During the presentation six artists discussed how notions of spirituality have influenced their work.
Artists included: Mary DeVincentis, Arlene Rush, Martin Dull, Jackie Shatz, Sasha Hallock and myself.
I wanted to share the text from my presentation here for those unable to make the event and who may be interested. . .
Origins of Aspects of the Spiritual in My Work by Paul Behnke
For an Artist Talk with Trans-cen-der Art Group’s Session- September 2018 held at Art During the Occupation Gallery, Bushwick on September 25, 2018, 7 pm.
"...of course to think such things, I have to admit- it isn't very grown-up.
I can't help it. I stayed in this world of childish wonder. I think a lot of
creative people never grow up. I am certain that a real man wouldn't
paint any pictures!...or wonder about the universe...or believe in dreams
...or think that trees sometimes look at him."
“If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.”
― Pier Paolo Pasolini
The idea of spirituality in my work is problematic. Many days I’m unsure if I could be labeled spiritual at all - but it’s where I start.
I was raised in a very fundamentalist religion, in the South. The elders in the Church of Christ did not approve of dancing, smoking or women wearing make-up and we believed that adherents to any other religion were damned to hell forever.
This formed my very early and basic notions of the spiritual and how it interacted in everyday life.
Luckily around the third grade circumstances placed me in a Lutheran school and in between memorizing the catechism I realized there were good people that only worshiped differently. Inadvertently these new, friends and teachers sowed the seeds of doubt that grow larger the older I get.
The Lutheran faith revealed there was more to life than unadorned churches and grape juice substituted for the blood of Christ.
But a long while lay in between indoctrination and a coming to terms with new ideas of spirituality that would, sort of, work for me for awhile.
In the meantime I remembered…
As a child (maybe 4) I was afraid to fall asleep at night without saying my prayers – I was told by someone or conjured a worry that if I died in my sleep without saying my prayers the Devil would take me to Hell. So I made sure to fall asleep exactly in the center of my bed so that it would be harder for Satan to reach me from under the bed and snatch me away should I forget my prayers and die during the night.
And many nights during my parent’s divorce I woke and saw the soft, glowing outlines of people and animals in my room – moving around, watching me. They scared me and I believed they were dead relatives or people I’d yet to meet or angels or aliens. It was many years before I read Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks and found out that I was experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations.
In the mornings before school in the first grade I watched The Real McCoy’s and Popeye. And would only eat honey for breakfast to be like Winnie the Pooh.
But I was Zorro and Heath Barkley and Superman when I got home in the afternoon.
In my grandmother’s house the Ouija Board was not a Parker Brothers game. When my grandmother and aunt used it it was to try to communicate with the dead or angels. And I sat in the dark and watched them many nights and tried to make sense of what they were asking and who was answering. Sometimes the spirit in the board called my mother bad names when she touched the planchette.
My grandmother told me often about my uncle; a boy of 14 who loved Jesus, and how his friends said his spirit appeared to them in their bedrooms the night he died. And how my aunt, only 16 herself, once spied his ghost shimmering across the street from their house late one night.
My grandmother read aloud from the Bible every night for hours and I listened a lot unless Starsky and Hutch or Fantasy Island was on TV.
The first art I remember seeing was the Old Master illustrations in my grandmother’s oversize bible. And there were religious pictures on every wall with the stigmata painted over- by her- with left over paint by numbers colors. She said she couldn’t stand to see Jesus hurt and in pain.
In the fourth grade a little girl in my class got leukemia. I felt great empathy for her and used to sit with her at recess when she felt too queasy to be up and around. Soon she stopped coming to school all together and I prayed for her a lot.
Later I immersed myself in pop culture and devoured the pseudo spirituality of books my mom brought home. Books like Yoga Youth and Reincarnation by Jess Stern, Seth Speaks, Autobiography of a Yogi, anything by Edgar Cayce and anything Sci-fi.
Then just after I graduated from High School my best friend (an atheist and a good artist and singer) killed himself. I felt his presence with me all the time then and dreamed about him constantly.
It was around this time that I began to hear voices call my name when on the verge of falling asleep and upon waking. I wondered if it were he trying to communicate with me. I was very cloudy then, and again, I had yet to read Sachs.
I began to stay up all night watching old black and white movies and I learned the difference between Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler, Clark Gable and Alan Ladd.
I began to learn more, and to remember what I already learned, about morality and integrity from Humphrey Bogart, after school westerns, Gary Cooper, Frank Capra and Captain Kirk.
I never had to sleep and Biblical parables were quickly replaced by Technicolor cliffhangers.
As an early teen, ideas of Christianity, reincarnation and world religions mingled with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories of Carson Napier and all sorts of new gods from Vincent Van Gogh and Jack Kirby to Sydney Carton and Gulley Jimson.
So that initial indoctrination with rigid ideas of spirituality and religion has never fully left me. And I’m still in love with the stirring, passionate imagery of St George and the Dragon or the Supper at Emmaus and so many more saints, martyrs and examples of monastic attitudes from Fra Angelico to the austere, Modernist examples of Georges Rouault and Bram van Velde.
But for a child born into the murky superstitious South in the mid 1960s it is impossible to stay good and pure.
Pop Culture and lowbrow imagery is too strong a force. It seeps into and co-mingles with notions of Christianity so that the Samaritan becomes Hawkeye Pierce and Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith is Christ driving the moneychangers from the temple. Relics of the saints meld with Steve Austin’s bionic eye and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight is my Ecce Homo.
All this and more - everything else, everything else(!) becomes devotion.
This ball of confusion is the spirituality that informs, dictates and drives me and by no faint extension- drives my painting.