The Hollow Bone, An Interview with Robert King
I was thrilled when Jan Dworkin, my partner and main muse, asked if she could interview me about my artwork for this issue of the Journal of Process Oriented Psychology, since the theme of Spirit and Essence accurately expresses the qualities I have been seeking to unite in my artwork. Jan has known me for seventeen years and I remember showing her some of my spontaneous drawings back in 1984 when we first became friends. At that time, I felt that Jan could connect with and relate to my work on a deep level, even though the images coming out of my unconscious were both surreal and disturbing. Her ability to affirm me as an artist has been crucial in my development. She is a painter, which means she can not only appreciate my work, but also challenge me in constructive ways. Jan is also an artist with words and I appreciate her help in creating this structure for me to express my experiences. This was indeed, a creative collaboration.
JAN— When I look at your drawings, they speak to something so deep I am unable to put my experience into words. They take me somewhere I can’t go with concepts. Your work seems to arise from that place of unbroken wholeness Arny Mindell refers to as the sentient realm. I’d love to talk to you about your artwork, what you do and how you have gotten there. Let’s start with some history. How did you get into art?
ROBERT— It felt like a survival need. As a kid art gave me an outlet to express stuff like violence, weird sexual fantasies, anything that wasn’t what a good boy was supposed to express. I loved comic books, especially Mad Magazine. So I used to copy from comics. I taught myself, just by copying over and over again. Even though I started getting recognition and winning awards throughout my school years, I thought of myself as lucky, a copycat, never as an artist.
JAN— What kinds of images did you draw?
ROBERT— At first a lot of cartoon characters— Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Disney stuff. War comics came later. Soldiers being blown up, tanks, machine guns. In junior high I got into gangsters and god. All the shadowy stuff and spiritual stuff that I wasn’t supposed to be interested in. My parents were concerned. Of course they never saw certain of my drawings. I used to draw my perverted sexual fantasies and then destroy them. I couldn’t go out and buy a Playboy magazine so I drew my own. Then I’d tear the pictures up because I was terrified they’d be found. Except the really good ones—those I’d hide and keep.
As I got older I realized that at the essence of my desire to do those secret drawings was a task: to use my art to shock others awake and disturb the status quo. I want to bring the stuff that usually gets pushed aside out into the world. Today I enjoy sharing those images with you, Jan. I’m getting ready to share them with the world.
JAN— Why didn’t you continue to do art professionally? You have told me that your parents, friends and teachers thought you would become a commercial artist. But you never pursued that as a career track. In retrospect, do you think there was a purpose or significance in choosing a different career that wasn’t apparent at the time?
ROBERT— I can see now that I was trying to protect my art. If I had pursued it back then, I would have used it for commercial purposes and sold out. I wouldn’t have been free to follow the dreaming. Also, working class boys weren’t exactly at home in the art world. I needed to make a living. Commercial art would have been more oriented towards consensus reality and destroyed by inner criticism, or taken over by my mother, who wanted me to be a great success for her, an illustrator for Disney. She wanted me to make a lot of money and buy her a big house and get her out of the working class.
I had to go into psychology first, to work on myself and to work out some of these issues, to get my ego and my self-criticism out of the way. But I may have mistaken psychology for my life path and now slowly I am getting back to the art. I thought psychology was the end and not a means.
As a kid, the art was a refuge. I was keeping it safe from an immense critical voice inside myself who would have taken it over had I gone professional. This way I was free with it. I could draw whatever I wanted.
JAN— So why do you think you gave it up?
ROBERT— At a certain point I couldn’t be a hollow bone. That’s a Native American expression for a clear channel that can connect to the Great Spirit. My ego started getting too much into it, especially when I got a lot of recognition.
JAN— I’ve noticed that you don’t sign your work. Is this connected with the “hollow bone”?
ROBERT— It’s not a conscious choice. I don’t think about it. I just never sign my pictures. It doesn’t feel right. One viewpoint says it is because I don’t appreciate what I am doing. Another viewpoint reminds me that “I” am not doing it.
JAN— What has allowed you to get back to your art at this point in your life?
ROBERT— There was a ten-year break after I graduated from high school when I didn’t draw at all. I studied social work and psychology. Then art came back to me in 1974. At that time I was going through a huge crisis— divorce, living alone for the first time—and I discovered that if I let things draw themselves, images appeared on the page which surprised and disturbed me. They had meaning for me. I discovered my love for drawing the human body. Again, art was a refuge. It sustained me through a tough time and got me in touch with something mysterious, stuff my rational mind could not explain. My drawings brought me to Jung, whom I had previously thought of as a mystic and a kook.
