up at my home with the director of Gallery K in Georgetown. They devoted a good part of the afternoon looking over several years’ of work and eventually settled on figurative watercolors and pen and ink drawings completed in Tomales from 1975 to 1978. The gallery director drew up an informal contract and the visitors left. My work was exhibited in a group show at Gallery K during the summer of 1979. Nothing was sold and I never saw a written review of the show.

More than a year passed without word from the gallery and I began to miss my paintings and drawings. I asked for them and before long I received an insured envelope in the mail with everything intact. Those works were destined to be included in a self-published monograph, Interior Exile: Works on Paper 1966-1989.

Affordable Housing in West Marin and a Second Marriage Fails

Our success creating a community park in Tomales attracted notice. Corwin Mocine, an Emeritus Professor of City Planning at UC, Berkeley, and several other residents of Point Reyes Station and nearby villages decided to do something about the lack of adequate housing for low income folks. They organized West Marin Association for Affordable Housing and I was invited to join the Board as a vice-president. Initiatives by the organization ultimately resulted in the creation of more than a dozen units of family owner-builder houses and about forty units of senior apartments in Point Reyes Station.

Meanwhile, as I became increasingly involved in community, my second marriage was hanging by a thread. It was only a matter of time. Some oil paintings created during that period express my unconscious malaise (See Folio 23). Nevertheless, I continued my organizing efforts. The completion of the Tomales Community Park in 1979, using teenage labor funded by a CETA grant that I wrote, was marked by a local celebration that summer (See Point Reyes Light article) and documented in a formal photograph by Art Rogers in 1980 (See Tomales Community Park photo in Articles and Reviews).

When my marriage to Anna ended, Louise Gregg, a sympathetic neighbor and artist, invited me to use a 10x10 shed on her property. It had a hanging cot a foot or two above an upright piano, and a small table where I was able to draw and paint. Louise had a temporary job with the county and we would share her cigarettes and a few beers when she came home from work. The situation was convenient for my children because Louise’s house was near the center of town. The kids were happy to drop by and hang out after school. My elder daughter, Nini, happened to be best friends with Louise’s daughter Martha. My stay there lasted several months, during which I began playing the piano and doing some paintings on paper.

Luck and love favored me when an attractive woman violinist appeared in town. After an awkward first meeting, she came to ask me to go hiking with her the following day. That relationship with Sienna S’Zell marked a period of renewed enthusiasm for work in a number of media during the period 1980-1983 (See Folios 24, 25 & 26). It also enabled me to reunite with my elder son, Jacques, who came to live with us.

By the end of 1982, it was evident that my life in Tomales, fulfilling, exciting, and finally sad, was drawing to a close. The house I shared with Sienna was sold; my son and his pregnant bride moved down the road to stable employment, and Sienna took her own apartment for need of privacy. I was left for the next six months in an adjacent barn with no windows, a partially planked floor, cold running water and a chemical toilet. I set up a table outside daily to paint oil on board (See Folio 23).

The denouement was to come in the form of an unsolicited invitation for me to show at the South of Market Cultural Center in San Francisco. When I went there for a preliminary interview, I was asked whether I would like to choose other artists to share the space with me. I suggested a show entitled “Three Generations,” and named two former painting instructors. They appeared at my barn sometime later that month to discuss the show, but several weeks later, after sending slides of my work, I received a notice from the Center that my show proposal had been rejected.

Occidental and a Second Round of Activism

The couple who owned the barn I lived in during my final months in Tomales had planned to build a guest house on the property. They lived in Occidental, a small village surrounded by redwoods about twenty miles north of Tomales, and were waiting for approval of their building plans by the local design review board. The board was putting up what they considered to be petty hurdles. I agreed with them and volunteered to write a letter to the Board of Supervisors supporting their case. They were grateful for my help and we became good friends. As it turned out, though, they became disheartened by their experience in Tomales, decided not to proceed with their building plans, and abruptly sold the property.

Occidental became an appealing destination during the weeks I spent exploring my options to move. While there one evening, I met Franci Gallegos, a woman with a powerful sense of humor. She was a social and political activist with an intellect to match. She and I became good friends and eventually also partners. I went to live with her in Camp Meeker the summer of 1983, where I also established a small studio (See Folios 27, 28 & 29). We were involved in a number of projects together including the Poor People’s Convention in San Francisco, and she introduced me to like-minded people in the community. One evening we visited what would eventually become the Peace and Justice Center of Sonoma County. Despite our good times together and mutual interest in a wide range of issues, our relationship broke down less than two years later.

