Friday, April 20, 2012

Hazel Archer at Black Mountain: Discovering the Heart’s Own Interest (1982)

Combine one quarter cup of Che Guevara’s incendiary passion with one quarter of Bucky Fuller’s mental gymnastics and one half cup of Santa Claus’s magical good humor and boundless generosity, stir well, and presto!  You’ve got Hazel Larsen Archer, surely one of history’s unlikely revolutionaries.  White haired and rotund, plainly dressed with just a hint of lipstick to mark formal occasions, she looks benign enough as she moves about her small Santa Fe house in a motorized wheelchair (she was stricken with polio as a young child).  There are no slogans scrawled on her walls, nor any pictures of martyred heroes, in fact, no picture of any kind.  Books and papers, however, are everywhere, and the air about Hazel fairly bristles with her passion for making over the world. 
There’s no doubt about it – Hazel Archer would change things radically.  Though in a very ladylike manner, she would take this country’s institutions by the scruff of the neck and shake them angrily like one might an ill-tempered cat that had just befouled your favorite down pillow.  The institution that is receiving the brunt of her intellectual attack is education, the one she judges as the most stifling and arcane, more responsible than business, religion, or science for our current social miasma.  “Orthodox education,” she says, “despite or perhaps because of, its high intentions, has instilled fear in the whole culture, and it’s the fear of change, of what might happen if we were truly free and spontaneous as children are.  We have become sheep.”

Hazel herself teaches classes of up to 20 students in her home and the subjects are as varied as photography, beginning and advanced Perceptual  Investigation, and geometry based on Buckminster Fuller’s “energetic-synergetic” theories.  They are attended by a small but fanatic following of Santa Fe artists and non-artists.  The intent of the courses is to foster the capacity for what she terms “insight,” the capacity that she believes can, if fully exploited, turn the sheep into lions – creative, and truly responsible individuals and citizens of the world. 

To promote on a broader scale her concern for insight, Hazel has organized Insights into the Future, the Individual in Question, a symposium of like-minded thinkers to be held in Santa Fe from September 22 through 28.  Fuller will deliver the opening and closing addresses at 7:30 p.m. in St. Francis Auditorium.  Ruth Asawa, a San Francisco sculptor and art educator, Carroll Williams of the Anthropology Film Center in Santa Fe, Beaumont Newhall, the noted photographer and historian of photography, Hazel, and others to be announced will lecture or conduct seminars during the week.  Each will be speaking about the process of insight as encountered in their particular field, “where it has surfaced,” she says, “the process, and who brought this process into being.”  All the participants were active in, or influenced by, Black Mountain College, the renowned experimental liberal arts institution in North Carolina which fostered free thinking and original work in all the arts.  Founded in 1933, the list of Black Mountain teachers and students is a veritable Who’s Who of the 20th century avant garde art –Josef Albers, John Cage, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, Fuller, Walter Gropius, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Charles Olsen, Robert Rauschenberg, Jack Tworkov, and Newhall.  The college closed in 1953, but not before making an incredible mark on the culture of our age.  Cage, Cunningham, and Rauschenberg were among those who raised high the roof beams of contemporary art and did so, not by hammering at the doors of accepted aesthetics, but, Hazel believes, by acting with the innate genius of children.

Hazel, who in the spring of 1944 was studying art education at the University of Wisconsin (she was born and raised in Milwaukee), saw a notice in a local newspaper that Josef Albers was offering summer courses at Black Mountain in color, design, painting, and drawing, and she decided to attend.  Though she returned to Wisconsin in the fall and received her degree there, the next nine years of her life were to be spent as a student, administrator, and instructor at Black Mountain.  She credits her years there as being critical in the development of her ideas about education and the nurturing of genius.

On three separate occasions last month, we sat in Hazel’s kitchen, sipping tea and discussing Black Mountain, creativity, genius, and the state of the world.  She speaks slowly and clearly, though when she gets most excited, she leans forward slightly in her wheelchair, and whispers intently.

As has always been the case with her mentor, Fuller (Dymaxion principles, anticipatory design-science, energetic-synergetic geometry, etc.), Hazel’s ideas are essentially quite simple yet expressed in circular waves of thought using precise but, to the uninitiated, esoteric vocabulary.  We began with an attempt to pin down some meanings, and I asked her for a definition of what I hoped was the simplest – insight. 

“It’s closely associated with intuition,” she said patiently, “and with putting that intuition or insight into activity, for which we would then use the word initiative.  But its root, very beautifully, is ‘to gaze upon.’  I have found this to be true in working with very young children and adults.  With my ongoing investigation into geometry, I find that to build a model and to gaze upon it, without saying ‘what does this mean and what am I going to get out of it,’ something comes through.  It is utterly remarkable.  It works.”

