Before the pandemic so disrupted routines in our lives, many in this community used to go twice a year to the Oregon Coast for a sort of spiritual vacation. And on one of those occasions, I took the opportunity to drive up a little north of Yachats, which is the nearest town to which we stay, on sort of a pilgrimage, perhaps I would call it. I went to a place called Camp Angel, which is now a Job Corps center. They train young people, mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds, train them in useful job skills, and not just the actual work skills needed, but the behaviors that help people succeed in the workplace. How to be punctual, how to cooperate with others, it’s a very nice program that’s run by a combination of the Forest Service and some other government agency.
But it’s a place that has a bit of a storied history, and it was a place at which there was the inception, some would say, of a momentous cultural movement that has touched the lives of probably nearly all of us here. It was first built, carved out of the dense Coast Range Forest, just a few hundred yards from the coast. It lies just immediately to the east of Highway 101. It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late ‘30s. It was a site they had for young men who would go out and build some of the park areas that many of us have enjoyed on the coast. But in the early ‘40s, it was converted to a center, one of maybe 70 across the country, that housed conscientious objectors to the war. There were approximately some 50,000 of them. Many of them were located in these camps. They were called Civilian Public Service camps. This was camp number 56.
And most who came were members of the Quaker Church, the Brethren Church, the Mennonites, but there were also a good number who came who were deep-thinking young men, and had developed values in which their conscience did not permit them to participate in the war, at least in the killing part of it, the conflict. So, they were given the alternative of doing public service, and this is one of these sites where this public service went on. At this site, a lot of what they did, six months of the year was tree planting. The rest of the year they did firefighting and building roads; it was hard physical work. They worked 50 hours a week. That’s eight-and-a-half hours a day. They had Sundays off.
And they were in this location in the coastal rain forest, inclement weather much of the year, but when it shines there, it really shines, as we all know. And it was hard work, very hard work, hard labor. But even under those conditions, their minds were active. They were very active, in particular around concerns about the world. Of course, this was somewhat inevitable given that the world was aflame. And with those deep concerns, with their developed intellect, and creative spirit that many of them have brought there, they collectively engaged in deep discourse around what should be done. They knew that they existed on the edge, both on the edge of the continent, and on the edge of a collective consciousness. They were remote, but they had a sense of one aspiration to do something that might have effect years into the future, that would contribute to changing the direction of the culture that they saw that was deeply diseased, deeply dysfunctional.
And their primary response was to cultivate creativity and expression of the arts. And they eventually founded a group called Fine Arts at Waldport. Waldport was a town four miles to the north. They put on dramas. They staged concerts. They did poetry readings. They published literary journals, collections of poetry, and in the course of this, they learned graphic design; they learned stagecraft. They learned how to promote community arts; they learned how to give poetry readings. They found themselves a press; they learned printing. Their minds were just focused intensively on this, and they were young, spirited men with the vitality of youth, and all of it went into this, rather than the 50 hours a week of hard labor.
The impact reverberated through much of the rest of the Civilian Public Service system. Many other camps came to know of this, and made efforts along similar directions. And others in the creative world came to know about it as well. Morris Graves, who is arguably the greatest visual artist to come out of the Northwest in the last century, was drawn there. He lived on the beach, spent one summer living on the beach just to be close by the camp.
After the war was over, they scattered. After a decade of depression, severe depression, and a half-decade of brutal war, most settled into a life in which there was preoccupation with materialism, with consumerism, with finding a job, finding a niche in the corporate world, and pursuing that, raising families. But there was a small percent of the population that was restless, and did not find meaning, substance, in such a life, in such pursuits. And for a number of reasons, San Francisco, the Bay Area, had a combination of conditions that tended to draw these people. There were dissident poets, in particular, but it was not confined to that. And these were people who were aware of currents of thought on the fringe. Many of them were anarchist-leaning, socialist-leaning, but there was a concentration again of creativity of spirit that was getting expressed.
And that tended to then draw a lot of the young men who had been at this camp at Waldport, just north of Yachats. The bulk of them centered around the Bay Area, around these poets and free-thinkers, anarchists, who had found some little haven of people of common spirit. What the people, the young men from Waldport, who’d been part of Fine Arts at Waldport, brought with them, was this knowledge of stagecraft, of putting on dramas, of printing, of promoting. All of the skills that went into bringing arts out into the society, and not have them just be the expression of some internal group of dissidents with creative spirit, and this made all the difference. It gave momentum, profound momentum to the creativity that was surging up in the spirits of those who were being drawn to the Bay Area. And they gained a little bit of a reputation, so much so, that some of the cultural elites on the East Coast took notice.
A writer, a well-known art critic from Harper’s Magazine was sent out to do a feature story on it, and she published her report called “A New Cult of Sex and Anarchy”. It was very dismissive of what these people, who are not part of the cultural elites, who are just kind of on the fringes of society, were doing. But in her report, she said this, “So they write poetry. They paint. They write philosophy. They go to galleries and concerts. They believe that only through art is it any longer possible to reach that all but buried spark of natural life dying under the intolerable weight of modern humanity’s sadistic superego. And only through art will humanity find its way back to its spontaneous natural creativeness.”