On my own once again, I found a house to share in Occidental with George Klineman, author of The Cult that Died: The Tragedy of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. He and I got along well and he enjoyed poking fun at my cooking residues, observing that, when preparing chicken cacciatore, I often left as much sauce in the surrounding space as in the pot.

Mornings, I was accustomed to taking brisk walks into town for a cup of coffee and light breakfast at the village cafe. I didn’t know many people so I spent a good part of every day reading books like G. Spencer-Browne’s Laws of Form and immersing myself in my work which at the time was limited to pen, ink and watercolor (See Folios 32 & 33).

During a drawing session one afternoon circa 1984, I received a call from The Peace and Justice Center in Santa Rosa asking me to volunteer some time there. I agreed and became a staffer at the front desk where I monitored the phone, filed papers, gave directions, and tried answering questions on a dizzying array of issues. As I became more deeply involved with the Center, I joined affiliated groups tied to issues which moved me, principally US intervention in Central America, Nuclear Energy and the MX Missile. There were daily organizing meetings for demonstrations related to these and other issues and I became a regular participant (See press articles).

Friends invited me to dinner at their home in Occidental one evening in March 1985, where I met Dotty Joos. We spoke briefly and I left when the party wound down. I was surprised and delighted the next day when, as I was walking into town and she was driving through, we spotted each other. We arranged to meet for a hike later that day...

Meanwhile, my father made another visit from Caracas just as Dotty and I were getting to know each other. He stayed with me in George Klineman’s home and told us all about rising discontent and crime in Venezuela. It was the first time in 60 years of living there that he felt fear. I introduced Dad to Dotty and they immediately hit it off because she was functional in French, an ability she picked up during time she spent studying at the Sorbonne during the ‘60s.

After Dad’s departure, I moved in with Dotty and gradually began to feel that this relationship had always been my destiny. Dotty was an established community organizer with the Red Cross and local disaster relief. Her son, Nathanial, lived with his father in Toronto. Born in Brooklyn to a family with ancestral roots in New Amsterdam, Dotty had several distinguished great aunts on the maternal side, including Katherine Dreier, an artist and patron of the arts, and Margaret Dreier Robins, a suffragette and social worker, and she had followed in their footsteps.

My art was confined to pen and ink drawings then because my activism was too intense for more complex media involvement (See Folio 34). Almost unnoticed, an invitation to an exhibit of Norman Stiegelmeyer’s work appeared in my mailbox during 1985. I was initially confused before I realized sadly that it was a memorial exhibition. Dotty and I went to Norman’s home and studio in Walnut Creek to see the exhibit and there learned that he had died of a brain tumor at 47.

In 1986, I was elected Board President of the Peace and Justice Center and became a member of the Editorial Collective of the Sonoma County Free Press and Executive Producer of Bringing It All Together, a weekly cable TV program which showcased topical discussions and films supportive of peace, justice and the environment (See Press Democrat photo). During that time, I directed and edited two documentary films: Who will Be A Witness? The Nuclear Threat To Life And Health; and Stopping the War Starts Here: A Tribute to Brian Willson, about a heroic war protestor maimed by a locomotive at the Concord Naval Weapons Station in California.

One day in 1988, Lionel Gambill, a candidate for Congress on the Democratic ticket, came to see me at the Peace and Justice Center and, after a lengthy discussion, asked me to manage his campaign. There was growing discontent in parts of the District because of a widespread perception that incumbent Congressman Doug Bosco was not adequately and effectively addressing peace and environmental issues (See Press Democrat articles). Several left-leaning candidates on the ballot eventually decided to throw their support behind Gambill, but inadequate campaign funding and a lack of public familiarity with him sank his effort. Bosco won the election but was eventually unseated.

That same year, four Soviet women came to the United States on a goodwill tour which included a stay in Sonoma County. Dotty was on the host committee and got to know Tamara, one of the women, by volunteering to take her on a shopping expedition. They enlarged their acquaintance through letter writing during which it was revealed that Dotty’s great uncle, Raymond Robins, had been an unofficial emissary to the Soviet government after the Revolution of 1917, and had become a confidant of Lenin. Pravda published a full page account (See Pravda article) of the relationship between Robins and Lenin and Tamara saw the article. She wrote Dotty that it was therefore imperative for us to visit Moscow.

