2003 interview with Helen Ferrulli for Childhoods of Artists Research Project

"I was born in Brooklyn. I am the youngest of three children. My sisters are older, Audrey by eight years and Jean by five. We come from a very simple background. The Raffaele family arrived in this country from Sicily via Sydney, Australia. My paternal grandfather, Natale Raffaele, had a market right around the corner from the Brooklyn Museum, where I later went to art school on Saturday mornings. His greatest pleasure was to draw and paint watermelons, cabbages or other produce as posters advertising the price of his vegetables. My father told me my grandfather expressed his truest, natural self this way---through the 'artist' in him. It made him very happy that I was continuing in my grandfather's footsteps. He was proud to point out the art connection from his own father down to me, his only son. My father's story about my grandfather affected and encouraged me. Much later, I learned that the Kaelins from Switzerland, on my mother's side of the family, had included artists, many of whom worked in stained-glass. Three of my children are artists. So art continues through the generations in my family.

In terms of one's own myth my father, Joseph Marino Raffaele had several adjectives after his name (the commas after his name) which, as a child, inspired me. Born in Australia, he was an immigrant to this country. Like many of his generation, he believed that his child could be president or whatever he wished to be. It was a valuable inspiration for me in becoming an artist. Also, somehow the fact that my father was born in Australia made me proud.

My mother's father, Henry Kaelin, had been born in Zurich, and also migrated to this country. He settled in Cutchogue, Long Island, where I spent many summers during my youth. When I had to fill out forms in school revealing where my parents were born, I took great pride in writing those facts down. Their foreign origins gave me access to a psychic reality broader than the one I had in Brooklyn, widening as it did my psychic palette. It added another dimension to my sense of self.

In his book, "The Soul's Code", James Hillman discusses how the acorn already has the oak tree encompassed in it. I sensed in the seeds of my youth how important 'place' would be in my own life. I appreciated my father's and maternal grandfather's symbolic input as a travellers in search of the realization of the self. They planted the notion that one must make a long, courageous journey. I was born in Brooklyn, and then lived in Marin County, California, before I finally moved to a foreign country. Moving across the sea to find fulfilment played a very important, even crucial part in my life. My father gave me that gift. Actually, it was a treasure and gave me a certain courage to enter new strange territories. It may sound odd, but I feel this way each time I begin a new painting. Each time I'm confronted by the new white space of a painting, I feel like an immigrant to an unknown country.

He also made me aware that there were some firsts in my family. At 18 he was the youngest man ever made a manager of an A&P Market in this country. It pleased me to think there were things that his family and also my mother's family could realize. However, basically my father was absent and non communicative. I could never identify with him. Somehow that bond that usually forms between parent and child had eluded my father and me when I was a small child. From my childhood perspective, my father was very quiet, - very silent. Having had children of my own and having been a child I realize how important communication is between a parent and a child. I didn't have that with him. I wished for a dialogue with someone, not for approval, but for recognition. Not in a material way, but wishing for recognition of the soul in me.

The parent usually has that with a child. But my father was often absent and when present non communicative and elusive. So one of the things I did was to seek love and satisfaction in nature and in my little drawings and colorings which I would do. I found an inner place to go to describing nature in an external way. My colored drawings issued forth through that process. The perfection of it all was, I got to forge the sturdy, developing, artist in me. As it turns out, in that way my father was indeed perfect for the artist I was to become. Even from this vantage point I thank him so often in my mind and heart. If my father had been outgoing and demonstrative, I might not have been an artist or even ever painted.

There's a saying I heard I recently in French: "Il faut que le fils tue le pere, the son has to kill the father." In a way I had to kill him at an early age. For my young being my father was something not to be. That notion was a positive and potent force. If my father had been outgoing and demonstrative, I might not have even been an artist or painted these paintings. It became important for me to become communicative because he wasn't. Life brought me art as the medium to express my connection to something very familiar, yet, vast and universal.

My father's early seeming disinterest in me gave the freedom to cover the walls of my bedroom with drawings and pictures. Perhaps he wanted me to be a sport's star or something. He may have been disappointed, but by the time I was fourteen, when my mother died, he supported my decision to become an artist. Of course, he was anxious about my being able to support myself, but ultimately he was very proud of my decision. Most parents are concerned about how their children will make a living or at least about how they will make a life. That angst comes with the parental territory. There's no way to avoid it.

