An Independent Spirit
By Alexa Bouhelier-Ruelle
Feldsott has led a creative life of powerful inquisitiveness. From exhibiting at SFMOMA to living with wolves, and subsequently creating work throughout the decades, this Bay Area artist has captivated many including art historian Peter Selz who once called Feldsott’s art “powerful” for its “raw brutality.”
After being one of the youngest artists to ever exhibit at SFMOMA in 1975, Feldsott all but disappeared from the art world. What transpired was a quarter of a century journey throughout Central and South America resulting in a whirlwind of environmental justice advocacy, political uprising, addiction, and learning traditional medicine and shamanism from Indigenous communities. The artist is currently exhibiting and opening up about his time out of the public eye and the many decades that span his prolific work. Here & There Magazine met with Feldsott to talk about his paintings that trace not only his own personal journey throughout the decades but also the “human journey,” by tapping into enigmatic, mythologically-charged imagery.
Knowing what you know now, what would you say to your younger self? The ‘you’ who wanted to pursue a career in the art.
I believe that’s an impossible question to answer because I have this feeling about life: you can’t go back, there are no do-overs. The journey of life, and my life, in particular, is a journey of struggle and failure. All along the journey I’ve tried to be educated and intelligent about both the good and the bad things that have happened to me, things that were in my favour and not in my favour. I don’t believe that the wisdom of experience is really possible to tell my younger self. I had to live through those things, I had to experience those things. Actual failures and hardships were just as important to form my point of view and who I am right now as the supposedly good things that happened to me. They were all gifts, some were just harder to understand and assimilate. I don’t believe that one should conduct one's life hoping to avoid all of the pitfalls, challenges, conflicts, and failures—I mean that’s where the grit of the learning happens. I would never want to, in any way, take that away from my younger self.
Why did you stop exhibiting and selling your work in the 80s?
As my work became better known in the late 70s and early 80s, it also attracted a lot of commercial and collector attention. It brought with it a lot of pressure and people trying to influence and direct my process, and back then I felt people were trying to control me. Of course, my nature of rebelliousness had a very strong reaction to those energies. It wasn’t a well-thought-out choice or decision, nor was it very measured. It was more of a highly reactive response to the feeling that people were getting up in my business and I didn’t want them there. Not knowing how to handle that, I just vacated the premises, so to speak.
Describe your studio setting. Does your environment affect your creative process?
My studio is kind of a large barn where I’ve worked for over thirty years, and inside of it, I tend to have a lot of projects that are unfolding. Any kind of inspiration or vision that comes to me, I begin to work on it. Some pieces I work on straight through from start to finish, and other pieces I might work on for quite a while, they might sit in my studio for two, three, four, or five years before I circle back to them. If you come into my studio you experience the inside of the creative process and see the unfolding of a number of different things in a number of different directions. Some things are closer to being finished, and others things are more raw and just kind of in their beginning. Some people find my studio inspirational and others find it overwhelming.
After all of these years, I still have the feeling that one person awake, passionate, and motivated from a good and healthy place can truly change the world.
How would you describe your latest work?
All of my work continues to be this lifelong exploration of the primordial world and the energetic architecture that manifests itself in all things. That pursuit has fueled me and impassioned me for over fifty years of art making. That energy and the priority of creation continues on whether it’s work you’re talking about from fifty years ago, or whether it’s work that’s going on in my studio this morning.
I’ve read that you believe in the healing power of art. I would love to hear your thoughts about it.
Art as an act of healing is important to me personally because in my life I grew up in a complicated situation and had a lot of wounds I had to deal with. The aspect of healing to me is not some intellectual idea; it’s been something that I’ve had to work on consistently through the majority of my life, and it’s not done. I don’t look at healing as some binary situation where you’re either healed or not. I believe that healing is just a process, and I choose to be committed to it in my life, and in my journey. It’s proven to be helpful to me and helped me through remodelling some things that were debilitating to me when I was younger. I am somebody that has gone through significant bouts of substance abuse, I’ve suffered psychotic breaks of serious magnitudes. This idea of healing to me is not some kind of abstraction, it’s something that I’ve had to grapple with in my life in order to be functional and to show up in some kind of responsible way.
After all of these years, I still have the feeling that one person awake, passionate, and motivated 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.
What’s the most important lesson you learned during your time in Central and South America?
To be humble, to be respectful, and to understand that people of different cultures have different ways and manners of going about things. I learned how to restrain myself from being judgemental or critical of those things because I didn’t understand them, and to be respectful of people's processes and how they meet their challenges and how they go through life. While some of those ways may or may not be how I would go about it, we must still be staunchly respectful of other people's ways of going about things.