I met up with Fred Fowler in his woodland cabin. Fred’s a tall, wispy-bearded guy from Ohio. He’s lived in Alaska for ten years. You won’t find Fred on the Internet — he doesn’t believe in TV, phones or electricity. Fred makes jewelry and sells it in the town stores. Around his cabin there are hundreds of plaster and rubber casts as well as scattered design sketches and jewelry ideas. An ancient wood stove boils up some Earl Grey beneath a festive display of occasionally dripping long johns.
“Busy hands are nature’s way, my man,” says Fred. “Ever see kids madly colouring? Gradually the kids get converted to religious consumerism. Path of least resistance. Canned entertainment equals the junk life.” Fred looks out his window and points to the whitecaps on Chilkat Inlet. I go to make a remark about winter coming but Fred starts up again. “Rather pay to be entertained than entertain yourself. Rather consume other people’s stuff than create your own — and maybe see yourself fail.”
Fred strains a thick wad of special tea for himself. “It’s Yerba Mate,” he says, “gives a buzz.” He sucks it up through a silver straw. “Conforming religious consumers are suspicious of creators,” he goes on. It’s like he’s reading from the Fred Fowler Manifesto. “They don’t like it that we give our time to something other than consuming. They’d rather you came down to the Golden Nugget to watch TV games. No private effort in that establishment. It’s groupie-ism at its worst. Being on your own as a creator equals satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. But the creative path is definitely the one less traveled. We could end up with a world where no one knows how to make beautiful things. All done by machines. Managed mayhem taking over, death video and — V.V.V.’ — that’s Virtual Visual Violence, my man. Simulated killing equals more bloody bloodshed. Private creativity? — getting more impossible daily, my man. Media pollution is the next frontier.”
As it’s getting dark I borrow Fred’s flashlight. “Follow my owl,” says Fred. His Husky comes along, then, halfway out of Fred’s forest, she abandons me. “Here Bunny,” I hear Fred calling. Odd name for a big dog, I’m thinking. When I finally turn the ignition key on my borrowed truck, I’m suddenly surrounded by something like Led Zeppelin. I take a minute to warm up and then I head for the bright lights.
PS: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” (The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost)
Esoterica: With a population of 2800, Haines, Alaska has more than its fair share of private creators. Wood, bone and stone carvers, sculptors, painters, weavers, quilters, jewelers, leatherworkers and other more esoteric arts. Most of the galleries and other outlets are closed for the winter. In the meantime, like many of us, they burn the midnight oil, keep warm, congratulate themselves on their lifestyle, and wait for their cruise-ships to come in.
by Len Sodenkamp, Boise, ID, USA
Fred represents the creative mind at the height of awareness. Were it not for something called fear and lack, all frustrated artists would be Fred’s neighbors. I know I would be. My hat is off to him — my artist friend. At 56 years I have with great effort learned that fear, lack and limitation is a state of mind. So long as a person dwells there the later will be the experience. You are right Fred, as a society we have become lost in a sea of mind numbing media. Next week marks the insane start of the Christmas buying frenzy. Mass-produced jewelry, what a waste of precious metal and stones. It is all about the gift, not the giving. Creating a one of a kind object of beauty, something that you pull from deep inside, and then gift that to a loved one is what this artist lives for. Sure we need to be compensated for our work but that moment of giving is really what it is all about. This is true abundance.
Respect for consumers
by Laura Reilly, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
I too am a creator, but not anti-consumer. Where would Fred and all the rest of us creative types be, without the buyers in the shops where we sell our wares? I love my work, my path, my creative life — and I treasure and respect the wonderful people who support me financially by purchasing my output — and make it possible for me to continue to develop my artistic voice. Without them, I would not be able to live the life I do, and would not have been able to become the artist I am today — the financial need to support myself and my family would have made it impossible.
