At the May 1 opening of my solo exhibition “Healing Hands” at CRS in New York, I was interviewed by Yasuko Kasaki, author, teacher, healer and founder of CRS, in their beautiful, newly renovated studio.
The exhibit consisted of three bodies of work: “Healing Hands”, a series of color drawings based on the hands of the people who do healing work at CRS, “Heads”, larger than life-size portrait drawings, and “Chaos Compositions”, large scale, mostly multi-figure color drawings on black paper. The “Healing Hands” series remains on view at CRS through May 26, while the other two bodies of work were hung in the CRS studio for the opening on May 1 only. CRS Art Gallery Director Satomi Kitahara organized the event. See additional photos of the opening here.
The interview was part of the opening program, to introduce those interested in my artwork to my ideas and process. Just below the next photo is a full transcript of the interview. I have omitted the audience Q and A section to keep this to a reasonable length, but questioners brought up some interesting ideas that will be addressed in this blog soon.
Yasuko Kasaki: We’ve set up this series named Artist’s Way. Do you know the book, The Artist’s Way? Yeah, great book about process and how to progress our creative energy and so on. I’d like to let Fred talk about his secrets and his way of seeing things. First we should start with the Healing Hands, our exhibition. Those are the hands of healers, including mine. We do spiritual healing, and we see so-called energy. Energy is not actually the appropriate word, as a matter of fact. We are not seeing energy, but we see the quality of the spirit and mind and networking and flow, and connection and balance of the mind power or life force, or something like that. While we are doing this kind of healing, Fred, you see us and see something through your eyes. How do you see the energy?
Fred Hatt: Those drawings were mostly done before and after the healing circles that you have here. The various healers that were models for the drawings would sit in meditation, so they were just sitting and focusing their own energy within and I was just sketching.
I have always tried to see the human subject as energy rather than as an object. I don’t claim to have any clairvoyant ability or anything like that, but I have practiced life drawing with devotion and discipline over a long time. I go to two or three life drawing classes with timed poses every week. I’ve been doing that for about fifteen years. I’ve gotten to a level where the response of my hand is very quick. I think that what the lines of the drawing record are the movements of perception. I’m constantly looking, and as the eyes move and see a surface or notice some little thing, there’s a gesture of the hand that goes exactly with that. The closer the link is between the perceiving and the gesture, the more it picks up the energy or the movement of the act of perception. The act of perception is an interactive energetic or spiritual link with the person that I’m looking at. I think that intuitively it really captures something.
I did sketches of the healers’ hands, then later I took them away and did some further work, colors and backgrounds, in my own studio. More imagination comes into that part of it, but that’s also an intuitive response to what I can see from the position of the hands. Every little thing expresses something about the person: the way they choose to show their hands, the way that they’re resting, every little movement – little fidgets and adjustments. All of those things are ways of perceiving some quality of the energy. You start to see things not so much as an object of solid matter, but as something that’s flowing.
YK: I thought figurative painters study anatomy of the muscles and bones, but you don’t see those things?
FH: Well, I do, and I have studied that kind of thing also of course. I’m fascinated with that. But I also thought that’s not the only kind of anatomy there is. I’m self-taught as an artist, so I just looked into anything I thought was interesting and relevant. I learned about different ideas of the energy body, chakras and meridians and auras and all that kind of thing, because those systems are created by people who have focused on understanding the energy flow and the ways that different parts of the body are dynamically related, so there are insights to be had from any of that. But I don’t rigidly follow any of those things. I just take in as much information as possible and then try to respond intuitively in the moment, rather than systematically.
YK: You say moment, but those hands are still, and those faces are still – but not still at all. They are moving, because you are drawing movement. So then, you are drawing and constantly changing, right? So change and movement – you just try to get everything on the paper.
FH: Well, the model is basically still, although a living person is never really still. Even if a model in an art class is trying to sit perfectly still, they’re breathing, the blood is flowing, the mind is working, the nerves are working. There’s a lot of flowing energy going on. There’s also a lot of energy being exchanged between the model and the artist, because for the person posing, when you are being witnessed, when you feel that you are being seen, that really changes your experience. It makes everything you do, it makes your being a communication, a sharing. I think of drawing also as a sharing. I feel like if someone is posing for me, that’s a generous act, letting me really look, letting me try to see as much as I can see of someone. I feel like I have to work as hard as I can, I have to put as much as I can put into it, to honor that. I want that to be a gift back. I think that a lot of artists are making work for the public or the critics or whoever. I always feel like I’m doing it for the models first. I want them to see how I see them. I want it to be a mutual sharing act.