In 1989, Tamara and her husband, Misha, made preparations for our visit and Dotty and I obtained visas and booked tickets for an October flight. Simultaneously, my father, then 87, made clear his intention to leave Venezuela for good and asked me to locate an apartment for him. It became clear that Dad’s intentions, indefinite as they were until then, and our plans to visit the Soviet Union, were on a collision course with my obligations at the Peace and Justice Center. My third year as president of the Board was nearly complete and I was beginning to burn out. So I wrote a letter of resignation, effective in June.

In the months following my resignation, I planned and published a collection of figurative imagery entitled Interior Exile: Works on Paper 1966-1989. A community book-signing was held in September, shortly before our planned trip to Moscow. During the interval I continued to work in pen and ink (See Folio 35).


It was literally the eve of our departure when my father called from New York to say that he was planning to be in San Francisco. I pleaded, “We’re leaving for Moscow tomorrow for several weeks; please wait until we get back.” He was frustrated but resigned.

In anticipation of the trip, Dotty and I had enrolled in Russian language classes at the junior college. By the time we were on the plane to Moscow, we could read, write, and speak Russian at an elementary level. I had a copy of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika with me as well as drawing materials which I anticipated using during down time. Instead, I spent mornings in our hosts’ kitchen writing Moscow Diary, a detailed account of our stay, and during some afternoons I recorded a companion series of video interviews with influential friends of theirs.

While in Moscow, Dotty and I were taken to view the art treasures of the Kremlin and the collections at the Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin Museum. We saw contemporary Soviet art at the Manege and House of Artists as well as at commercial galleries and private studios.

The visit was an eye-opener for me. Moscow was a cosmopolitan city of 8 million, reputedly with the largest underground rail system in the world. And we were there during the most transformative period in 70 years of Soviet history. Our hosts and their friends went to exceptional lengths to make our stay informative, comfortable and entertaining, and I was ultimately disabused of the propaganda stereotypes which had conditioned me.

When we returned from our trip, Moscow Diary was published in the Sonoma County Free Press and excerpts and an op-ed article appeared in other publications (See press clippings). The taped interviews were shown at several community gatherings.

Life with Father

Before Dad arrived in California, I rented an apartment for him in the neighboring town of Sebastopol. He was healthy and strong and was accustomed to daily walks. When he arrived in California and settled into his apartment after our return from Moscow, it became plain that the transition was difficult for him, and it became stressful for me. Ultimately, we settled into a routine of weekly visits during which I took him shopping and on excursions to the coast. He became fond of Dotty because they could discuss anything important to him in French, and she had a genius for finding items of furniture for his apartment.

Important to me was the respect that Dad always showed for my work as an artist and activist. He never complained about my choice or commitment to this path and my book, Interior Exile, was always in a conspicuous spot in his living room. He was temperamentally rigid, but he made an exceptional effort to honor me in this way.

In 1991, at the time of the Putsch which resulted in Gorbachev’s house arrest in the Crimea and Yeltsin’s rise to prominence on a tank outside the Moscow White House, Dotty and I were invited back to Russia. My father was angry, but didn’t put up a struggle because my former wife Anna and her husband Bill agreed to look after him during our absence. Before our departure, a five-week solo show of my oil paintings opened at the Framework Gallery in Forestville.

We traveled by Aeroflot which was celebrating its inaugural year of flights from San Francsico to Khabarovsk in the Soviet Far East. From Khabarovsk it was another 10 hours to Moscow. We arrived to find barricades in the streets and the Moscow White House charred by the shelling used to drive out the Putsch conspirators. Two months later, the Soviet Union would be dissolved. During the visit, our hosts’ family connections provided us with the opportunity to enjoy a Bolshoi evening from prime box seats.

When we got back to the ‘States, Dad said, “I forgive you, but don’t do it again!” He shared in family gatherings with his grandchildren, but was reluctant to develop a social life in the community. He agreed to allow me to videotape an oral account of his life and I was able to do so until the first two-hour tape ran out, when he suddenly became discouraged by the humiliating thought that his English was too poor to be understood, and he refused to continue. 