Having worked hard for a gentleman’s C in high school geometry, I pressed for clarification. “If you take four tetrahedrons, put them vertex to vertex, point to point, and you look at it and look at it, sometimes for weeks and (whispering, imitating the viewer’s awe at discovery) ‘I never saw it!’ Right in the center of this relationship which is an enlarged tetrahedron, there is another of the prime regular figures, and that’s the octahedron, a spontaneous emergence of another figure which surprisingly and very beautifully is one of the five polyhedra that Plato named, that have been with us ever since and no one has ever discovered any beyond five, which is a question in itself.  Are there only five, or are we blind?

“I still don’t get it,” I admitted, beginning to feel bewildered.

“Don’t worry,” she said.  “I’ve had people who have been in my other classes --photography and perception and a design class – and the last class anyone wants to take is geometry.  There’s so much resistance to it.  It doesn’t help to tell them that it’s not hard.  That’s one of the things I’ve discovered about education, telling doesn’t’ work.  There’s a way . . . Poets tell something, but they don’t do it with the intent of improving someone.  It’s something they’re expressing out of their own experience.  In orthodox education, telling directed toward improvement – always with high intention, but that in itself seems to get in the way of insight.  ‘You don’t know this, so I’m here devoting myself to you.’  But exposure of the same material by someone who is excited about it does wonders.  Then there’s a connection.  And this is one of the beautiful things that happened at Black Mountain College.  The faculty that was there offered material they were interested in, and if someone asked them a question they would talk about it.”

That started to ring some familiar bells in my head.  I remembered instances in my own education, college in particular, when the learning was rote and devoid of any sense of surprise – the Shakespeare course in which we were graded on our ability to memorize soliloquies being the most ‘memorable’ example.  I didn’t rebel until my last year when I refused to review four years of material in preparation for literature comprehensive exams.  By accident, I guess, I stumbled upon the criticism of Northrop Frye, who pioneered the analysis of literature from the standpoint of archetypes, reread a couple of novels by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and invented a way to answer every test question based on the reading that had interested me.  To my surprise and the college’s credit, my grade of Distinguished was the highest in the class.

 It was a lesson that has to be reinforced periodically, as it was recently in reading about John Cage, Black, Mountain alumnus, in Calvin Tomkins’ wonderful book, The Bride and the Bachelor, (Viking Compass).  In recounting a college experience similar to my own, Cage said, “I went to the library and read other things that had nothing to do with the assignment, and approached the exam with that sort of preparation.  I got an A.  I deduced that if I could do something so perverse and get away with it, the whole system must be wrong and I wouldn’t pay attention to it from then on. “ The resultant freedom induced by such a realization led to his revolutionary music composed with the aid of such ‘chancy’ tools as the I Ching.  As quoted by Tomkins, Cage’s purpose in composing music was “purposeless play.  The play, however, is an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order to chaos or suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one lets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”

Traditional education, Hazel believes, has been strangled by its dependence on the known.  Though in art schools in particular we are encouraged to be original or creatively different, the emphasis on what has already been done, the works of the masters, rather than on the process that led to the creation of the work.  “We find that these people [the great artists and achievers such as da Vinci, Bach, and Einstein whom Hazel thinks of as High Humanitarians]  had little or no exposure to any kind of traditional, orthodox education during their young years.  Sometimes the child was so frail that he couldn’t go to school, or the nature of the father’s work was such that the family was uprooted every couple of months.  Sometimes the child was considered a dunce, an imbecile that it was such a terrible thing for the child to experience that the parents didn’t force him to go to school or wouldn’t take him.  So the child, left on his own, begins to develop some kind of exploration which is self-directed by his curiosity, and firsthand experience.  He does something and finds out what happens when he does it.  That is dramatically different from being told how everything works.  Even in art school, we trick ourselves into thinking that we are originating our own paintings, but it is coming out of the already established known of the painter.”

Though Hazel herself is too modest to put herself in the company of the High Humanitarians, she believes that, at least in part, her capacity for insight was fostered by a long absence from the framework of orthodox education.  Her childhood was normal until, at the age of ten, she was suddenly unable to walk.  She was bedridden for three years with what was eventually diagnosed as polio.  She read all the time.  “I never minded it,” she remembered with a smile, “never thought about it until much later when I got involved with these questions of perception.  Sometimes life picks us up by the scruff of the neck and gives us a shake, and we’re off, temporarily, the merry-go-round of living.”

Others are able to get off the merry-go-round by making conscious decisions to do so.  In her studies of the geniuses and discoverers, she found that she often went through what she terms “time-out periods.”  Fuller went into a two year period of silence.  Martin Buber, in the midst of translating the Bible, editing a Zionist newspaper, teaching and working on several books, suddenly stopped and entered a Hadassah retreat where he stayed for five years.  “Vacations or weekends aren’t enough,“ she maintains.  “These people begin to look more and more like fountains, and I see it very much related to those time-out periods.  They’ve tapped something of tremendous importance educationally.’