YK: When I saw you for the first time here [at CRS], you were dancing here. [To audience] You know that he is a great dancer, great performer, he is so talented. And among other performers, he is really, I don’t want to use the word outstanding – outstanding too, but I don’t want to compare – but the quality of his performance is a little bit different. Other performers just showed us what they created, and said “See us.” But Fred’s way is “See? Can you see? Let’s see together. You can see this movement, you can see this light, see? It’s beautiful. See? You enjoy this?” Anything he does, his attitude is like that. [back to Fred] So sharing is all the time your core. And the gift is not from me to you, it’s just together. Let’s get this gift. This is your attitude. Great, I think.
FH: Picasso said “Creativity is happiness.” I really believe that.
YK: Can you talk about color? I see color in the energy field. But how do you see these colors? I don’t think you perceive the same color, probably differently.
FH: I don’t take the same approach to color all the time. In some of the heads, the portrait drawings here, if you look at them from a distance the color looks fairly realistic, it looks like skin tone, but if you look close, there are no skin tone colors there. It’s a lot of different colors kind of mixing in the eye. I’m actually trying to capture some sense of the color I see, with the idea that color is a relative rather than an absolute quality. Colors change according to what they’re next to, and the colors of something like human skin are so subtle that if you try to just copy the surface color it’s flat and dead looking, so I’m trying to find those subtle variations. Where the blood is closer to the surface you get pinker tones, for example. That sort of thing gives this feeling of what’s below the surface, the life.
On these larger drawings with the multiple overlapping figures, I use color in a much more abstract way. I should describe the process. I work in my studio with a model. We start out doing quick poses, and I just do simple line drawings. I just grab colors at random. I have a big bowl of crayons, and I just use whatever I pull out. That way, once I have a huge mess of overlapping drawings, I can sort of follow one out of the mess by following the same color. It becomes a massive chaotic mess of lines that looks like nothing but static, and then I try to go into it and find order in the chaos. I develop parts of some of the figures, pull things forward, push things back, and find some kind of structure into it. It’s an improvisational process. This way of working creates these complex compositions which I would never be able to design. If I made preparatory sketches and tried to figure it all out on paper, I couldn’t do it. It only emerges from the process.
Another thing that’s interesting to me about these is that for the viewer, it requires a much more active kind of looking than a picture. If you look at the portrait drawings, that’s a picture. You see and grasp the whole image. It’s very direct. Most figurative artwork is like that. When you look at these more complex pieces, you look into them and try to find what’s there and find the interesting juxtapositions that happen by chance.
The color in these pieces is, in the beginning of the work, random, as are several other aspects of the process. In the later development stages, I choose colors just out of an aesthetic sense. The colors in these aren’t symbolic or anything like that, but they emerge in the process. I think just because they’re on black, the colors have this neon, or black velvet painting, quality of light. I like to draw on a darker surface, because I think I see the light first, then the shadows. If you draw on white paper you really have to start with the shadows.
YK: What’s the difference between your seeing movement and drawing it, and your doing movement yourself, very different ways of expression as an artist?
FH: My experience with movement and performance happened from just following my interests, because since I was self-taught I didn’t have any teacher telling me I need to go in a particular direction. I think most figurative artists are not interested in experimental performance art. At least, when I meet other figurative artists, and I tell them I’m interested in that sort of stuff, they’re like “Ugh.” But for me that experimental work was really interesting because the artists were treating the creative process as an experience, rather than as the production of an object. I think that’s a very interesting approach. Before the invention of photography, just the ability to create a realistic image was a form of magic. Images were rare and had power just in their illusion of reality. Nowadays, we live in a world where we’re bombarded with images constantly. There are screens and advertising everywhere you look. Images don’t, in themselves, have any magic at all any more. They’re just pollution. How do you get back to that feeling of it having magic and power? To me, these really experimental artists, the butoh artists, the people that were doing happenings and that kind of thing, were trying to approach that problem by giving people an experience that can transform your perception.
I needed to incorporate this approach into my own exploration. I studied butoh dance and I did a lot of work with performance. I had to eventually come back more to visual art and drawing because I felt like that’s where my talent was strongest, and it’s where I found that I had the ability to do a really disciplined practice. And I’m an introverted kind of person, so visual art is more natural for that. But I think that the experience of performing was about trying to find new states. To enter into a performing state is sort of shamanic. What I learned from that really does inform the way that I draw, because if I’m trying to capture someone’s movement or their inner states, my own experience of feeling movement informs it, at least intuitively.
YK: You were doing really interesting and crazy things in New York City with the performers, gathering in the early morning and doing really crazy things and naked things.