Slowly his enthusiasm for life diminished, and one day he suddenly lost most of his vision. An examination revealed that he was going blind due to macular degeneration. This severely disheartened him and led to a general decline in his health. Though Dad and I shared a bond based on our common experiences, we were not warm friends. Being with him was difficult for me and I performed filial obligations under emotional stress. During the days of decline before his death, though, I was unexpectedly able to spend quality time with him, something we never before shared. His loss of strength gradually rendered him less emotionally resistant and I used the opportunity one afternoon to thank him for all he had done to save and nourish me.

After spending a night at his apartment during his care by hospice workers, I passed by his bed to tell him I’d see him the following day, August 10, 1992, his 90th birthday. Early that morning, Dotty and I were awakened by a phone call from the overnight caretaker. “He passed away peacefully a little while ago.”

A New Studio and Reuniting with My Mother

My tiny studio in the rear of our home in Camp Meeker was the workplace for a series of new paintings on board, begun in 1991 and continuing into 1992. Using a palette knife, I applied successive layers of oil paint and worked it until the paintings were resolved (See Folio 30). The energy and optimism generated by those paintings led me to think about a larger studio. When Dad passed away, I told Dotty my thinking and we began searching for a new residence. Our real estate broker called one day to say that she remembered a house which had been for sale the previous year but which was no longer on the market. We encouraged her to inquire and the owners were receptive, so we made an offer contingent on the construction of the two-story garage for which a foundation had already been completed. The upper floor would become my new studio, roughly 625 square feet with a vaulted ceiling and skylights.

I joyfully visualized the studio as it was going up during the spring of 1993 and, as it neared completion, Dotty and I made preparations for my first reunion with my mother in over 30 years. Dotty had gone to Europe with her son the previous year and, at my request, had called my mother in France to see whether she was open to discussing a visit. A meeting was arranged and they met at my mother’s senior residence in Trouville, on the Normandy coast, paving the way for our trip.

Over the next ten years, Dotty and I made biannual trips to visit my mother and my half-sister in Normandy. I discovered that my mother was an unschooled artist with a fondness for drawing the likenesses of important public figures like President de Gaulle.

We spent time in Paris visiting my birthplace, my father’s former place of business, and my childhood home. I grew weary of visiting the Louvre and The Musée d’Orsay because the crowds and the noise made it difficult for me to look at my favorite paintings in peace. During 1996, our trip to France was preceded by visits to Moscow and London, to the latter especially for exposure to the Turner Bequest at the Tate Gallery.

After my elder son Jacques and I put the finishing touches on my new studio in 1994, I began a fresh series of oil paintings on Fin ply panels measuring 32x40 inches (See Folio 41). Continuing with a method developed in Camp Meeker, I finished 18 paintings during 1995, and presented them along with earlier work in a show open to the public at my studio in September (See Folio 30).

The series of oil paintings on panel begun in 1995 continued in earnest through 1998 when they began to lose steam. A few stragglers emerged during  2000-01. A very long series of watercolors, also begun in 1995, successfully bridged the gap opened by my loss of motivation with oils and continued well into 2005 (See Folios 42, 43, 44, 46, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 61, 62, 63, 65 & 67).

The paintings and drawings completed after the establishment of my new studio constitute what I see in retrospect as my third discrete period of artistic efflorescence. This new high peaked around 1997 and led to the creation of my book, Where the River Meets the Sea: Coastal Landscapes 1980-1998. In the Artist’s Introduction, I clarified my painting process:

And so I see that when I paint, I partake of the same                 mystery that joins Turner and Ryder to the Abstract   Expressionists. I simply spread pure paste pigment until the texture, color, and viscosity of the medium, and my increasing visual engagement lead to a critical intersection: the moment that full emotional commitment transforms effort into the certainty of the creative experience; the unexpected, thrilling and astonishing moment which coincides with the transformation of the painting from a work in progress into a visual space embraced by the mind and beyond time.

