For five decades, California painter and sculptor Feldsott has astounded audiences. Whether it be through his innovative approach to melding fine and street art in his early years, his ongoing rejection of the commercial-centric nature of the art world, and the irrefutable spiritual nature of his works taken from his years of study and practice with Indiginous healers his work embodies the unspoken energies that surround us. Examining his prestigious career that has produced, and continues to produce, an immense body of work, we witness Feldsott’s ability to encapsulate his core artistic belief, that art can heal.
Feldsott took the time to share his thoughts on his prolific practice in the wake of his latest exhibition. Howls That Wake Us in the Night presented at Amelie A. Wallace Gallery at SUNY College at Old Westbury in New York from September 8 through October 21, 2022. A collection of mixed media works spanning decades of his career come together in his signature aesthetic asking us to wake up to the realities of our time.
An Energy of Authenticity
Feldsott’s artistic practice exists at the convergence of the old and the new. The entirety of his career has been the development of his own distinctive visual language that draws from ancient cultures, his international experiences, and the weight of modernity to bring the concept of energy into a physical, tangible, visual form. Feldsott proves that energy is biological, emotional, and even cultural. These sensations vibrate throughout the ages allowing us to strip away the problems of our modern world to reveal a deeper understanding of an authentic self.
TM: You have had an incredibly prolific and prestigious career as an artist. To begin, as an introduction to our readers, can you tell us more about your style in your own words?
FELDSOTT: I’m not sure if I would say prestigious (that might be a stretch), but I’ve had a prolific career and I feel blessed by that. I don’t really have a style; that’s not really what my work is about. There has been a lifelong attempt by myself as an artist to penetrate into the energetics of the primordial world, and with alchemy and hard work, I’ve tried to transmute those energies into a visual language and iconography which I’ve explored for fifty years now. Stylistic aspects of the art don’t really interest me very much. I want my work to be true to those energetics that I feel and experience and explore, and if the piece of art that I create embodies or transmits those energies that I create, I feel that that’s a successful piece of artwork.
TM: A key component of your biography is that for more than two decades you have worked as a traditional healer and activist learning and practicing alongside Indigenous communities around the world. Can you share more with us about what this work and these experiences mean to you and how it informs your artistic practice?
FELDSOTT: I was fortunate enough to work on environmental issues with Indiginous communities mostly in Latin America. The working relationships with these communities, examining the issues that impacted their lives, land, and cultures helped me understand how these issues and cultural trajectories affect all of us. We’re all connected. What happens to the people in Amazonia or Latin America is a canary in the coal mine for all of us. Right now our culture is maybe a bit inflated from these things because of our wealth and our way of life. As Covid showed us, that way of life is only one episode away from crumbling or dismantling.
The work that I did supporting these people in their struggles was deeply inspirational and meaningful to me. It led me to being invited into communities to participate in certain kinds of traditional healthcare practices that they use to keep themselves healthy long before the advent of Western medicine and colonization, so these healing practices are quite ancient. They transformed me. In a way, I think they helped me deepen myself and remove certain obstacles that were in the way of me being honestly and authentically who I am. That work has continued, so my life has been one of service to working with the sick and people who are suffering, whether that be Indinginous people or Western people, to me it’s all the same. I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to live a life that’s embedded in being able to make art throughout my entire life and be of service to people.
TM: When discussing your work, there is often a larger conversation about how you depict the psyche. What do you feel that we can learn from these investigations of the psyche?
FELDSOTT: Human beings and human consciousness are quite complex, and contain a variety of energetic movements across a broad range. Every human being that I’ve ever encountered holds a complexity and a conflict. Yes, they could be more dominantly choosing or expressing one, let’s say, flavor of energy, but if they speak truthfully and authentically you’ll begin to see that actually they embody the rainbow constellation of all human experience.
My investigation and my artwork touching that primordial is in order to give some kind of visual substance to that complexity, to conflicts, to the fact that all of us, or most of us, want to do good in the world and want to be good and decent people. If we’re honest, we also understand that we are in conflict, and in any given situation we will often have competing thoughts, emotions, feelings. The contrast, for example, between being generous and kind, and then noticing something that is more self-serving or selfish, or greedy can be embodied all in one experience or one transaction. My work tries to give some kind of capacity for all of us to look at that complexity and those conflicts.
Often described as a painter, Feldsott’s exhibition with SUNY consists of nearly 40 mixed media works spanning back to the early 2000s. The exhibition challenges more than our understanding of Feldsott’s career as a painter, but our perception of materiality. As paint transcends its own definition through his incorporation of unorthodox materials, Feldsott creates a disturbance. We are diverted from our understanding of the medium, but with further examination of his compositions, we are diverted from a linear sense of time as we begin to reexamine the contemporary through a lens of greater human history.
TM: Your new exhibition at SUNY is entitled Howls That Wake Us in the Night. Where does this name originate and how does it connect to the body of work presented?
FELDSOTT: It’s actually a funny story. Howls That Wake Us in the Night is a little bit of an inside joke because we happen to live with a couple of wolves. So at the breakfast table, when visitors are here and spend the night, one of the first questions we ask them is: Did the howling wake you in the middle of the night? They’re known to howl at different sounds and things during the night and most people have not been close to or around the sounds of wolves howling, so it can be a little jarring and a little disruptive to one’s sleep.
