Bill Moyers takes a closer look at the mystery behind the birth of creativity with the famed painter, sculptor and welder, Gerald Scheck.
BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. Of all the questions about the origin of creativity in a person, the most intriguing to me concern the secret springs which bubble far below the surface of our consciousness. I’m sure you’ve known the experience. Sometimes ideas come splashing up like a fountain. At other times they arrive as unobtrusively as a note slipped under the door. “I have no idea whence this tide comes or where it goes,” confessed the writer Dorothy Camfield, “but when it begins to rise in my heart, I know a story is in the offing.” This uncharted region in us is a mystery, but it seems to be embedded with images, memories and psychic events as if it were the floor of a prehistoric lake littered with fossils. Here, we are told, is the place “where matter, life and mind are inextricably mixed. Here the origins of power of life fashions into orderly patterns the floating fantasies of the unconscious mind. Here, if anywhere, new patterns may be created.
For certain people, the creative process which translates such patterns into the ordinary realm is something done through them, not by them. “I paint,” says the artist whom we are about to visit, “I paint, but the painting happens to me.” His name is Gerald Scheck, and more than anyone I’ve met in reporting about creativity, he is most trustingly the partner of his unconscious.
BILL MOYERS: Gerry Scheck’s father and grandfather before him were metal workers. So it seemed natural to him to try his hand at welding sculpture, but it’s something new for him. Primarily, he is a painter.
To the public, the opening of an artist’s show may seem the beginning; to the artist, it is more likely the end of a long, long road. Gerry has been painting for over 20 years, but never before has he had a show of his own, nor has he ever entered the art marketplace where paintings are sold, so unlike the studio where they are created. His work will be exhibited for the first time here in a gallery located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in New York City, one of the busiest and most prestigious intersections in the art world.
GERALD SCHECK: In many ways, I am glad that I was not a successful artist 20 years ago. I’m sure that if I would have had the success in the art marketplace at that time that, you know, I would not have lived the same life for the last 20 years, I’m sure of that.
TONI SCHECK: That painting, did you make that painting, the one I had this morning, or did Daddy make it?
MICHAEL SCHECK: Daddy. He gave it to me.
TONI SCHECK: Whatever possessed you to start drawing that little thing?
GERALD SCHECK: I don’t know. Is the little card there? I don’t know, I just picked it up.
BONNY JEAN: This card is for Mommy’s birthday card, Daddy.
TONI SCHECK: Well, now I got a reason to keep it.
BILL MOYERS: In 1967, Gerry and his wife, Toni, left Metropolitan New York where they had grown up, and moved to an Upstate farm. There, in the haymow of an old dairy barn, Gerry built himself a studio.
GERALD SCHECK: Hi, Bonny Jean.
BONNY JEAN: Hi Daddy, how are you?
GERALD SCHECK: All right.
BONNY JEAN: What are you doing?
GERALD SCHECK: Mixing paint.
MICHAEL SCHECK: Hey Bonny, come on. It looks like Daddy’s making potions.
BONNY JEAN: Yeah!
GERALD SCHECK: What color do you like, Bonny Jean?
BONNY JEAN: The one down below, the blue one.
MICHAEL SCHECK: I like the green one.
BONNY JEAN SCHECK: Are you making — finishing that little painting or it’s finished?
GERALD SCHECK: Oh, I’m just checking the colors, checking the colors.
BONNY JEAN SCHECK: Will you give that checking the colors to me?
BILL MOYERS: When Gerry and Toni moved here, they were newly married, had no experience on a farm, and knew only that they wanted to live in the country and raise a family. [knock sounds] The first of their four children was born a year after they started farming. [clanging sounds] For ten years in this barn, where now they run a welding and sheet metal shop, they fed and milked cows twice every day, 365 days a year. It meant strenuous 16-hour days beginning before dawn, but they liked the independence and they were good farmers. Then, in 1978, conditions in the market forced them finally to quit farming. They were left $80,000 dollars in debt on a farm they had very nearly owned free and clear a decade earlier. They were disappointed, but determined not to leave the place they had come to love. So they to work which Gerry knew well.
Growing up, he had watched his father and grandfather working with metal in their shop in lower Manhattan. Then he worked alongside them, three generations of metalworkers.
GERALD SCHECK: Can I fix your chain?
DOCTOR: Yeah, whatever, it is broke.
DOCTOR: Better than new?
GERALD SCHECK: I don’t know. [laughter] I don’t think so. Looks like it’s had a little wear.
DOCTOR: Well, it’s good for a lot more wear.
BILL MOYERS: Gerry’s work takes him from mending the local veterinarian’s chain to fixing leaks in a milk transport.