Recent Developments

Because of their portability, ink and watercolor have been my choices of media for travel. During a visit to Russia in April 1996, Dotty and I were taken by Tamara and Misha to their dacha south of Moscow, an hour’s train ride followed by an hour’s slog through potato fields on foot. It had rained and the ground was wet but I nevertheless got a fire going in an outdoor cookstove. After struggling to kindle the fire with damp wood scraps, and with the radio gently transmitting traditional Russian folksongs, I took out my pad and drew for several hours, interrupting my work from time to time to recharge the blaze (See Folio 45, 1996/04/24).

When my oil on panel paintings lost momentum in 1999, I decided to revisit acrylic paint for the first time in thirty years and chose Arches watercolor paper as a support. A series of 18 works resulted in 2001 (See Folio 54). The medium was unexpectedly difficult for me, given the expressive changes in my process since 1969, so I returned to working in watercolor and pen and ink until 2007, when I made my first foray into charcoal (See Folio 68). These were very satisfying because of the unusual range of spontaneous hand motion which charcoal allowed. Then I was drawn back to a second round of acrylic on Arches paper in 2008 (See Folio 69). Completion of these led to a solo show at the Quercia Gallery in 2010.

Following the show, I began a third series of acrylics in 2011 (See Folio 70), and a new round of pen and ink drawings in 2012 (See Folio 71).

As of this writing, I’m feeling more serene than ever before. The explanation is ultimately mysterious, but there are several tangible clues: Despite the lifelong difficulty I had understanding my father, I’ve come to see that he was loyal to me, saved my life and endowed me with health; my instincts preserved me from serious danger during times of confusion and disorientation; I was fortunately drawn to satisfying and fulfilling pursuits as a painter and community activist; and my partner, Dotty Joos, has given me warmth, humor and understanding.

The development of this collection of work and its beneficial outcome for me clearly rest on the integrative power of a dynamic and metamorphic creative process.

Jacques Levy


December 2012

2012-2014: New Work and Another Round of Community Ferment

While visiting my son and his family in West Hollywood during 2012, I tried out some watercolor crayons which I received as a birthday gift from Dotty’s son about 25 years ago. I had tried them several times in the past without success but nevertheless packed them in my bag for another attempt. To complicate my effort, the paper I had with me wasn’t absorbent enough to receive the wet medium, so I fell back on using the crayons dry. It was difficult going, but I was mildly engaged and then curious enough to try them again on a subsequent visit with similarly stimulating results. Thus I was drawn subtly into a commitment to continue, which resulted in Folio 72 in March, 2014. My crayon paintings alternated with pen and ink drawings, culminating in the conclusion to Folio 71, also in March, 2014.

In April, 2013, while on my daily hike, I was alerted by a neighbor, David Dillman, to what he considered to be an important development in our small village, and he asked me to join him in a discussion with other concerned people later that month. At that meeting, I learned that members of our community were alarmed by some of the potential consequences of a proposal for the village of Occidental made by Sonoma County’s Regional Parks Department. Called the “West County Gateway Project,” the proposal was designed to transform the little-used Occidental Community Center into a tourist hub for western Sonoma County. Among the problems related to the proposal were out-of-scale impacts on the village infrastructure: water, sewer and traffic among the most important. But what really raised hackles was a perceived arrogance and insensitivity to the community’s concerns by County staff.

As it turned out, the meeting discussion appeared to reach a stalemate for lack of a vehicle to address the community’s concerns, so I proposed the formation of an Ad Hoc Committee to develop a strategy to inform the broader community about the County’s intentions. Consequently, I was nominated to be the Committee’s spokesperson. After a series of exploratory meetings to which the community was invited, the Committee under its new name, The Occidental Town Hall Committee, decided to sponsor a large presentation to inform the public. (See Press Democrat Article) Regional Parks staff objected to the content of an informational flyer produced by the Committee, but were unable to substantiate their objections to the Committee’s satisfaction. Hundreds of concerned citizens showed up for the Committee’s presentation at the Salmon Creek School Gymnasium on June 4, 2013 and responded overwhelmingly against the County’s proposal. (See Press Democrat Article)

A subsequent meeting in August, organized to facilitate a response from County staff, unexpectedly featured an apology by the Director of Regional Parks, who acknowledged making mistakes, and who promised to scrap the West County Gateway Project. (See Press Democrat article)

The immediate outcome of these public meetings was the dissolution of The Town Hall Committee, which had served its purpose, and the appointment of a Citizens Advisory Committee to develop new ideas for the Occidental Community Center.

March 2014