In the Hands of Alchemy

The Art and Life of Jerry Wennstrom

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Co-directed by Phil Lucas and Mark Sadan

In the late 1970s, Jerry Wennstrom was a rising star in the New York art world when he decided that the ultimate creative leap was to destroy his large body of art, give away all of his possessions, and spend the next ten years wandering, seeking, and listening.

“It was a powerful, holy experience that left me shaken and empty, but exhilarated,” says Jerry of the destruction of his art.

In this DVD, In the Hands of Alchemy, Jerry Wennstrom tells the extraordinary story of his daring exploration into the source of his creativity. He tells of a life lived by the singular requirement of Grace—to remain fearlessly attuned to the heart. Wennstrom and his art are handsomely portrayed in this film about his unique, adventurous search for spiritual authenticity.

The film includes footage of the Monks of Depung-Loseling Tibetan Monastery, excerpts from a 1979 film that show many of the works Wennstrom destroyed, and a recent presentation by Jerry before a live audience in his studio. It includes testimonies as well as narrations by the poet David Whyte, author Christina Baldwin, and artist Deborah Koff Chapin.

Click here to read an article by the author in the Light of Consciousness Magazine.

 

Praise for In the Hands of Alchemy

 

There is a tremendous kind of courage that Jerry showed in the midst of the chaos and the individual loneliness of the post-modern world, to go his own way. It was the ultimate artistic step.

—David Whyte, author of Crossing the Unknown Sea

When Jerry Wennstrom destroyed his art in 1979, he threw himself into the great unknown searching for a more authentic life. Walking the road of radical emptiness, the result was the emergence of a completely genuine voice, gentle and sensitive to the stirrings of the divine in everyday life, creative beyond reasonable bounds. Wedding compassion and creativity, In the Hands of Alchemy is a rare celebration of life and the joy of spiritual surrender.

—Chris Bache, author of Dark Night, Early Dawn

In the Hands of Alchemy is a delightful film, an alchemical mixture in itself of inspiration, spirituality, art and the story of a remarkable human being.

—David Spangler, author of Blessings

Seeing Jerry’s film, I can’t divorce it from the gentle strength of his personal presence accompanying it. His experience-based wisdom and knowing feeling are a penetrating complement to the life and work so powerfully portrayed on screen.

—Claire Dunne, author of C.G. Jung Wounded Healer of the Soul

I think there is a real difference in human beings who have let themselves be thrown to the ground by life. Jerry did that with an intentional act with his art. He is on the other side of that kind of psychic death and renewal. He really is a kind of phoenix who has risen from the ashes. He teaches us in a very gentle way you can survive an act like that, you can come through as a human being with great gentleness and beauty and that you can create your life in a highly profound and artistic fashion.

—Christina Baldwin, author of Storycatcher

Jerry Wennstrom’s life gives witness to the blessed state of utter surrender into emptiness, through which life becomes an unexpected garden of creative abundance, simple profundity, ordinary sacredness and everyday love. It is a poignant metaphor for all of us mortals who fear loss of everything we define as ours—including our lives.

—Carolyn North, author of Ecstatic Relations

This is an extraordinary story of an extraordinary artist. Jerry’s understanding of the freedom and gift of emptiness, the compassion that is inseparable from the void, is a lived and embodied realization. To see how this gifted artist chose to make his life an expression of his understanding of truth is a tremendous inspiration.

—Tsultrim Allione, author of Women of Wisdom

There are few stories this inspiring and brave about the artist as holy human being rather than maker of art. In a world addicted to concept and alienation, he is a man who was called to spirit and dared to answer the call. He does not need to seek creativity, but becomes it. Sharing this reality reminds us of another more primal way of being in the world, closer to the creativity of our ancestors who listened with the ears of animals and lived drenched in a sense of the sacred.