MILK TRUCK DRIVER: Bob left me an order, “leaking bad,” and I guess it was.
BILL MOYERS: When Gerry left New York City for the country he was 27 years old, old enough to know what he wanted and young enough to be willing to risk a change.
GERALD SCHECK: I’ve always wanted to go to the country, ever since I was a little kid, and live there. We just came up here and started to make our living.
TONI SCHECK: We were here like a week and we had the money from our wedding presents and the gifts and we went out and bought a milking cow with this money. [laughs]
GERALD SCHECK: And a lawnmower.
TONI SCHECK: And a lawnmower. Yeah, a lawnmower and a dairy cow! We didn’t plan to come up here and say, “Let’s start farming.”
GERALD SCHECK: We really didn’t plan to go farming. We just —
TONI SCHECK: It just happened.
GERALD SCHECK: I mean we had a barn and we had land and we had these calves growing up, you know, and you just say to yourself, “Why not?” you know? You take a certain risk. You know, what’s life without certain risks, you know? It’s adventure. There’s a certain adventure to living here too.
GERALD SCHECK: How can you help, you know, but be affected by your surroundings, you know, when they’re — when they’re so powerful? I mean you’re constantly bombarded by forms and shapes and colors. I mean you can just pick up a few of these little things here and hold them up and they’re the most delicate, you know, little — you just can’t find anything — I don’t know if you can see the colors in that. There’s reds and greens and whites and browns and, oh, it’s just infinite.
GERALD SCHECK: I feel like I’m the type of person who is a sponge, who just goes out and does things and just looks and you sort of absorb things into your system, whether you realize you do or not, but it’s just that it come out when you paint. [music] What am I trying to do? I don’t think I really am trying to do anything. I think that this is something more natural than “trying to do.” I don’t think that I say I am going to express a certain meaning in a painting. Things just happen. Sometimes you’re — you think you might be in control of what’s happening, but most of the time I think things more or less spring from an unconscious sort of well — that — that’s there. [music] I think everybody has a deep emerald green pool of subconscious which has secrets and mysteries, secrets of life that go back to the beginning of the world. And I think that artists are capable of drawing upon that. [music]
When everything is going right, a painting to me becomes a living thing. It was a blank panel at one time, but now it is alive, and when you’re doing a good painting you just feel automatically that everything is right. It’s just the most wonderful feeling I could ever describe. It’s just like you’re watching something create — sometimes I feel like I’m watching something create itself and I’m just a spectator. [music] Never had the ability to do metal sculpture for a long, long time and I never did, because I — I just wasn’t sure how to get the qualities I wanted in a piece of metal, a certain life or a certain movement inherent in the piece that was comparative to my painting. [music]
Art is a very intimate thing that happens in my studio alone, because nobody there can share it with you. I come to my studio and I just stand in front of a large blank canvas and in many cases it’s a very frightening thing. Sometimes I’m extremely nervous about doing a painting. How would you feel if somebody just peeled you open and let all your insides on display? I feel that vulnerable I think when I paint. I feel like, you know, my insides are there and I think that I couldn’t work knowing that some other presence was in the room. I think it’s just an extremely intimate thing for me.
TONI SCHECK: Well, can we put one up?
GERALD SCHECK: Well, let’s move these.
TONI SCHECK: Is the framing that far apart in the back?
GERALD SCHECK: I don’t know. We’ll find out. Yeah, we’ll make it. [hums a bit here]
TONI SCHECK: Oh, I think I like it.
GERALD SCHECK: Now it just sort of floats — just sort of floats against the wall.
TONI SCHECK: Who did that dirty fingerprint at the top? Did I do that?
GERALD SCHECK: No, I think that’s a permanent fingerprint on the painting.
TONI SCHECK: Oh, good, great. I like it a lot.
GERALD SCHECK: You know, we’re not ready to sell this painting.
TONI SCHECK: Actually, I am never ready to part with them!
GERALD SCHECK: I haven’t really lived with it long enough. I don’t want to part with it yet. If I were economically successful at my artwork, what would it do to my life? I don’t think I would divorce myself completely from the other aspects of my life. I enjoy sheet metal work. I enjoy welding. I think I would become involved in — in other things just for the life experiences involved in them.
1st MAN: The one here, lookit.
GERALD SCHECK: Well, we’ll see what we can do for you.
1st MAN: Yeah, I know you’ll do the trick and I figured that if anybody can do it, you’re the guy that can do it.
GERALD SCHECK: Oh, thank you, sir.
1st MAN: Huh?
GERALD SCHECK: Is there a super big hurry for it?