My mother, Cora Kaelin Raffaele, my aunt, Mae Kaelin, and my two older sisters Jean and Audrey, were the constants in my early life. I learned when I was older that my mother's family in Switzerland included many stained glass artists. My mother is buried in the Cutchogue Cemetery. Her father, Henry, donated the land to the local church. He also had the Roman Catholic built where there is still a glass window he had commissioned with his name on it. I imagine when he did that, he was thinking of his relatives in Zurich, who were stain glass artists.

My mother, Cora, was a loving, devoted, mother. She was also a great cook. I consider cooking an artistic and creative pursuit. Making something visible in a work of art that rings true, which had not been visible before, is of great importance in the creative act. My mother did that in her cooking and she was filled with a love that fed my soul. Her belief in me was encouraging. How parenting affects the child and what comes out later on in life is a very mysterious process. Now my wife and partner, Lannis, cooks in a similar creative manner.

My mother was a farmer's daughter living in Brooklyn. It was W.W.II and we had a victory garden and flowers in the backyard. The garden meant something very deep to my mother. I helped her with it. More than anything else my own experience of the plant nature realm was influenced and inspired by that garden amidst its plants and the cherry tree. It's where I first witnessed the patterns of seasons, the dormant times, the flourishing times.

I think the magic of nature really affected me from the beginning. Magic in the sense of the wonder of watching buds come out of the earth. They weren't there yesterday, but appeared today.. Seeing blossoms come alive is the same as watching a painting come forth out of the white space of a page or a canvas. The garden is another example of how one begins with nothing but seeds and the brown colored space of the earth from which, little by little, the garden emerges.

Our Brooklyn neighborhood was basically very middle class. Men went off to work in the morning to return in the evening, only to begin the whole ritual over again in the morning. Our house was on a Flatbush Street lined with very tall old trees. Early Saturday mornings I practiced the reverie of creation by skating alone along the Brooklyn Streets looking up at these trees. In that action I feel I became one somehow with nature, lost in its swirl. On winter nights, from my bedroom window I would see the snow flakes falling in the light of the street lamp or watch the shadows of the leafless trees projected along the darkened wall of my room as they swayed and crackled. The young artist in me absorbed all this visual psychic information.

I loved coloring books from my earliest beginnings, - filling in the colors fascinated me. I made up my own colors as I went along. Essentially that's what I still do. I draw in shapes and fill in colors which vary in complexity and intensity from the original photographic source. While I spoke very little until the age of five, making pictures has always been natural to me. I don't know if anyone even noticed me as I lay drawing and coloring in our living room. It was no big deal, it was just the way it was---this is what Joey did-- lay on the floor, sketching. That living room's interior became my cave, and as I lay there drawing, I became a kind of cave artist, connecting with an archetypal activity.

From the beginning I would also 'copy' pictures out of magazines and books. A solitary, taciturn, introspective child, I spent hours and hours alone in the empty house looking through a set of "The Encyclopedia Brittanica." I believe an alchemy was taking place in those silent, powerfully lucid, and fecund moments. Looking only at the photographs, never reading the text. The information I needed lay in what I could sense and see in the visual, in the photograph.

Today, my surroundings and the photos of them still act as resources and inspire my being just as they did when I was a child. Beauty and nature were always and still are my inspirational base. Also, the photograph functioned for me then as it does now. In addition, silence still plays an important role in my studio life. It was deep, solid, comforting, and authentic. It fed my embryonic artist. To be silent, alone, and away from the world are necessities for me today just as they were when I was younger.

During the war, I was sick a great deal with spinal meningitis and near death a couple of times. I was fairly alone for weeks and months on end in the sick room again developing a rapport and getting to know my inner self. This 'self' that I had nurtured and formed would later create the mature paintings. I can see now that the sick room of my childhood was transformed into the healing room of the studio of my adult years. The silence continues now in the studio, and the knowledge formed between the child and the empty room has become the invocation between the mature artist and the blank canvas.

As a child, I was very shy and preferred to stay by myself living in the full colorings of vivid reverie and dream state. It was deep, solid and comforting. It fed my embryonic artist which is now instructed daily from what I learned earlier. To be silent, alone, and away from the world are necessities for me today just as they were when I was younger.