—Laura Simms, author of Our Secret Territory

Jerry Wennstrom is one of a kind – and his point is that any of us can be that. We can, like him, walk straight into the heart of mystery and emerge more ourselves than we could ever imagine. He tells his story of being called to destroy his art, of struggling to hear any message but that one, of surrendering his will and allowing the soft something that is beyond will to guide him. It’s all a fabulous tale worth hearing again and again like a great myth, and it’s a deep, simple instruction for how to find ourselves in the middle of a life that seems real, but is often missing the central character. Jerry’s amazing recent artwork and his extraordinarily beautiful and talented wife, Marilyn, swirl around this story of a courageous soul, making it even more compelling. Best would be to know Jerry as I am privileged to do, second best is watching this film.

—Vicki Robin, coauthor, Your Money or Your Life

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1 hr. 8 min.

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Wennstrom’s work is life-affirming, capturing the soul, inspiration, beauty, and humor of life and human existence.

New Age Retailer

The video shows a guy who has, as poet David Whyte says in the video, claimed his happiness. If only there were about six billion films like this waiting to be made.

—Jerry Katz, nonduality.com

Enchanting – that was the word that came to mind when I first saw the art of Jerry Wennstrom.

There is life-death, myth, chaos and order in his sculptures that reach deep, deep into the heart of the feminine bringing it once more into the light; into a world that so desperately needs the balance of animus and anima.

His creations are of the earth, from the earth; breathe with, flow with the earth, with the goddess. They have been created from bits and pieces of literally of the earth, the sky, the depths and mysteries of the soul and brought together, renewed into new life forms; into great beauty.

Wennstrom’s art has come through the mess and smoke of the metaphorical death that we must accept to begin the transformation to awe and wonder at the creation of which we are a part; a part that is meant to carry it on, each in our unique way.

His work speaks to us – has taken life from the life that came to it through him.

A long time ago, Jerry Wennstrom embarked on an unknown sea giving away all that he had; destroying his existing art work; and sailing without charts, without sextant, without anything but a deep personal commitment to listen to, to follow the voice of the Universe.

To some that is threatening; to others that is insane; to still others it is the only course to sanity, to the true Self; to bringing to the surface through heart and soul archaeology the true creative spirit that life has blessed us with – if we are willing to accept the gift and work from and through it.

I have watched Wennstrom’s work emerge over the last few years; watched the mystery of his renditions of the centuries old confessionals at Assisi take form to grace life.

In a recent interview with Mariel Hemingway at Healthy Life Radio, Jerry noted that sometimes God whispers to us; that we need to go deeper; need to remove the clutter, the noise, the societal impositions on our lives of what we have to do to be able to do that which is our true purpose.

Like all of us, I have heard God whisper – indeed, have heard the whisper grow into a scream in my own life, in the lives of others close to me.

In this new DVD, Wennstrom encourages us to listen to the whisper – accept it as the gift it is and move into the unknown, into the depths of it. I did not just watch this new program that commingles with the old work, but experienced it. While I found many similarities to the old work that had been destroyed, what I found was art that seemed to journey to breath; art that had gone through the metaphorical death to be transformed, to touch life at its core – art that had gone through the mess, the smoke, the mud to symbolically plant flowers, to expose, accept, and transform the dark to emerge with a great, great gift of light. In comparing the work before Jerry set sail on the unknown sea to the new, it was my intense feeling that his earlier figures were waiting to exhale, waiting to be released to breathe wonder and beauty into the world. His journey of transformation has given his art that breath; indeed, that life.

The thought came to mind of the intensity and duration of Jerry’s journey into the creative core of the universe. Fifteen years of living without any direction but that of the Universe is a long time. The question that arose for me was Okay, well, what if you are the father/mother of children; have the ‘full catastrophe’ as Zorba called it – mortgage, job, bills, etc? How do you translate his journey to that of others became the question I asked of him. His response was that each situation was unique and had its own answers.

So, for the last month I have lived with that question – thought about it; heard the whisper myself; watched others hear it; and sometimes heard the scream coming to people in all different walks of life and observed their responses, and, indeed, their non-responses.