Artists can effect change
by Dave Reeves, Quispamsis, NB, Canada
Our son is 21 years old and looking long and hard at our society to try to find his own place. He would have much in common philosophically with Fred Fowler, but rather than opt out, he seems more bent on activism. What gets me about those that “congratulate themselves on their lifestyle, and wait for their cruise ships to come in” is that they condemn much that is truly wrong but opt out of any effort to make change from within, while at the same time existing on the fringe benefits of that same society. Artists have in the past and still can, take positions and make statements that effect change.
Fortunate Fred Fowler
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
Perhaps the vista out of Fred Fowler’s cabin window is spectacular, but the corn and soy fields of rural Pennsylvania that surround me produce food for the world’s starving and feed grain for animals which will land on my dinning room table. Fowler may be right about entertaining one’s self. I grew up in post World War II without television. We were poor, but thankfully my father succeeded in his career and my family lead a comfortable life. But that didn’t hamper my desire to create my own junk, which I’m rather proud of. Fowler’s attitude toward the pitiful one-armed bandit players at the Golden Nugget only illustrates how fortunate he is. He’s got an outlet for his energy, while they don’t. Fowler should come off the mountain and put his energy to good use and try to change the Junk World. Now that would be creative.
Thoughts on the uncomplicated life
by Odette Nicholson, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
Moving house recently, downsizing from bungalow to slightly smaller bungalow. One child launched off in the world, one still at home. Life is less complicated. It occurred to me that most of the stuff we moved does not belong to me personally, rather it’s the mechanical workings of family life ‘necessities’. Could I walk away like Jane Siberry, sell off possessions, live out of a backpack to follow my creativity? Or like Fred Fowler, remote and nearly the opposite of society? Someone bought or received Jane’s stuff and the stuff I took to the Sally Ann will find a home and the money from the sales benefit charity. Fred expects people to consume his jewelry and I do sell my art. So, how much stuff is enough, who owns what and why? Everything comes and goes somewhere. There is no absolute pure way of divesting oneself of contemporary life. The future has already arrived, pollution in all ways is everywhere and this makes me sad and also happy because it is demanding that creativity be upon us in ways we never expected. We will have to do as our grandparents did, save that bit of string and do something new with it. Humans innately crave problem-solving activity. Fred speaks of getting back to self-sufficiency as the root of our nature, and I agree.
Becoming one with creation
by Gene Black, Anniston, AL, USA
I have discovered for myself one of Mr Fowler’s tenets. I have slowly eliminated most television from my daily schedule. I no longer crave the things that “Madison Avenue” want me to crave. Things of beauty, like a flower or a tree or even a delicately graceful insect are far more interesting to view. My current big “consumer” items are art supplies. I then am able to create more so it is not wasted consumerism. I also love what Mr. Fowler said about children “coloring madly.” Children remind us of our ability to step outside of ourselves and go with the creative moment. When I am painting “madly” I forget all time and other obligations. I create, therefore I am. And while creation gives me “being” it also lets me escape from “being” in another sense. I cease to be my petty, mortal self and I become one with creation. What a glorious paradox! Joy is the most amazing by-product of creation and creating. I challenge all of our readers to create and find that marvelous place where they “are” and yet “are not.”
by Brett Busang, Washington, DC, USA
Anybody who fights the urge to sit around and goo at the television set sits squarely in my own camp — though I have been known to do a bit of this myself. On the other hand, you do run the risk of marginalizing your creator-heroes by letting them — or him, in this case — rant about a society that is afraid of them. The culprit is not fear, but complacency and indifference. The flight from rugged independence to indolent consumerism is one that began the moment people started arriving on our then-hostile shores from Europe. While the first generation toiled in field or bay, and the second paved roads and built houses, the third began to wonder what those houses would look like with “cool” stuff in them. And so the flight began. The real conundrum is to try to maintain a balance between creativity and comfort. Few artists these days live on the cheap — at least in the way our bohemian forefathers did. Most, in fact, hold other jobs. It is fairly expensive to be creative these days. Ensconced by his (or her) rental digs or fixer-upper, your average artist is awash in material objects. Most of these things have to be bought. In order to do this, the artist has to develop a practical streak that would make an accountant blush. The artist-as-renegade myth is, by and large, obsolete. I realize rural Canada is a different place than my adopted city of Washington, DC, but you can’t live anywhere on nothing. The subject of your letter must make money selling his work. In order to do this, he has to be part of a community. Some people have to like him, even if they may be a little bit “concerned” about him and his peculiar ways. Maintaining the necessary independence to leave the madding crowd for a time — but to also re-awaken the social being that must interact with people whose conventional assumptions he or she rejects — is an absolute necessity for any free person. The ideal is to foster not isolation, but connectedness. Art of any kind must affirm human values — even if these values are often put aside in the pursuit of comfort. In this regard, artists provide a necessary function, which is to remind people that they have the creative potential in themselves and, by extension, the gumption not to depend on others to provide it for them.