When I began school, I learned about being away even though it was only four or five blocks from my house. This being 'away' was a practice which over time has become one of the greatest strengths of my development. Being away is as important to me as is being alone. The combination of the two is where I can cook and perk, where I paint from, where I am most alive. During the act of painting I am away and alone. In fact, I realize that making pictures has always been a way for me to exit the outer world and explore the inner. The inner world has always been richer, more colorful, real, and interesting for me. The outer societal world has always held less meaning.

My art was a pretty private thing when I was young. It still is. I wasn't an outstanding student in school. Making pictures was where my heart flourished. The kids used to draw with coal or colored chalks on the streets in Brooklyn. There weren't that many cars there at that time. We would just lie on the street and draw. There were other kids on my block, who could draw better than I could and who could create things out their heads, which I wasn't very good at. But, in my soul and my heart, I knew I was an artist. Just as I did then, taking a peripheral position today, offers me the greatest opportunity to explore and expand within creative space. I've noticed that the artists, who interest me, are the most limited and have less facility, but within that very narrow purview they express what is very, very, deep. Look at Van Gogh for example. His limitations were his greatest assets.

Movie theaters were really my first museums and universities when I was a child. Films gave me what I wanted. I went to see these gorgeous pictures. Think of it, twenty-four images per second combined with music and pathos! Because my father was seldom home, my mother would always let me go to movies Wednesday afternoons after school and then see two movies on Saturday, two more in another theater on Sunday. She'd give me the money to go. I used to leave at 12 noon and not come back until 7 p.m. that evening. My mother somehow knew I needed that. This was when I was only 7/8 years old. Sometimes I took the trolley to distant parts of town to get to some of these theaters. Other times I would just walk, taking at least a good hour to get to the theatres. Usually on the empty streets I'd often sing aloud as I walked along. I'd sing songs I knew and also songs I would make up. A part of me knew that the movie and being alone experience was 'something to sing about'. My mother knew I needed these films. She understood the power of the visual and sensed I needed this 'food' for my soul, - this world of images and feelings. In some way she understood the power of the visual and encouraged me to immerse myself in it.

As a child the effect on me of a dark theater brought me to an inner space. Watching a film I am taken out of the ordinary and dropped into something extraordinary that has been consciously created to affect the viewer. That's something I want to do in my art: to affect the viewer. I feel within each of my paintings there is great movement. The act of making a painting is like seeing a film unfold. As a child, the effect on me of a dark theatre brought me to an inner space. First you go into the semi-darkness. Then they turn out the lights completely. From a white screen, which is just an empty space, things are happening before you know it.

As an artist I project my images into a darkened space. Drawing the projected images in pencil on the white paper or canvas, making a map which I later use to paint in the colors, just as I did on that Brooklyn living room rug with the coloring books. While very affected by the film experience when I was younger, I could never make a film for the life of me because that's a collective experience. I need the solitude of working alone.

My childhood summers were spent in Cutchogue, New York on the end of Long Island. I remember Long Island Sound during the summer, especially the water and skies. My mother, sisters and I would go and watch the sunsets over Peconic Bay. We would just sit on the beach around a fire or in the car at the beach front at twilight watching the darkening sky change from its pink and oranges to its final indigo.

I think of that windshield as though it were a picture frame. We were, in fact, looking at nature's moving pictures. Then, later in the dark, around the beach fire we would watch the stars appearing one by one. The sky and water were our works of art, the setting, - our museum. Along that water's edge I would muse about the water, dreaming upon its surface. The water's edge experience combining with silence prepared me for the painting of water subjects which I would paint over and over again as an adult.

During my summer visits out there, my mother would take us to visit her 'godmother', Martha Lindsay, an English woman who had married one of my mother's uncles. My Aunt Martha, as I called her, turned out to be one of my great links in life to literature. As an old woman she'd walk five miles back and forth to the town library to feed her need for books. That image imprinted itself on me. I understood how the soul needs the arts to keep itself going. Aunt Martha was great. I got to know her quite well after my mother's death. We were both important to each other and became good friends. To get to her beautiful white Mattituck house overlooking Long Island Sound, we had to drive down a dirt road through farm land and then through trees.... aah, the perfection of it all.