If you experience Mr. Wennstrom’s seminar; if you allow yourself to flow into his art; you will find clarity to answer that question. Think of those who spent their lives ignoring thewhisper – where are they now emotionally, spiritually? You will probably find them asking Is that all there is?

Those who embark on the journey; those who move into thewhisper or the scream will be noting different things – saying how vast, how open, how blessed is this Universe and its abundance – what is my part – how can I continue to co-create with it – to share its joy and treasures.

My paternal grandfather was a tool and die maker – he had the full catastrophe – not only did he have it, but he had it through the Depression and WWII. Each morning he went to work; in the evenings he sat down to table with his wife and kids. On Sunday mornings he would drop a raw egg into a glass of milk – his signal that a story was coming, usually a long one passing on across generations what life had taught him. When I first saw Jerry’s work, my granddad came to mind. He would come home with bits and pieces of whatevers, and go down into the dark of the basement with them. Come each Christmas, his train sets would go up in the living room, leaving little room for the furniture, but no one cared because not only were there the vast numbers of trains whistling, smoking their way across intricate layers of tracks, there were also what we as children called his “Go rounds.”

“Go rounds” were his creations – they spun; they went up and down; they lit up; they were celebrations of light that brought joy and his inner light to share with us, to share with the close knit neighborhood that also wondered at them. His journey was different than Mr. Wennstrom’s but it was also into Creation. Grandma had the full catastrophe that she shared with him – her joy, her creativity came through ceramic coated cast iron pots and pans, and a very thin crochet needle and ecru thread to create patterns in table cloths, antimacassars, doilies beautiful to behold. They, and the passed on skill to do them myself, grace our home now. The individual journey, the individual transformation, does not have to shake worlds, just your soul and creative world to find its place. You can, as Grandma did, transform the chore of turning raw food into delicious meals, and thin thread into artistic wonders, with the joy of creative giving.

I cannot recommend this old/new work of Jerry Wennstrom highly enough. Take the journey with an open heart and let it open and begin to free your soul.

Watch, experience, and listen for the whisper – it is there if you are willing to listen – to follow – to face the metaphorical death – and move into the transformation. Along the way you will find many, many gifts; find much to share; perhaps even find what a great, great blessing the full catastrophe is when you open your light onto it and challenge others to do the same. Just imagine if the principles, if the metaphorical deaths and transformations were applied at family and nation levels, what a different world we would know.

Immerse yourself with the beauty of Jerry Wennstrom’s work – touch its truth; touch its surrender; touch its connections – they will help you release your fears, find your true Self, your compassion and connection for the whole of things rather than your lonely separation.

For my full review of Jerry Wennstrom’s book, The Inspired Heart: An Artist’s Journey of Transformation, join me here.

The Niquahanam Project, September, 2007

For all those who aspire to make art out of life, this film is a portrait of Jerry Wennstrom, whose art and life are one. In the Hands of Alchemy is a documentary of his choice to destroy his body of art, to live for ten years with nothing, simply following the thread of his open heart, trusting God to take care of him, and how his journey eventually led him to meet and marry singer and teacher Marilyn Strong, and return to birthing art from his free and unconditioned soul.

It’s a vivid story, and Jerry’s open presence is a delightfully instructive example. The film includes a 15-minute homage to the enormous body of work destroyed prior to Jerry’s transition, footage of the Monks of Depung-Loseling Tibetan Monastery, a recent presentation by Jerry before a live audience in his studio, and testimony and narration by poet David Whyte, author Christina Baldwin, and artist Deborah Koff-Chapin.

Jerry also writes the stories of his revelatory journey in his beautifully-illustrated book, The Inspired Heart.