Lost in the moment
by Scott Pynn, St. John, NB, Canada
Busy hands truly are nature’s way, picturing a child coloring madly, unaware of why he is doing it but extracting great joy in every wild stroke. That brings me back to a time long ago when the child was me. On rainy days sitting down at the kitchen table amongst stacks of paper and jars of pens and crayons, the black crayon always shorter than the rest. I would sit for hours surrounded by the aroma of my grandmother’s homemade bread and get lost in my efforts to create. It was a time when I gave no thought to whether or not I would make any money from my creations and I certainly never cared if my little masterpieces were “museum quality” because I knew they would be hung on the greatest place of all, the refrigerator door. I am sure this brings back fond memories for a lot of artists, creating art for arts sake, ideas coming effortlessly and getting lost in the moment. Every now and then when I’m painting I forget about all the craziness in the world and go back to that place. The best art is created here and I get butterflies when I look up at the clock and see that hours have past in the blink of an eye, but then I snap out of it and realize that I have to go to the store and pick up some more black paint.
Don’t need stuff anymore
by James Gielfeldt, Welland, ON, Canada
I have been lamenting the consumerism of this country and society in general of late. I wonder how we as a society can continue on this path. There is so much joy and a true feeling of self-gratification in creating. Whether it is something that will sell or not is of no concern to me. More and more we are lining the pockets of a few large corporation leaders and frankly it sickens me. The best thing I ever did was that a few years ago I had enough of wanting what others had and what I couldn’t afford. I gave my notice to my landlord, I found and rented a room and I piled all my belongings except very personal items, clothing and my art supplies on the curb. That was fun watching all the neighborhood vultures come and pick through my stuff — more power to them. I then began on a more creative path. It ended in my landing a job teaching at the local college in the art and design program. Now I have a new family and have of course gathered the requisite material possessions but I let my wife worry about that stuff. I don’t seem to need those things anymore.
Playing the hermit in NY
by Angela Wallis, NYC, NY, USA
Living in New York, which surely must be the consumer capital of the world, has made me very anti-materialism/consumerism. There’s no doubt that it sucks you in initially, but after a while you realize that we’ve lost track of what’s really important and how it eats away at creativity — why bother when it’s all on your doorstep. Keeping my head down in the studio is the only way to keep and preserve creative energy (and sanity). Still, maybe it’s because it is all just out there that I can enjoy playing the hermit. By the way, every Friday night we go to our local Argentinian restaurant and have Yerba!
Lots of ways to be
by Nick Farbacher, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
We are living in an age of perception. We “think we know something,” media is a control and nothing is kept long. Value is fleeting. Rejection for creatives is as real as joy of a sale. All this is to say the “hermit creative” stays focused. It’s a bit hash, as the snow flies, but it’s his life. On the other hand “creative” is a social business. Sergeant played that card. It’s “give-um what they want,” Kinkade knows that. Lot’s of husbands “subsidize” painters — look at art clubs, museums, and galleries. It’s not easy, if you choose to seriously make art your life. Faith in something more is helpful and then there is always “peanut butter and jelly” lots of “peanut butter and jelly.” But I can say and show my art, I’m an artist, I’m different, I’m making something I think is beautiful and that’s a gift. I give it away, I sell it sometimes but most of all it’s the heart and soul of me. I can express what I feel, salute what I see, it’s right there, in oil forever and you know what my comments on life in oil are in some living rooms and offices and dining rooms and that’s a kick. Yes, I mostly paint alone, I know the “hermit creative,” — it’s his life, his way, and it’s only one way. There are lots of ways.