FH: I haven’t really done that kind of thing recently, but back in the 90’s, in the days before 9/11, when there was no security anywhere, you could get away with anything in New York City, and we did. I think the specific thing you’re talking about is a series of performances in the summer of ’97. It was a collaboration that I worked out with Julie Atlas Muz, who is a well known burlesque performer and also a really good postmodern choreographer who did a lot of really creative and unusual performances. In that summer, every day that was a new moon or a full moon day, we would go out before dawn, with whatever other performers we could get to come with us, to some location around the city, the Staten Island Ferry, or Central Park, or Coney Island, some interesting location where there were a lot of things to interact with, and we did these interactive, improvisational happenings. Usually the only audience was people that we invited to come along and take pictures or video, but sometimes there were other people around, especially on the Staten Island Ferry where we sort of had a captive audience. The people that were performing could pretty much do whatever they wanted, but at that time of day, five o’clock in the morning, there is this incredible, powerful thing happening, the transformation of night into day. It’s a lighting effect that you couldn’t get from a theater lighting designer. If you had millions of dollars you couldn’t make something that amazing, and each time it was different. The birds are the rulers of that time, and they’re so loud, and human beings are so quiet. It’s the time when everyone is asleep, everyone is dreaming, and so even though you’re awake, you can be in a dream in the real world, because it’s the time when everyone is dreaming, That’s the predominant energy. Really amazing things happened in those performances. It was a struggle to get up really early in the morning and trek out to some place to do this thing, but then when we got done, we had to kill several hours before going to work or whatever.
YK: Yeah, now there’s security, everything has changed, but you are still open to happening. And happening is the same as miracles. You cannot make up a happening, but you can keep your mind open to happening. But to do so, I believe you need discipline. So your mind is really based on the steady, long discipline, I believe. So what kind of discipline are you keeping?
FH: The regular life drawing classes I mentioned, I’m really devoted to that, and that’s a kind of a meditative practice, but it’s an active thing. I also have had a practice, not quite as disciplined I have to say, with movement. All of the practice is to get to that place where you are confident enough that you can just respond immediately without having to think about anything, without uncertainty.
YK: How many years have you been doing so?
FH: You know, that’s really hard to answer, because since I’m self-taught as an artist, people say, “How long have you been doing that, when did you start?” Well, I was drawing when I was a kid. It took me many years to kind of find my way in bits and pieces, and that’s just an impossible question to answer because there are so many different moments where you could say it started here, or it started there. The regular life drawing practice has been the most consistent thing, and that started in the mid-90’s, but before that I was also doing a lot of creative things, but I was just a little bit unfocused, I would be writing poetry for a while, and then I’d lose my inspiration, and I’d start to do painting, and then I’d do that until I just felt like I was doing the same thing all the time, and then I’d stop and I’d start making films or something. It took me a while to realize that I wasn’t going to get anywhere that way. I think my youthful idea was that art was about being in an inspired state, and over time I realized it’s really more about steady work and discipline. The inspired state is not so much about something that strikes you from the clouds, but more like really long work on changing the way that you experience the world, so that it’s experienced as magical.
YK: Do you know even Picasso tried to write a poem? He was struggling from painting and one day thought, writing looks much easier, and he wrote some poems and recited in front of friends, and Gertrude Stein said “Stop it! Go back to painting. At least your painting is better than your poems!”
FH: One thing I think I learned from deciding to be dedicated to practice is that when you feel frustrated, that’s not a bad thing, because usually when you feel frustrated, it’s not going very well, what that really means is somewhere on the inside you’ve already moved up to another level. You just aren’t able to do it yet. So if you just keep going, you will reach that level.
YK: So to say something as the artist is to go beyond perception. So beyond perception is to try to reach vision, and reaching vision is always a happy experience, but somehow we are scared at happiness itself. So that’s why you are training yourself to be happy, happy, to get used to the happy experience. That’s why we can’t stop joining you. Your art is like that for me.
But I can answer what you couldn’t answer by yourself, when you started drawing. It’s 1961. [Holds up copy of drawing] This is José Greco. Fred Hatt, three year old boy, just saw flamenco, and somehow, he drew it. This is his first – it’s amazing.
FH: The story of that: I was a well-behaved little child, and I was the first child, and my parents were young, they were really interested in cultural events, and they could get away with bringing me, because I didn’t make noise, so they took me to all these things. They took me to see this famous flamenco dancer of the time, José Greco. I was so turned on by that, because it had stomping, and it was passionate, and I had never encountered anything like that before, so I drew that. I rediscovered that drawing when I was around 40 years old. I had finally come to the point I was really developing my visual art, and I was running these movement drawing classes where we had the models moving instead of standing still, and artists that were willing to try that would try to capture the feeling of movement, and I was working with a lot of dancers and performers. I went back and visited my parents and I decided to look for the old artwork that they saved, and that’s the earliest thing. I thought, wow, look at this: I was three and I already was inspired by movement and dance, and the way I was trying to capture it was scribbling with crayons! And it took me almost forty years to find my way back!
(An earlier blog post also tells the story of the José Greco drawing).
Here’s a panoramic view showing the large works in the CRS Studio. You may need to scroll to the right to see it all.
The Healing Hands drawings are 18 3/8″ x 24 1/2″. The Heads (portraits) are 50 cm x 70 cm. The larger works seen above range from 36″ x 48″ to 60″ x 60″. All works are aquarelle on paper.