Later on it was you. Your encouraging, challenging, pushing, loving, making room for, supporting, modeling, pursuing your own artistic expressions. All those things rekindled a fire that had almost gone out.
Also doing work for others pulled me back into it. Doing work for Arny Mindell’s The Shaman’s Body, then the Journal of Process Oriented Psychology and Amy Mindell’s book, Coma: A Healing Journey. I could do it for others but I couldn’t do it for myself. Maybe that was the beginning of a pattern: the hollow bone, doing it for something greater than myself.
I have an interesting story to share about that. Remember the day we were hiking in the Wallowa Mountains, following the cougar tracks? This is an obsession of mine, tracking cougars. Crazy! That day we got to a place where we felt the presence of the cougar and got freaked out. I became the cougar and he spoke through me saying that I had to draw every day or he would kill me. That cougar has become one of my biggest allies.
JAN— I remember very well! I’m much more terrified of cougars than you are. So did you follow the cougar’s advice?
ROBERT— It was in 1997. The day after the confrontation with the cougar Amy Mindell asked me to do the drawings for her coma book—I had to do 80 drawings from photographs in two months. I agreed to do that and I had to draw every day for quite a while.
JAN— Has process work played a role in helping you get back to art?
ROBERT— In the first dream I had when I got involved with process work, I saw a Navajo sand painting of a red sun and a green serpent. The serpent’s head was penetrating the sun, like a sperm into an egg. In the dream I was all excited, jumping up and down. Arny Mindell had done the painting and I kept saying, “This is mine, I did one just like it.” At the time, I didn’t see the sand painting as connected with my art but sand painting is a Native American art form also used for healing. Something about my art is a source of healing. I think my deeper myth around process work is connected with healing through art, maybe even more so than being a therapist.
The Tibetans also use sand paintings, but the Navajos use them for healing. Once the painting has served its healing function it is destroyed. I’m not that detached yet. I’m really attached to the work I’ve done recently.
JAN— What are you attached to in your current work?
ROBERT— I keep going back and looking at the drawings as if I can’t believe I’ve drawn them. Did I do that? Yes, I did. But I also didn’t. Something used me as a pencil. Both are true. I find myself continually looking at the work. It’s as if something is trying to reflect on itself. This is Arny’s idea of the mastermind, the universe beholding itself. Something needs to go into a duality to reflect on its essential nature through my eyes. Without that duality there is no possibility for a subject to appreciate an object. If everything is one, there is only immediate experience, only the now. No appreciation, no curiosity. Through the scientist’s eyes, the mastermind is curious about itself; through the artist’s eyes it can appreciate its glory and beauty. The child’s eyes have that special wonder; they can do both.
JAN— Currently you are drawing portraits of Native Americans. Is that a self-reflective process for you?
(Robert answers this question and at this point in the interview a man in the café where we are working trips over my computer cord. The computer gets unplugged and we are afraid that all our work has been lost. Before we know whether or not our work was saved, Robert remarks, “It’s the sand painting. It gets erased.” Indeed, all was saved except the original answer to this question.)
ROBERT— If I were to imagine that I was the guy who tripped over the cord, and ask myself why I would do that, I come up with the following thought: I would want to erase a piece of my ego. How will this interview make me look? Do I have something important to say about art and sentience? I sound so self- indulgent. If I erase that piece of self-importance, I get close to a deeper feeling. When I look at my pictures, it takes me back to my earliest childhood memory—being a little kid awestruck at the sight of the spring sun streaming through the window. When I look at the ocean or the mountains I feel that way. Or when I stare at the agates that I find on the beach.
You know I hunt for agates, it has been an obsession of mine in recent years. When I look at the sunlight illuminating the stones, my heart leaps for joy and I am taught the deepest lessons about life. I remember the time I found the best agate ever—a bunch of them, in fact, and I noticed I wanted more. I became greedy and I criticized myself for that. I thought I should appreciate the gifts I was given from the ocean and not want more. But then, as I grabbed for more agates, suddenly the agates taught me a lesson: I should seize life now, they said. I should grab everything with all I’ve got.
It’s like that when I look at the portraits I’ve drawn of these beautiful Indians. There is a part of me that feels guilty and greedy. I keep wanting to draw more pictures. I feel I am using them to satisfy an obsession. But the agates tell me to continue. To grab it all. To seize the moment and seize the beauty I see. The way their jaws are set, the way their long strands of hair fall down the sides of their heads. The way the skin folds over the bone. The curves of the body. The muscles, the flesh. The deep spirit I see coming through their eyes. It feels as if something that has been ignored and oppressed and devalued by my own people is wanting to be viewed and seen in its shining. It may sound excessively politically correct, but that is what I see with my agate’s eyes. How many White people look at Native people through those eyes? The agate’s eyes want to reflect that vision to the world.