When we were talking about the show, curator Hyewon Yi was quite interested in exploring the vein of my work that has to do with social justice, war, genocide, and disruption in certain aspects of society. So it came to me that Howls That Wake Us in the Night was an appropriate title. It’s operating on a lot of levels, one being a little family joke, the second being the howls that are disturbing and disruptive and need some kind of attention, and thirdly there is some kind of spirit that I believe is important for all of us to “wake up.” Something needs to wake us up because obviously, we are on a track that does not have a very positive outcome. Many people around the planet are suffering and their situations are growing more dire for a number of reasons. To me, it feels healthy and responsible to wake up to the disruptions and disturbances that are going on around the world and to square up to them in any way that feels meaningful to an individual, in order to make some kind of contribution to help out, to roll up your sleeves, so to speak.
TM: While a sculptor and painter, this exhibition is a collection of your mixed media works. What is the significance of having this solo show dedicated to this medium?
FELDSOTT: My work over fifty years of art making has taken a liberal approach to how to paint and what painting is about. To me, painting is not just a visual art, it is also a physical art. In other words, the paint to me has substance and materiality to it. I’ve always explored in my work the use of other kinds of substances and materials in my paint to enhance the physicality of the material itself and to speak to the physicality of paint. Almost all of my work for years has been mixed media, in the sense that I use anything that is available—industrial materials and organic materials, minerals, rocks, pieces of cloth—to mix into my paint and my materials in order to get that physicality.
TM: The exhibition includes work from different series spanning decades of your career up until your present work. What threads run between these collections of work? What message do you envision these stories coming together to tell?
FELDSOTT: The common thread of my work is this exploration of the deeper energetics of the primordial world and how it impacts us in a contemporary and current way. My work, going back decades, is valid and contemporary in its message and its exploration now because it has always ventured into this primordial space. I’m inviting the viewer to come with me on this journey and to explore this world full of these primordial energies, where violence, hatred, love, passion, and all of these things manifest themselves in the contemporary world. But if you look past these contemporary things, you’ll see the commonality that we have with all people at all times, and that’s where I’m inviting the viewer to come with me there.
Untitled : Complicated, 30 x 22 in
Spells of Luminosity, 2021, Mixed media archival paper, 30 x 22
Breaking the Cycle
The commonality that Feldsott explores in this exhibition, and his larger body of work, is more than our interpersonal connections but a relationship to time itself. Time has an uncanny ability to become cyclical, presenting us with a series of events that repeat themselves throughout history. For Feldsott, understanding the underlying energies provides perspective into dismantling these patterns, an act that each and every one of us has the power to channel.
TM: The premise of the show has been described as telling narratives of trauma and violence in the postcolonial world. In the wake of recent events, spanning back these past few years, how have these narratives shifted and evolved from your perspective? How do we encounter these shifts when viewing your work?
FELDSOTT: I hesitate to use the word narrative. They are an exploration into the deeper substrate of what energetically creates these events in our world. My investigation is not so much into the specificity of events themselves but more into looking through the event that is unfolding in real time and trying to see the energetic architecture underneath it. I believe this is the source of the disruption or conflict. I believe it is in that energetic architecture that the possibility of resolution, healing, and transformation is possible. If you don’t address the underlying substrate of an event then you are doomed to repeat it over and over again.
Of course, we are witnessing now in our lifetime the repetition of certain kinds of tropes and energies; they’re being recycled over and over again resulting in events that are happening daily in our world. I believe it’s important for people to stop and examine the deeper sources of where this is coming from inside our psyches, inside of our DNA, inside of our history. From there, possibly, some kind of thing would be catalyzed to make some kind of shift. I don’t really see that these kinds of events are disconnected. The war in Ukraine is happening, but the energetics behind that war are ancient. I don’t mean the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, specifically, I mean the energetics of power and oppression, violence, ignorance, with one group trying to take over the territory of another. These are ancient stories in our history. That’s where the possibility lies to reform these things.
TM: We commonly see ‘societal healing’ listed among the motivations of your work. Keeping in mind these notions of trauma and violence, do you feel that ‘societal healing’ is still possible in the world today?
FELDSOTT: I’m a little bit reluctant to use that kind of terminology: “societal” and “healing.” I’m just an artist and a healer who decided many years ago that while I believed in many aspects of the revolution, I decided to conduct the revolution one person at a time. I felt that was more appropriate to my means and to my capacities and my energies. After all of these years, I still have the feeling that one person awake, one person lit up, one person passionate and motivated and moving from a good and healthy place, can truly change the world. If my work ignites that kind of passion, curiosity, or energy in somebody, then I feel I’ve had a successful career.
TM: For those who have the opportunity to view Howls That Wake Us in the Night, can you tell us what it is you would like them to take away from viewing these works as they return to their daily lives?
FELDSOTT: As I mentioned earlier, I believe it’s important, both as individuals and as people, that we are awake. That we are responsible and not hiding our heads in the sand. Covid was a great example of this thing that happened and impacted people all over the world and people’s lives were disrupted. It is a great tragedy. People lost their lives and people got sick, and people are still sick, and you get this energy where people just want everything to be normal again. In human nature, there’s always this conflict that change and transformation is uncomfortable, and then we have this other part of ourselves that wants to be comfortable and left alone, and not be bothered by these things. Those kinds of energetics are in competition within all of us, myself included.
I would like it if a viewer left the show feeling more alert, awake, responsible, and that the spirit of being squared up to what is, not some kind of fantasy, imagination, delusion, or just keeping your world a certain way so that you don’t have to feel bothered. I think that at a deeply essential level, all of us are bothered and affected. How can you pretend that the environment and planet isn’t in crisis? Or that many people around the world aren’t in crisis? There are great shortages of food, water, and safe places to live. A life of dignity, peacefulness, and respect is quite remote for many people around the world. I’d like us to be awake to that, to be conscious, to be thinking, to be engaged with that at some level. I’m not telling people what to do. Everybody has to do that in some way that feels honest and congruent with who they are. But I want people to have the experience that I am awake to the world and trying to move through it in a way that is responsible.