When I was 14, my mother died after having passed two bed-ridden years with cancer. As I consider how childhood affects the artist, I realize that, in fact, it was after my mother's death, 3 Nov 47, when I was a freshman in high school, that I entered into a kind of deep seclusion and interiority, and began consciously making for the first time 'paintings' as such. The first painting I did in the month of November, was a gouache of an autumn forest. I recall I did it on a Friday evening in my room, which earlier had been the room in which my mother died. So, it was during that grief period that I became sure that I was to live my life as an artist. The year following my mother's death, I returned to the water's edge there on Long Island and wrote a poem about seeing my mother in the water. Water is feminine and I wonder if my creativity wasn't heightened and formed by these early experiences with water and my mother.

If life had been devoid of nature I don't think I would have wanted to live. I found people pretty mediocre or boring when compared to nature. I'm not judging. That was just the way it was. I find people less interesting. Nature on the other hand is this non-verbal passionate mystery pageant, showing itself continually without words. It's powerful.

I can only paint what I can paint, but what I paint I can paint really well because I know it really well. I'm not talking about technique or any of the superficial things. I can let some kind of luminosity and poignant brilliance come through by feeling nature, - that thing that you can't express in words.

I've painted borders around the watercolors off and on throughout the last twenty or so years. Often in the past the borders on the water-color's page is where I used to clean my brushes testing out the colors on the paper's edge all around. I used to cut them off, thinking they took away from the image. I hung them up on the studio wall. Finally after noticing how beautiful they were, I decided to leave them on, incorporating them as part of the finished piece. When I think about it now in this moment, those daubing of colors with the wet paint is like when I was a kid while painting with those gouache paints on newsprint pad-paper at the Public School I went to. That's when I started working and playing with water and colors, enjoying how the brush, the water and the paint joined and then went sploosh on the paper, leaving those incredible unique and beautiful splotches.

The borders are also about how two realities meet, the border and the painting in the center, not unlike how land meets the sea. Our house and studio now, basically are where land meets the Mediterranean Sea. So a strong childhood physical, mental, and spatial connection repeats itself now. With these borders a lot of movement is added to each piece.

Where we live now in the south of France, Lannis has created this wonderful environment out of love. We have gardens, fishponds and birds. I can see the sea, the sun, and the sky from my studio where I paint. I began my life near the water and I'm ending my life near the water.

I used to think that I was going to die when I was 35 years old. I was really anxious about it. I burned the candle at both ends.  My Aunt Martha with kindness admonished me not to burn the candle at both ends. And in a way I did die at 35 to the person I had been. My whole life shifted and I got this other second life. It's not unfortunate that we know as little about life as we do. There's no information to prepare us to help us live. School doesn't help us, if anything, it just gets in the way. We survive in spite of ourselves and we do it all in this wonderful, revelatory, personal, way like excavators on a life dig.

Our job as individuals is to open up to the soul, - to hear and listen to it, to remember what and who we are. . When I paint I lose myself in the process. I'm holding the brush, I guide the choice of color, I assist, but I feel that something flows through me. It's like molten lava, yet light and refreshing. It wants to self express. It's Nature and also my nature combining in its instinctual drive to leave an imprint. However, if it wasn't for all the particular things that have happened to me in my life and before my life, these unique images wouldn't be here. Art is a finger print..

My wife, Lannis Raffael, is a Reiki Master. It's an ancient Japanese healing process. There was a man in the19th century who rediscovered the process and healed himself and others with it. Lannis is a practitioner of Reiki and teaches it. She gave me this gift three years ago. It has really enhanced my creativity, my receptivity, my expression, and my perception of things. It's permitted me to flake away at the armatures asking questions about how can I stop the bull shit? How can I be authentic? How can I stop blaming forces outside myself for me not being able to be me? All the things that I've created over a lifetime to supposedly protect myself and in so doing, hidden and blocked much of what is best about the soul's knowledge.

So right now painting and that effort combined with just getting older and seeing what's been true in my life and what has not been true, what I regret and what I'm happy for, (and seeing that I could not have done it any other way) is a twenty four hour a day process.

Time is now limited and precious.

In this remaining time I want to do the best I can in the most authentic way possible in and through my art and in and with my life. To tap into one's authenticity I feel is the greatest gift of love one can give oneself and the world.

It's just this gorgeous life we have for which there's no game plan. What there is, is a movement, an amazing flowing and if we go with that flow we can go to places of deep resonance within ourselves. Here, I am an artist at seventy still painting and painting with a sense of discovery. I'm in awe that I've lived this long and that this can still flow through me. It's that little boy in Brooklyn, or Flatbush who is still painting. The older I get the more I can tap into the earliest knowings of that little boy."