Then my self-importance returns. I sound like I think my work is so beautiful.
JAN— You work from photographs. You mentioned earlier that you criticized yourself for “copying” as a kid. I know for myself as a painter I often criticized myself for working from photos. Have you struggled with that?
ROBERT— That has been one of my biggest obstacles. I sometimes dismiss it as copying. I think of myself as a camera and I might as well take a photograph. But I’ve learned that I capture something of the essence that may not be expressed in photos. Amy Mindell helped me discover that when I did the drawings for the coma book. She said I got the feeling essence of the photos. That moved me to do more of what I am doing now.
JAN— You have been working from these turn of the century Edward Curtis photographs. His photos are controversial; he had his models “pose” as Native Americans in their traditional gear and so forth. In my experience, your drawings bring out something that is not conveyed through the photos. The drawings are so much more powerful, more alive. They affect me profoundly, in a way I cannot put into words.
ROBERT— Yes, the Curtis photographs are controversial. But he did travel all over the country at great expense to himself because he wanted to preserve something he thought was vanishing. Without his photos we would have very little visual record. I have to give him credit for that. But I agree that something is missing from his work that my drawings bring. It’s something alive that doesn’t come across in the photos. Some Native Americans believed that to be photographed steals the soul. Maybe I am helping to recover a little piece of that. The spirit calls me to bring this deeper essence to life so it can be appreciated by others as much as I appreciate it. If I can do that I feel I am doing what the spirit is asking me to do.
JAN— When you say essence, do you mean the “sentient essence,” as Arny talks about it?
ROBERT— Maybe. I see the Native people closer to that world somehow. They believe in the interconnectedness of all things, and that everything has spirit. In the photographs I see this spark, this essence. The photographs are like the base metals and I am trying to bring out the gold, the precious awesome spirit. Yes. I think it is the sentient essence. Because words don’t do it.
My everyday self says I am projecting. I am doing what White people have always done— using Native people for my own needs. And there is some truth to the fact that I need to take back my projections. But there’s something more. That’s not all I’m doing. I’m bringing out something sentient, and on that level, there is no “me” and “them.”
JAN— So you see your art as a political statement?
ROBERT— Yes, it’s a personal stand and a part of my social activism. But primarily it is a sense of beauty I want to convey. Not a sense of outrage or injustice. There are others forms of activism that forward the outrage better. That is not the main intention of my work.
And I don’t want them to have to be noble Indians, all decked out in these stereotypical poses. I also want to draw ordinary regular down-to-earth folks. The beauty is there, too. I am not showing that yet. My next step is to draw that spirit as it is shown in everyday ordinary ways or in ways that may look negative at first.
JAN— You often put weird, seemingly disparate images together in collage form. What is the purpose of collage for you?
ROBERT— That’s where the dreaming comes in. I feel close to the essence and allow these weird images to come forth. Once it’s on the paper it’s more like a dream with figures and parts. The drawing’s language is not linear. I have always loved putting things together that make no logical sense but express the mystery. This surreal style turns me on the most. Putting bodies together with serpents, with trees, with half-human/half-animal mythic images.
JAN— This picture with the young Hopi snake dancer (page 29) has lots of strange images—a naked woman, the head of a raven, a Haida raven dancer, a woman leaping. Does this picture have a title?
ROBERT— “Divine Madness.” It’s about the spirit dancing through the characters in an ecstatic way. The woman leaping. The ravenheaded dancer cradled on a naked woman’s chest. He’s supported by her heart. These images express the great mystery. It’s ridiculous. Insane. Detached. Whimsical. Unconscious. But divine. It is the trickster. It expresses the divine in an ecstatic state. But I still don’t understand what that picture is all about!
JAN— Did you know what you were doing when you put those images together? Did you plan it?
ROBERT— No. I followed it. I never plan. I become that hollow bone. Then one thing leads to another. I have a vague sense and then it takes shape on its own.
JAN— Let’s talk about the drawing you call “The Roots of Self-Reflection.” (See cover art.) When I look at this picture, it puts me into an altered state. It seems to address the theme of this edition of the Journal of Process Oriented Psychology, Spirit and Essence. Can you put into words what this picture is about?
ROBERT— God. To try to put it into words. That’s difficult.
