Art as a Spiritual Path: An Interview

This is the second in a series of occasional interviews with people about their spiritual path. The first can be found at www.drdavidgbenner.ca/meditation-contemplative-prayer/


Larry Young is a teacher, filmmaker and artist who lives and works within the esoteric Christian tradition of Anthroposophy. Listen in on our recent conversation about art as a spiritual path. I think you’ll quickly see that it is highly relevant to not just artists and esoterics but all who seek to walk the human path in a deeply spiritual and soulful way.

 

David:   To get us started, tell me a little about your early years.

Larry:    I spent the first seven years of my life on a farm in Tennessee surrounded by simple, down-to-earth, hardworking people. After that we moved to a working class neighborhood in Nashville where we lived until I graduated from High School in 1963. I was a shy, skinny kid who liked to draw and read until puberty brought a growth spurt and the courage to join the basketball and track teams. I continued to draw and read during high school, but academic classes didn’t interest me in the least.

David:   When did you leave Nashville?

Larry:     When I was drafted into the army at 19. I joined the Navy Reserve to avoid fighting in Vietnam, but fate intervened and I found myself handling bombs in the belly of an aircraft carrier in the Tonkin Gulf.

David:    What did you do when you came back?

Larry:     I enrolled in art school. It was something I’ve wanted to do since the third grade when my teacher pinned my rabbit drawing on the bulletin board. Then in the sixth grade I won a city-wide poster design contest, and my course in life was set.

David:    Where did you study art?

Larry:    Five different schools, but it was at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale that I met an instructor named Karl Voster who would later become my mentor. After a year of study with Karl he invited me and several others to form a study group based on Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy. This experience led me to Waldorf teacher training and a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Mercy College in Detroit.

David:    Tell me a bit more about this mentor.

Larry:   Karl was a graphic designer, illustrator and lifelong student of anthroposophy. He had a profound world view based on a life-time of esoteric study and incredible life experiences which he shared with our study group during the 14 years we stayed together. When our group meetings ended we all went our separate ways and Karl moved back to Germany.

David:    How did this time of work with Karl affect you personally?

Larry:    When Karl and I first met I was angry from the war and addicted to drugs and alcohol. Basically I was a big bully. But Karl’s bigger presence made me intensely self-conscious and aware of my own shortcomings for the first time in my life. When I finally realized that people respected me as an artist but had no respect for me as a human being I was led to an epiphany. It happened one night after I learned that all my friends were having a party and I hadn’t been invited. As I sat in my car in front of their house trying to decide whether to go in and make a scene or go home and sulk, a car pulled up behind me. Their headlights flashed in my rear view mirror and I glanced up. What I saw instead of my own reflection was a specter, an arrogant caricature of a human being. I broke down in tears. I had seen myself as others saw me.

David:    Sounds like a powerful experience.

Larry:   It was life changing. In a split-second, all the wisdom Karl had shared with us hit me with full reality. I began reading Steiner’s lectures and books, anything I could get my hands on, because I knew that I had found what I was looking for. I tried to share the experience with my friends, but they didn’t understand and eventually fell away. I felt alone and empty but I had found my path.

David:    How would you describe that path?

Larry:   My BA with a major in anthroposophical studies and a minor in art sums it up pretty well. Though art is important to me, my primary focus in life is on spiritual science – specifically, anthroposophy. Artistic activity is like a tool that helps me deepen my spiritual experience of both my inner life and the world around me, though art alone is not enough. For that reason, over the years I’ve tried to develop my scientific and religious faculties as well. So, while my path started out in the arts, it became more about balancing art, science and religion in myself. Before I discovered anthroposophy I wanted to be an artist, afterwards I wanted to become a complete, well-balanced human being.

David:    Is there a particular approach to art that you learned from Steiner.