Going on a long retreat is hardly a vacation.  It is not a matter of ‘checking out’ or doing nothing.  “It’s working with purposelessness,” Hazel says, echoing the thought of John Cage quoted earlier.  “It isn’t waiting around for something to clunk you on the head.  It’s hard work, but it’s work that doesn’t have the carrot before your nose all the time.

“History’s most creative and inspired people worked like children most of their lives.  If you simply watch what a child is doing, without judgment, you see they go ahead with supreme confidence.  They don’t know the word faith, but they are led by curiosity.  Until it is atrophied through our cultural ways, curiosity is a driving force.  The High Humanitarians, because they were not subject to orthodox schools, were able to answer to that beautiful capacity that we have.  The overwhelming drive is to find out.”

How do we foster curiosity and avoid stifling the urge to “find out?”  Hazel believes the Black Mountain approach, which she has incorporated into her own teaching techniques, is a solution.  She uses Josef Albers, who has been referred to as the “Rector of Black Mountain,” to illustrate:  “His color course really had to do with one’s own finding of how color works, watching it work,’ she says.  “We’ve been given the names of colors, the primary colors, the tertiary colors, the color wheel, so we accept that.  We start with the known.  He made his students find out for themselves how colors relate.  In doing exercises, which were always changing, in seeing what happens when I put this color next to this, take another color, and suddenly they’re not the same colors you had to begin with.  What happened?  He was a magnificent teacher, but a taskmaster.  You couldn’t do sloppy work, one had to be articulate and clear.  He encouraged a constant watching, observing without saying anything about it, so that something can surface from whatever it is we’re looking at.  It goes back to the root of insight, which is to ‘gaze upon.’”

Hazel’s own photographs taken at Black Mountain are insightful and revealing of their subjects.  The playfulness of Rauschenberg, Cunningham’s flying leg, the childlike, total absorption of Fuller in his studio –they all speak in their own way about creativity.  The portrait of Albers  (see cover), the stern and aloof Bauhaus Burgermeister, so determined and dedicated, is most remarkable  in those upturned eyes which are soft and sad.  In them, and in the set of the mouth, we can gain our own insight into the human price one genius paid for his single-minded dedication.

But what of the future?  What can the example and teachings of Black Mountain and of a woman like Hazel Archer, do to stem the threat of nuclear annihilation, our world’s continued disregard for the sanctity of life, and the development of true human potential?  Half joking, I asked her what she would do if she were President of the United States?  In a long, rambling discourse, she recounted much of the material we had been discussing about insight, following the example of the High Humanitarians, before finally getting down to what she believes is the crux of our problem:  “The only hope is the child.  We must very carefully look at the way we expose the child to the world.  This intimately relates then to a learning process.  What we do, through the way we work with this child, is give the child attitudes, not only about himself, but his parents, his country, another country.  What did the astronaut say when Columbia landed recently, on the 4th of July?  ‘This is the greatest country in the world, we are the greatest people.’  The child is given a fictitious indication of what the world is and what he is to become, and this is all through traditional education . . . It creates a tremendous separateness.  It’s as if we need to be led by a child, simply because the child’s processes are so clear and are that totally of the genius, those people who discovered their heart’s own interest and spent their whole life developing interest.”

Ruled by what is an aberrant Puritan ethic, many regard such ideas as hedonistic, self-indulgent, irresponsible, and potentially disastrous.  Hazel’s inquiries into the lives and thoughts of the High Humanitarians – from Christ and the Buddha through Plato, Bach, and Fuller – have led her to believe otherwise:  “They are inadvertent humanitarians, because their work is not confined to one country, one nation.  Sometimes I call them the spiritual architects of the ascent of man.  There is no sense of separateness.  I don’t think there’s any hope for the planet unless we come to realize that what we want for ourselves , we want for everyone else, instead of this game of musical chairs, who’s going to end up with the one chair because of armament, how much wheat or oil you have.  It’s inconsistent that we wouldn’t want for every child what we want for our own.

“But back to if I were President.  Some of the dilemma of the human condition is we don’t know our function as human beings.  If everyone were paid to do whatever they wanted to do, nourished by a few thoughtful people who also discovered their heart’s own interest . . . that gets contagious and we wouldn’t have to worry.  No one destroys anyone else.  To be with a group of individuals who are exploring is a beautiful way to live.

“When a child emerges from one of these periods of zeroing in on something, it’s like they’re waking up.  They look as if they’ve been washed.  It’s as if there is an inner illumination.  But as a by-product, they also become considerate and aware of things they weren’t aware of before.  You can’t force that, but given the opportunity, encouraging it indirectly, it happens.  Consideration is a by-product of interest and involvement.  Interest is magic.”

To paraphrase Rauschenberg, art isn’t anywhere near as interesting as life.

Stephen Parks, September, 1982

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