The Meridian Gallery in downtown San Francisco has been transformed into Tim Whiten’s world. A pair of skulls—one made of glass, the other covered in a taut leather membrane—perch on shelves. Your first impulse might be to flinch, for skulls speak of death, but they are also mementos of life. Is the leather protecting the skull or serving to conceal? Glass is a deceptively open presence, yet it’s unnerving: do you really want to look inside yourself? On the opposite wall, two drawings are covered with a magical script. An elegant brass-and-glass plumb bob hangs from the ceiling, an homage to Whiten’s father, Tom, a carpenter and mason. A glass broom—in honour of the artist’s mother, who worked as a domestic—is propped in the corner.
Moving through the three floors of the gallery, themes become apparent: wrapping and concealment, and protection and hiding. A piece can be read either way—as wrapped in a protective skin, or as hidden by the very same element. Objects that look like ritual items from an unknown tribe are crafted from wood, leather and adobe. Magic Sticks (1970), for instance, could be weapons, or used in a healing ceremony.
Whiten, an American and Canadian artist born in 1941, engages aspects of performance, ritual, collaboration, historical reference and fine craft in his journeys across disciplines. A very modern sensibility confronts something much older. Emerging from every piece is the unsettling invitation to engage with our hidden selves, our own restless bodies. Used hospital sheets stained with coffee (in Enigmata with Rose, 1996–98) hover on the wall like paintings, and inevitably the mind imagines someone’s insides leaking out—the human stain. It’s grim and sorrowful. The centre of one sheet displays a rose, a flower we might bring to a bedridden patient, but here it looks like an inner organ, something left behind. Other pieces are more playful: a wacky unicycle with a tall shaft made from a sapling and bicycle parts is unrideable.
“Tim’s work is about protecting and caring and healing,” says Anne Trueblood Brodzky, the director of Meridian Gallery and a long-time friend of Whiten’s. “The bones and skulls refer, shamanically, to new life—not emblems of death. Crystalline skulls found in Peru were made as religious objects.”
Brodzky and Whiten met as students at the University of Oregon back in 1964 and both later came to Canada, where Brodzky edited artscanada magazine. What drew them together?
“We share the need for Meaning in art and literature—for implications that are deeper than what is obvious.”
I visit Whiten where he lives and works, at a storefront on busy Dundas Street West on the border of the Junction and Malta Village. The door swings open and Whiten, a tall man with a trim white beard, ushers me in.
I step into a muted, sparsely furnished space, a portion of which is defined by tatami mats. This is where Whiten conducts shiatsu treatments. Without being asked, I tug off my shoes. My host offers me a pair of slippers.
Whiten is high energy. At first, this seems at odds with the deeply ruminative aspect of his art. We zip through the front part of the building to the living space, with its high ceiling, gleaming surfaces and stainless-steel pots, pans and appliances. The noise of the street feels distant. African pieces, sculptures and drawings line the walls.
While making tea, Whiten reflects, “the most important thing in the world for me is the search for the divine and the point of origin.”
I sneak a look at my list of questions and sense they won’t do me much good. A professor emeritus of York University’s fine arts faculty, Whiten is not one to spout art-world jargon.
What is the divine?
“Not some bearded guy in the sky,” he assures me as we settle in on a sofa. “It’s about finding the traces, the path to get back to our place of origin.”
I stare at a skull covered in black leather that’s resting on the coffee table. A seam is visible, like the fontanelle of a baby’s head. He picks up the skull, flips it over and explains that, once unfolded, the leather wrapping is heart-shaped.
“I conceal to reveal,” he says. “The membrane creates a ‘whole’ without the viewer being stuck in the details of the skull.” He lightly caresses the material and says, “Touch is the passage to the Other.”
“Other with a capital ‘O’?”
“Can you define this Other?”
“No. We want to define it but we can’t. This is why we make symbols to stand in the way of pure experience. The purpose of art is to extend human consciousness; we leave a trail that leads to it.”
“It?” I ask, craving concrete definition.
“There’s no other word.”
Whiten’s journey is embedded in every gesture he makes and every word he chooses. His father, Tom, surfaces often in the conversation. Raised in the American South, Tom lived a heartbeat away from slavery and sharecropping. He got a sixth-grade education and later moved to the Detroit area, where he met his wife, Mary, and raised his sons. A master in most of the building trades, Tom taught himself five languages.
Did the elder Whiten teach his son how to use tools?
A shake of the head. “No, he didn’t want me to work with my hands. I was to use my mind.”