Branches of Light, May, 2007

In the Hands of Alchemy, a film by Phil Lucas and Mark Sadan, is a portrait of the life and art of Jerry Wennstrom. Twenty years ago, while living in Nyack, N.Y., Wennstrom went on an extensive fast, which he came out of knowing God’s will was for Wennstrom to destroy all his paintings, give away all his possessions and money, and become celibate. He did so. “Only God is real,” Wennstrom says was his realization, and so he had to let all other things go. Surrender leaves a “luminous void, which is the place where everything unfolds,” he says. Now married and living on Whidbey Island, Wash., spiritual artist Wennstrom and his current work are handsomely portrayed in this film.

Wennstrom describes art as “a grand connection of all things … a complete expression of all aspects coming together” and also says art is “one little piece to a whole puzzle, whereas before (his revelation) it was the whole puzzle and desperately so.” The film gives quick glimpses – and I wish the camera had lingered on them longer – of scores of complex, beautiful sculptures and other art pieces. Friends, fellow artists, and Wennstrom’s wife, Marilyn Strong, comment on his work. Wennstrom built a tower studio in the midst of nature, where the film records him receiving visiting Tibetan monks and showing them his living art, moving sculptures, and other soul works using a wide variety of mediums. “I feel like I’m riding the wave of art rather than having it ride me,” Wennstrom says.

Wennstrom’s work is life-affirming, capturing the soul, inspiration, beauty, and humor of life and human existence. What has he concluded from his experiences? “I feel life now is simply being available both artistically and humanly for other people,” he says. The DVD includes a bonus – 15 minutes of excerpts from a 1979 film by Deborah Koff-Chapin and Sadan that show many of the works Wennstrom destroyed.

—Ray A. Hemachandra, Rewind Magazine

I found that as I watched this film over again, I kept coming back to what Wendell Berry said:

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey.”

These words speak to me of the experience of incongruity that arises within each of us at some point in our lives-when we begin to realize that the life we are living is the life we have been conditioned to live… and suddenly it’s not enough for us. The feeling of incongruity may be fleeting, but it has the potential to alert us to the recognition that something needs our attention. We may experience that “something is missing!” We may not know what is missing or how to move forward, but this is the beginning of our awakening to ourselves, to our life, to the participation with our real journey… and the MYSTERY.

The level of awareness in each of us varies, therefore whereas I may experience incongruity as a sense of doubt or uncertainty, I believe that in Jerry Wennstrom’s life, the incongruity was experienced as a message from God-a profound message manifested over a 15 year period. This film had me asking over and over again, “How is it that I cannot fully accept the Mystery-a mystery full of confusion and contradiction?” I want to be-to live-in this mystery. And, I know that the mystery is ever-present. I KNOW I can Stop, Look, and Listen to it in my everyday life and experience it within myself …and yet… I continue to question it.

Jerry Wennstrom leaves his life in NY-leaves everything behind. Jerry burns all of his art, give away all his possessions and spent the next 15 years in a state of surrender. These years changed the way Jerry experienced himself, the way he experienced others and the world around him. It changed the way he engaged his art, his life, and the way he began to engage his spirituality-through creating and living his art, through relationship with himself and through relationship with Marilyn, as well as through his openness to community and community with all sentient beings.

I have always believed that each one of us has a gift to offer. One of my favorite authors, Helen Luke, once wrote, “…it is through the finding and the giving (of this gift) that we may come to know the joy that lies at the center of both the dark times and the light.”

As I watch this film it seems to me that Jerry’s gift is himself, as Marilyn says, “Where Jerry goes transformation follows.” I was struck and moved with what Jerry says in the film, “it’s not so much about knowing, it’s about living into the love we feel for other people” I love this…it’s not so much about knowing, it’s about living into-breathing with-the love we feel for other people.

Marilyn speaks of Carl Jung and the Tower he built in Bollingen. She refers to her dream to have a meditation space and to have it in a tower, and then of her delight in her dream becoming a reality as a result of Jerry himself building this tower on their land. I have over my front door a plague upon which is written the same message that Jung had written over the entrance to his home, “Invoked or not invoked God is present.”