Long live Anders Zorn
by Bo Fransson, Kivik, Sweden
It’s nice to hear that Zorn is still “alive”! He, Carl Larsson and Bruno Liljefors (wildlife artist) are possibly our best known artists from Sweden. I’ve always enjoyed Zorn but he is not highly regarded in the “art community” nowadays. (Sometimes you wonder who is really!) His best works in my mind are the watercolors he did from the port of Hamburg, and the etchings. There are many stories about him and his bold lifestyle. My favorite is when a reporter interviewed one of his models, many years after his death, and asked, “How was Zorn?” She replied in one word: “Heavy.”
Painter’s Keys badge update
by Teresa Fletcher, Invermere, BC, Canada
As usual on a Friday morning, I eagerly check my email for your letter (the only one I subscribe to). As I was doing so, the thought popped into my mind that I think of myself as an Rgennian (pronounced aregenian). Then I read the clickback and Sonja Boyce’s comments — it never ceases to amaze me how like-thoughts are out there and come together by way of this letter. I think the idea of a badge for those of us in the Painter’s Keys Community is a great idea.
(RG note) Thanks, Teresa. And thanks to all who echoed this idea and especially to those that submitted ideas and designs. Several readers sent us a picture of a brush with keys hanging from it. Two others suggested a key with brushes hanging. There were lots of suggestions. We are considering them all. At this point we feel that the best would be a small, quality-made badge. We are thinking enamel inlay or cloisonné. We’ll keep you informed as we move toward a decision.
Bald Eagle update
by Stefanie Graves, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
According to the National Wildlife Federation there are 5,800 mating pairs of Bald Eagles as of 1999 in the lower 48 States, and 16,000 birds have been counted in the wild. Your readers may also want to check out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website for more information as to the Bald Eagle’s decline into the endangered status. They have oversight for endangered and threatened species. The Bald Eagle decline in number was the result of the prolific use of the pesticide DDT, now banned in the U.S., not as a result of killing by Native Americans. To keep things in perspective, the 40 eagles killed by Native Americans, as mentioned by a reader in the last clickback, represents 0.25% of the total population in the wild. That is probably less than the number killed annually by other threats such as lead and mercury poisoning from fish, human encroachment, and collision with high-tension wires.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Paula Timpson who wrote, “To be homeless is to be free.”
And Shirley Hasenyager of Kailua, Hawaii who wrote, “Does anyone else have a problem with Fred Fowler’s reasoning? Creating is satisfying and takes many forms. But whether one designs furniture, a car, jewelry or a painting, we all then wait for that cruise ship to dock and it is still consumerism.”
And also Noel Broomhall of Haifa, Israel who wrote, “It’s so hard to convince people that coloring other people’s “drawings” is anti-creative.”
And Brian-Lee Jones of Cortaro, Arizona who wrote, “Funny, I was just chatting with my accountant about a similar topic. She loves what she does. Creativity in her field is called ’embezzling.’ ”
And also James Culleton of Montreal, Quebec who wrote, “Mr. Fowler’s anti-consumerism stance is strange, considering he makes objects for people to buy.”
And Jill Paris Rody of Campbell River, British Columbia who wrote, “To read about Fred Fowler, I find myself reveling in the Artist’s Life all over again.”
And also Kelly Borsheim of Cedar Creek, Texas who wrote, “It sounds as though Fred Fowler can describe those things well enough to know why he chooses to avoid them wherever possible (flashlights aside). People always justify their own behavior and life choices. At least he is curious enough to find out a little something about that which he is condemning. Aren’t we all funny?”