Larry:     Steiner gave a series of lectures on colour at the beginning of the twentieth century that indicated a new way for artists to work. For example, he suggested that instead of starting with a preconceived image and coloring it in, painters should start with watercolor on wet paper, then discover the motif at the end of their artistic process. This approach allows the artist to first experience each colour’s own particular form and gesture, because each colour wants to express itself differently; yellow expresses itself one way, red another, and blue another. When painters enter into colour in this imaginative way, gently coaxing the colours into self-expression, what’s living in the depths of the soul is released and finally comes to expression in motif. The process becomes more important than the end results. As Goethe said, “Consider the what, but consider more the how.” Over the years this idea of living in the moment within the creative process has evolved beyond just making art. It has become a path of self-discovery and transformation.

David:   Your work is highly evocative and I now realize that its power comes from the fact that you don’t set out to draw or paint something. You engage the canvas in a way that it becomes a container for the projection of the deepest levels of your unconscious.

Larry:   Art is primarily a mystical path for me, an intense going inward, hoping to pass through the eye of the needle and open up into the spiritual world on the other side. For that reason my work is intensely personal, yet at the same time it has to speak to all souls on some level. As I mentioned before, I try to accomplish this by harmonizing the three core aspects of myself: science, art and religion, or from another perspective – thinking, feeling and willing. And there in the midst of the harmonizing is the creator.

David:    Spirituality has now entered the picture.

Larry:   Yes. I become aware of the creator during the act of creating.

David:    And that’s part of what you were just now saying. That it is not just about you. It starts with you but becomes about everybody and everything.

Larry:   Yes.

David:   So, engaging with art in a way that draws in science and religion moves you from the personal into the transpersonal and the doorway to the transpersonal is the creator that you get in touch with through this process

Larry:     Yes. The creator is the being that observes me in the act of creating. When I connect with that being, time no longer exists and I can objectively look at myself from outside and observe what I’m creating, how I’m creating, and why I’m creating. In other words, I can experience if the work is true, beautiful and good. It’s an echo of that moment many years ago when my higher self looked in the rearview mirror and saw the objective truth about my lower self.

David:    Where does Christianity fit in all of this?

Larry:   When I connect with my higher self, I experience Christ consciousness working through me. Of course I can’t always achieve a higher state of consciousness. Too often I act out of my lower self, or personality. So I would say that I’m on a path toward becoming a Christian. For me, being a true Christian means that every cell in my body knows for certain that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. When people ask if I’m a Christian, I usually reply, “I try to be.”

David:    I resonate to your quest to know and live this truth in every cell of your being.

Larry:   Everything says “YES!” but I’m hard-headed.

David:    Maybe that just means that you are doing the work. If we don’t get to the point where we know our hard-headedness we haven’t yet truly seen our self in the mirror.

Larry:   Yes. And the work never ends. Since seeing myself in the mirror 45 years ago I’ve created hundreds of images that I rework over and over again as I continue to learn and change. And each time I do, I discover more about the world and myself.

David: Perhaps you can illustrate this in relation to a specific painting. Let’s talk about “Gethsemane.” Do you recall when you first produced this image and how you reworked it over time?

Gethsemane

Larry:    A friend in Korea has the original watercolour, and it’s nothing like the most recent version. The original is lighter with mostly primary colors – inspired by the composition of a Gauguin painting called “Agony In the Garden.” I painted it in the 80s, but it didn’t express what I now imagine as the deep psychic pain of a man completely alone at the exact moment he realizes that death is not a myth, but a reality. As I grew older and death became more and more a reality, I continued to rework the painting, mostly darkening and de-saturating the colours.

David:   You often attach a quote or few words of your own to a picture when you are done. Tell me about that part of the process.

Larry:    Well I usually don’t describe a spiritual experience with words, but when I do it usually doesn’t match the depth of the experience I had while working with colour, form and composition. So I look for a writer who can express it in words better than I can.

David:     Do you recall the words you attached to Gethsemane?

Larry:     “And until thou truly hast this ‘dying and becoming’ thou art but a troubled guest oe’r the dark earth roaming.” It’s a quote from Goethe.

David:   That’s really profound, and incredibly fitting for your work.

Larry:   Thank you.

David:   There are many other things I want to ask about but let’s wrap this up for now. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself, your journey and your path.

 

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