Carl Jung, in Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, wrote “On Life after Death”: The greatest limitation for man is the “self”; it is manifested in the experience: “I am only that!” He went on to say, “Only consciousness of our narrow confinement in the self forms the link to the limitlessness of the unconscious. In such awareness we experience ourselves concurrently as limited and eternal… In knowing ourselves to be…ultimately limited, we possess also the capacity for becoming conscious of the infinite. But only then!” he writes.

As I watch the film and see Jerry’s art in the 70’s when he was living in New York-dark, shocking, evocative, desperate-and then I see Jerry and the art he is now creating in his life on Whidbey Island, I experience a marvelous transformation in the man and in his art. I experience a sense of freedom and connectedness through its interactive quality, as well as love and a true sacredness emanating from the art. I love the fun that Jerry and others experience as the trickster plays out in his art – the snapping teeth and the laughing skull that surprises and shocks us.

There’s also representation of the harsh realities that continue to be a part of the world. The part that was particularly disturbing to me was the tumor in beautiful Lucy’s lung – the image of bone, hair and teeth growing within one’s lung was very difficult for me to consider and “gross” for me to imagine. But within Jerry’s art and his use of Lucy’s beautiful face he allows himself to balance the ugliness with the beauty and THIS transformed me, and the way I experienced this as I watched the film again. Jerry himself describes his art now as “all inclusive,” he says that now it is more like he is, “riding the wave of art rather than it riding him.”

I believe Jerry could never have begun to birth his art from a free and unconditioned soul had he not engaged the process of confronting, bringing to consciousness, his “narrow confinement in the self” and letting go (a process that took 15 years) of the conditioning that was his life in N.Y.

Many of us may have moments when we wake up to the true essence of ourselves and seem to be able to let go of all the rules, the limitations, the judgments, the interpretations, and the expectations that control and determine how we experience life. In these moments of epiphany, we see ourselves with utter clarity and our awareness is expanded-we are able to sense the movements of the trees, actually feel the joy of the birds singing and flying, and the beautiful formation of the clouds, and we FEEL a part of it all. At these times, we believe we can now change the way we experience life.

These moments may become a day and maybe even a week, but soon the experience fades, as we are unable to sustain this level of unconditioned awareness.

Jerry Wennstrom’s experience and his life are extraordinary. Jerry is capable of sustaining and living within thisunconditioned awareness that I speak of – he is living and breathing with the mystery.

—Adrianne Ahern, Journal Windansea

about the author

Jerry Wennstrom

Jerry Wennstrom was born in New York on January 13, 1950. "I don't have much of an impressive bio," he admits. "All I could do was paint, and because there was nothing else that I could do very well, painting was what I most identified with as a human being. It didn't hold though, did it? I let it all go, became nothing, and found everything."

Jerry was trained in art, however. "I went to school for three years at Rockland Community College and the State University of New Paltz, both in New York. The one teacher who believed in me and saw how committed I was as an artist said to me, 'What are you doing here? Why don't you just go out and do it?' He said the one thing that I knew I needed to do, but was afraid to. Even though I had almost completed my degree program, when he said this to me, I walked straight out the door, never to return. I do have an A.A. degree, for those interested in my minimal credentials."

At age 29, he set out to discover the rock-bottom truth of his life. For years he questioned the limits of his creative life as a studio painter. After destroying all of his art and giving away everything he owned, Jerry began a life of unconditional trust, allowing life to provide all that was needed. He lived this way for over 10 years and then moved to the state of Washington, where he married Marilyn Strong and produced a large new body of art. Marilyn and Jerry's charming Whidbey Island home is now filled with his unique sculptures and paintings. He also built a 40-foot meditation tower, the Flaming Stupa, on his property.

An award-winning video of Jerry's life and work, In the Hands of Alchemy, is also available. Jerry can be contacted for film showings, speaking engagements, and workshops with his wife—singer and adult education teacher, Marilyn Strong—through his website, www.handsofalchemy.com.