The tree represents the three levels of consciousness that Arny Mindell discussed in his book, Quantum Mind: consensus reality, dreamland and the sentient realm. I identify mostly with the woman looking in the mirror, reflecting on herself and trying to become conscious. In consensus reality she is in danger of becoming narcissistic in her own self-reflection. If she gets too caught up in her individual separate self, it oppresses her indigenous spirit. In that sense, she stands on that spirit as an oppressor. You can see her standing on this figure in the tree.
In dreamland, all the parts of the picture are parts of her. If she goes deeper than consensus reality she experiences herself standing on the roots of a tree. Entangled in the roots is an indigenous spirit, a Native American. He is part of her roots, her lineage, and she is standing on his shoulders in order to get his support and wisdom. His support comes from the sentient realm, the place where all the roots are entwined. If she goes deep enough she can use this indigenous wisdom and guidance in becoming more connected to the sentient world.
In the sentient world, she becomes Nature reflecting on itself. That is why she looks like an earth-mother. She is both Nature and human.
This drawing also addresses the issue I talked about earlier regarding my “career” or noncareer as an artist. It’s connected to the hollow bone. If art becomes a narcissistic issue and I use it to feel special, this oppresses the indigenous spirit in me.
I hate reducing it to words because there is so much in that picture. When you put words on it, it is no longer that sentient essence. That’s why I draw it. It is the best way for me to express my experience of the sentient realm.
JAN— I’m fascinated by your use of color in this drawing. Most of your work is black and white.
ROBERT— Using color is very difficult for me. I tried to bring in color and I thought I had screwed up the drawing. I was so upset I was going to throw it away. But I happened to have a therapy session with Arny Mindell that day so I brought the picture and worked on it with him. I realized of course that the mistake was the secondary thing. The mistake was a very bright orange that didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the picture. The essence of the mistake had to do with letting go, not trying to control my work in service of my perfectionist inner critical voice. I had to bring in my more unfamiliar artist’s temperament. My explosive energy, something that really lets go. When I got into this energy I wanted to rip the drawing to shreds. So I brought that energy back into the use of color. And I’m bringing it more into my work as a therapist and group facilitator.
JAN— Do you always work on your pictures psychologically? Do they give you information for your inner work?
ROBERT— Yes. There is an “I” that develops by identifying with the parts that are in the drawings. The more I can see them as parts of myself, the more I’m aware of, the easier it is to let go and become a vessel for something that is trying to create through me. Then I become the hollow bone. If there is a lot of my own stuff in the way, it clogs up that bone and clouds the agate’s eye. The psychological work is important. It teaches me to get my support and direction from the indigenous part of me. The drawings connect the different worlds. They give me my most basic way of making that connection. At the same time, it is very difficult and important for me to have more ego and feel good about my work. I need to identify with it and value it and appreciate my artistic abilities. Since I think the ego is inferior I know that means I need to pick that up too.
For me a picture can be worked on for years and I always get more out of it. It can be like a childhood dream or chronic symptom— it shows me a long-term pattern. During the process of working on “The Roots of Self-Reflection,” I got in touch with an aspect of myself that I don’t usually identify with—a wild, erratic emotional part of myself which is hugely important to me.
If I only work psychologically it diminishes something. The content of the picture addresses this deeper spiritual process of mine about becoming the empty bone and the agate’s eyes.
JAN— Although your drawings, in the end, say it all, are there any thoughts you’d like to leave us with?
ROBERT— My drawings are not just personal. There is something I want to show others. I must show others. Use my eyes. See what I see. Isn’t this the most amazing, beautiful deep expression of the spirit that you’ve ever seen?
- Drawn from Edward Sheriff Curtis: Visions of A Vanishing Race by Florence Curtis Graybill and Victor Boesen, originally published by Houghton- Mifflin, Boston, Massachusetts Copyright © 1976 by Florence Curtis Graybill and Victor Boesen. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, edition published 2000 by arrangement with Multimedia Product Development, Inc., Chicago, IL.
Jan Dworkin, Ph.D., is a certified process worker living in Portland, Oregon. She works as a teacher, therapist and group facilitator and conducts training workshops internationally. Jan is currently writing a memoir about process work as a spiritual path. She tries to follow the direction of the spirit in whatever she does.
Robert King, M.S.W., is a certified process worker in private practice in Portland, Oregon. He has had extensive training in Gestalt therapy and bienergetic analysis. Robert teaches process work in the USA and internationally. Through art, he both explores the relationship between western psychotherapies, shamanism and eastern spiritual traditions and expresses his madcap love for god.Tags: art, JPOP