1st MAN: Not that bad, see, because that’s why I told you, see, in case you get done in a day or two. Just give Willy a buzz.
GERALD SCHECK: Oh, look at that!
1st MAN: Hey, there you go. Flock of geese.
TONI SCHECK: When Harold lived here, he was running the farm for him…
BILL MOYERS: Gerry lives in a world where neighbors who drop by to have something welded stay to visit awhile.
1st MAN: You know where Paul Monroe’s place is? The next place, Harold had a farm there.
GERALD SCHECK: Oh, really?
1st MAN: But either the barn fell in or it burned up or some darned thing.
GERALD SCHECK: Uh-huh.
1st MAN: What do you call this over here, Joe? Get over there. Old age is creeping over me. What’s this thing here? Boy, that’s pretty.
GERALD SCHECK: What’s that?
1st MAN: It’s really fancy. What material’s this?
GERALD SCHECK: Brass.
1st MAN: Where the hell did you come up buying all that brass?
GERALD SCHECK: Well, it’s made out of — I start with a sheet of steel, then sort of form it up and then it’s all coated with brass with the welding process.
1st MAN: How much is that worth today? Just for the brass alone?
GERALD SCHECK: And the labor. What do you think it’d be worth?
1st MAN: You’ve got me. Be nice though in a bank or some big showroom or something. Yeah. What do you call it?
GERALD SCHECK: I don’t call it anything.
1st MAN: You ain’t got a name for it or nothing? You just started right off and made it?
GERALD SCHECK: Uh-huh [yes].
1st MAN: No name, no nothing? Now, this one over is something like Pond Lily Leaves or something, or Water Flower or something. What do you call this one?
GERALD SCHECK: Well, that’d be a good name. Maybe I’ll just [INDISCERNIBLE].
1st MAN: How did you get that rough part on there? That’s all welded too?
GERALD SCHECK: Hum.
1st MAN: Why don’t you make some deer horns or something, [INDISCERNIBLE] something like that.
GERALD SCHECK: Make deer horns on it?
VOICE: Yeah. That’d be — or cow horns or steer horns or something.
GERALD SCHECK: Well, that’s pretty close, isn’t it?
1st MAN: This almost looks like an ear and that looks like a lily and [INDISCERNIBLE].
GERALD SCHECK: Got a little one over there.
1st MAN: You’re going into all this artist business here.
GERALD SCHECK: The little one’s in there.
1st MAN: Yeah. Yeah. Why don’t you make a ram’s head or something?
GERALD SCHECK: A ram?
1st MAN: Yeah. You seem to be really sharp on this flare for his horns there. Why don’t you get some — make a ram’s head or something?
GERALD SCHECK: I could try that.
1st MAN: You’re pretty sharp at that.
GERALD SCHECK: What do you think of that painting right there?
1st MAN: I don’t know. I ain’t just figured it out. It looks like it might be underwater, but what? Oyster shell? And it might be a plant. What is it?
GERALD SCHECK: It kind of looks like that pond lily you mentioned over there too.
1st MAN: Of course, you see, everybody sees something different. You see, now, you’re the artist. I’m not even — I can’t even draw a straight line.
BILL MOYERS: The framing, varnishing and cleaning are done and Gerry Scheck returns now to where he grew up — the city — and to his first exhibition.
GERALD SCHECK: Well, I’ve brought some tomatoes, I think, and a couple of squash.
WOMAN: Oh, aren’t they magnificent!
GERALD SCHECK: This one’s from last night, but I’m not sure what —
WOMAN: How does one prepare that? Same as ordinary squash?
GERALD SCHECK: You’re asking me? I can’t cook.
WOMAN: Well, I know chard and I love chard. Oh, this is fantastic.
GERALD SCHECK: I think there’s some tomatoes.
SAM DORSKY: This can go on that wall.
2ND MAN: Sure?
SAM DORSKY: Yes, right. The way to handle that thing is just to switch this over to that corner.
GERALD SCHECK: Right.
SAM DORSKY: Yeah, it’ll go — there you go.
BILL MOYERS: The owner of the Dorsky Gallery is Sam Dorsky, who earns his living selling the works of established modern masters, but devotes his gallery space to exhibiting the works of new and unknown artists.
SAM DORSKY: When are you going to title these?
GERALD SCHECK: Oh, I was afraid you were going to ask me that.
SAM DORSKY: You got to call it something.
GERALD SCHECK: I don’t know, Sam. Do you really expect me to come up with ten —
SAM DORSKY: Yeah, I do.
GERALD SCHECK: Ten.
SAM DORSKY: Ten words, one word each.