Tom, deeply steeped in Masonic mysticism, made it clear to his sons that education was the path to freedom for a black man in America. Living in the Detroit ghetto, where “people were killing each other,” he hoped Tim would become a lawyer or doctor.
Throughout our conversation, Whiten deftly dodges naming the art influences who set him on his path. Instead, he vividly recalls a local pharmacist who mentored him in his teenage years. He also cites his aunt’s handyman, who “had more effect on me than any famous artist; he’d cut twigs from trees, spray-paint them and use them to construct a console for radios.” As a boy, Whiten saw his first boneyard—built by descendants of black slaves in Inkster, Michigan, in the woods behind his home.
Whiten nearly quit Central Michigan University, where he was studying philosophy, psychology and science. It was one of his professors, the philosopher and mystic Oscar Oppenheimer, who inspired him to continue studying the relationship between art and philosophy. Another professor assured him he had a talent for drawing.
After university came a stint as an officer during the Vietnam War. “I saw things that made me grow up rapidly,” Whiten says. “I learned what it was like to live 24 hours a day in constant fear of death. I felt I survived that time because I was somehow protected, that there were things I had to do.”
Why immigrate to Canada?
“I didn’t feel the immediate restrictions of race and background here.” Then, the artist recites—from memory—the telegram he received from York University in the summer of 1968 offering him a job in the school’s projected faculty of fine arts. As a teacher, Whiten sought to impart “the capacity to think—not just theory, but how to apply it. The students thought I was crazy; initially, they wanted to hang me up by the heels, but years later they tell me that they use what I taught.”
I confirm this by speaking to the painter James Lahey, a former Whiten pupil. “Tim’s like a giant shaman,” he says. “The guy is a truth-seeker; he asks hard questions of himself, the viewer and students. He takes no prisoners—and he’s wicked smart.”
The sculptor Laura Moore recalls the intensity of Whiten’s first visit to her studio, “not because of what he said, but because he touched everything.” She speaks of a “reserved strength” that is felt in his presence. “He’s the real deal.”
Writings on Whiten’s work often employ words like “shamanic,” “sacred,” “spiritual”—concepts that make some people squirm.
“Sacred,” Whiten says, is anything that is “revered beyond the norm, like this skull that once held the presence of a living person.”
“Anything,” he lifts his teacup, “should you give it to someone with love, becomes spiritualized.”
The glass broom has been spiritualized because he “assisted” the original object, turning it into glass. This “assisting” is the crucial framing device; in this way, low materials can be valued highly.
“The creator put the means of understanding here for us to grab,” Whiten says. “He placed the key to the universe inside us, because it’s the last place we’d look.”
It’s no surprise to hear that Whiten has not only studied mysticism and the Kabbalah, but also visited Japan to study the practice of breathing.
How does he sense that he fits into the current Canadian art scene?
“I don’t,” he answers, without hesitation. “The nature of what I do is not the fashion of the day. I don’t have a high profile and I don’t care. My concern is with my maker and what I have to do.”
Not that he’s exactly hiding. His dealer, Olga Korper, is one of the most eminent gallerists in the country, and when the Art Gallery of Ontario reopened in 2008, it borrowed a major piece from Whiten, which it subsequently acquired for its collection.
“Tim believes in reincarnation and I probably do too,” Korper tells me at her West End Toronto gallery a week later. “I can make him phone me just by thinking about him; this is how we communicate.” She says that his work—including the glass skull that sits nearby—protects her, though she confesses that other pieces make her gag, “like the little mannequin covered in chewed gum, or his nail clippings in a jar.”
She defines the work as “access magic” that opens you up to other worlds and levels of awareness. “These are doors you can choose to open, or not.”
The new pieces, mostly made of crystal glass and metal, which filled her cavernous Olga Korper Gallery last winter, are beautiful and seductive, though far from benignly decorative—especially skulls launched in Egyptian-style glass boats. A glass tricycle seems to shine, and creates what the sculptor and former Whiten student Michael Davey calls a feeling of the “Divine.” Paired ghost tools fashioned entirely from glass—a pickaxe and a spade—occupy one corner. As far as use-value goes, they’re hopeless; as homages to manual labour, they glow. So does a green-hued, handcrafted crystal rocking horse, whose light seems to issue from within. If light creates animation, these creatures and objects speak to us.
“Glass contains two characteristics I like,” Whiten says, standing to the side. “It is both fragile and strong, as humans are fragile and strong.”