GERALD SCHECK: The only thing I could do — when I thought about, you know, that problem, the only thing I could think of was sort of like handling it as a series. I think — I thought of life processes and it sort of suggests, you know, that they’re — you know, they’re like a live process, live things. They’re doing something, growing or whatever it is they’re doing. I don’t know what to —
SAM DORSKY: I think you’re getting closer [INDISCERNIBLE]
GERALD SCHECK: — whether that sounds corny or something.
SAM DORSKY: No. No. Either more important or more substance, because they do have a great deal of what I’m trying to say.
GERALD SCHECK: Well, I’m trying to say it too. I guess the only way I can say it is in the painting.
BILL MOYERS: Did you see that in your mind before you paint?
GERALD SCHECK: I don’t see anything specific before I work. There are nights when, you know, I’ve been painting all day or something and I go to bed and I can’t hardly get to sleep because images — you know, paintings and things just start buzzing through my head. But what comes out — if I paint again the next day or something, what comes out is not what I see. It’s just, you know, what manifests itself at the time.
BILL MOYERS: At the moment of painting?
GERALD SCHECK: At the moment of painting.
BILL MOYERS: You don’t get a picture, like a photograph, and then go and carry out some secret message?
GERALD SCHECK: Not at all. No, it just sort of — they’re like my own private happenings, I guess.
BILL MOYERS: Why does color almost look as if it were an accident, and yet I suspect none of this is an accident?
GERALD SCHECK: Well, I don’t really think that when you’re doing a piece of work like this, that “accident” really applies. I think that things do happen that sort of just well out of your subconscious and are not really accidents, but this is — it’s funny you should ask about this, though, because this is the last — the last thing I put in that painting, right there. This line, this line and that were the last thing. If you were to stand back and look at that, I think if you — if you erase that, this has much less significance. The whole painting does. You know, I get to a point in a painting — some of it comes relatively easy. Then I get to a point where I sort of have to really look at it, you know, get a feeling of it — what’s missing here? What does this thing need to really bring it to life, to give it that spark? And that was it in this case. And it made, you know, this part significant.
BILL MOYERS: I’m glad you answered that, because the journalist in me requires what I’m sure an artist often cannot describe and that’s the why: why that shape, why that color, why that location?
GERALD SCHECK: Well, in that case, I’m glad you asked about that because I knew —
BILL MOYERS: You don’t always know.
GERALD SCHECK: As a matter of fact, Sam Dorsky explained that to me, why I did it. [INDISCERNIBLE] [laughter]
BILL MOYERS: Do you have, among the paintings that you exhibit here, a favorite?
GERALD SCHECK: This particular one over here is one of the latest paintings in the room, and I guess if you were to really push me, I would say it is probably one of my favorites at this point. But then again, the most recent painting I do has always been my favorite. [laughs] It’s the one you’re working on. When somebody comes into the studio, I always want them to look at the one I’m working on. This is the one I need the, you know, the comments about.
GERALD SCHECK: I don’t think I’m nervous about the show. I’ve seen some good reactions from people. Everybody seems to be very supportive around me, so I really feel that I am going into the show with a lot of friends who are going to be happy to see my work hanging there. So I really don’t feel nervous about that. What really makes me feel nervous is the work, doing the work. That’s the important thing, being able to keep expanding as an artist, keep progressing as an artist.
GERALD SCHECK: I think that, you know, a vitality that an artist has can be lost as quickly as it’s had. It’s a fragile thing. It has to be protected. [music begins] And maybe this is one — one reason why I don’t care to be shown painting. I think it’s an intimate thing and I think it’s sort of a very delicate thing and I don’t want it to break. [music, then fades]
BILL MOYERS: Gerald Scheck asked us not to film him painting, and I understand why. The painting takes on a life of its own, as he said, and the artist and his work have to be left alone to converse in their own private language. I’ve heard other artists describe the give-and-take that goes on between you and the canvas; energy gets released in you and inspiration revealed to you. It’s like the mystic’s relation to God. If anything foreign intrudes, the message is interrupted, the flowing ceases. The artist in particular looks at his unconscious — his hidden life — by transforming it onto that canvas, but only when it’s there and complete and he’s seen it first — alone — can he allow anyone else to see it too. Gerald Scheck lived all his life in wonder at what will be revealed next if one is open to experience, so it’s hardly surprising that his inner life as an artist would also unfold as adventure. But about another’s unconscious we can only speculate. All I can report with certainty is that paint he must. Soon after this film was completed, the barn which was his studio burned to the ground, destroying much of the work of a lifetime. Gerald Scheck, of course, is already back at his canvas. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 14, 2015.