For all her dismissal of the crudeness of these young creative spirits, she did get a bit of an understanding of what it was that they sought. That was in the late ‘40s. By the ‘50s, there were increasing social critics who were seeing the deep conformity that had gripped the society. Books like “The Organizational Man” were getting published. And the country had also gone through the Korean War, it had gone through McCarthyism. Much of the genius that was there in the realm of creativity was getting nicely channeled by corporate America into creating commercials that effectively advertised the material Right. People were getting more and more consumed with materialism, with consumerism.
And there were, again, those who could not be satisfied by that lifestyle. And they felt that San Francisco was maybe one place that provided a little bit of a haven, an opportunity to come together with a few of like-spirit, and the Beat Generation was born. In 1957, by this time, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, some of these icons gravitated to San Francisco, to North Beach. In one of the events put on by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg wrote his famous poem “Howl”, which just expressed his rage at what he saw of the damage being done to the psyches of the most brilliant and sensitive of the creative young spirits in our culture. That same year, I think, Jack Kerouac’s book “On the Road”, his search across the byways of America for meaning, was published.
All of these strengthened that center of gravity of a dissident, creative school that was rising, and more and more were drawn to it. In the mid ‘60s, one of the people that was drawn was someone who had just graduated from the University of Oregon, grew up on a farm in Pleasant Hill, was a star athlete on the university’s wrestling team. Ken Kesey went to Stanford to enter a graduate program in creative writing, and while there came across experimentation being done at Stanford on LSD, and felt the expansion that it gave his creative spirit, and started putting on these parties, called Acid tests. And then he got together the band of The Merry Pranksters, and in the spirit of Jack Kerouac, made their journeys back and forth across the country. It was written up by Thomas Wolfe, and then it just exploded.
By ‘67 there was the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park. By that summer there was the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury. By 1969 there was the Oregon Country Fair, and those of you who have been to that fair have immersed yourselves in one of the iterations down the line of what can be traced back to what was born in the Civilian Public Service Camp at Waldport, Fine Arts at Waldport. There was a direct line of causality that has touched all our lives.
Bill Everson, who was arguably one of the center-most figures in Fine Arts at Waldport, later in his life looked back at that time. He became later known, perhaps you may have known him by the name, Brother Antoninus. In the ‘50s, he became a monk in the Catholic Church. But he wrote about that time, and he said this,
“There were men there, and they sought the heart of the pure creative substance, the rock, and they began cutting to it. And they hued off layer after layer of incidentals. And they got to the heart of it, stripped it down, made it shine. They made it shine in painting, in music, in drama, and in writing, and nothing else really mattered. We called it Fine Arts at Waldport, and it is dead, and the great years of my life there with it. And I am proud, proud of my part in it. Proud to be of those clean men, and to have done what I did and built.”
These men, as I say, were not just motivated to do something creative, but it was in a context of seeing a society, a diseased society, a society that was hurting by dreams that do not really feed the human spirit, do not really take us to what is the depth of our humanity. There was a profound sense of service to what they were doing, what they were striving for, what they birthed, what we benefit from. Everson talks about how they saw the heart of the pure creative substance, the rock that they were cutting into to get to the heart. And service is a primary component of what that heart of the creative spirit should be, but it is not the whole of it. It is not the fullness of it.
Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar has written, or spoke at times in some of his discourses, about what he called Aesthetic Science. He treated aesthetics as a science because to really express it, you have to understand the structure, the rhythm, the melodies, the forms that can give real impact to this creative endeavor. Those need to be understood and worked with. And he talked about the importance of Aesthetic Science to humanity.
Kenneth Clark in “Civilisation”, his famous series on BBC, said that, “Humans have felt conscious of something about themselves which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence, and they felt the need to develop these qualities of thought and feeling so that they might approach an ideal of perfection. They had managed to satisfy this need in various ways, through myths, through dance and song, through systems of philosophy.” He said this is the part of our humanity that can take us beyond the drudgeries of our life, that is so essential to expressing our humanity.
Sarkar expressed much the same thing. He said that this, the arts, the Aesthetic Science is so crucial to getting something beyond the drudgery of life, something that reaches deep into our humanity. But he says that is in itself, expressed through service, is not enough. It needs to not just take us into this more subtle expression of our humanity, but all the way to our capacity to touch divinity, what he termed Supra Aesthetic Science. That which lies just beyond Aesthetic Science is Supra Aesthetic Science, it is spirituality.
Sarkar said, “Beyond the periphery of material mobility, that is the material aspects of our life, there is the world of aesthetics. And above it, beyond it, there is the world of mystics. The world of mystics and the world of aesthetics are for human beings, and each and every human being should get proper chance, should get adequate chance to move into those worlds. So you boys, you girls, this should be your duty, so that common people’s worldly burdens are minimized, so that they may get ample chance to move into higher worlds, and utilize their energy for higher and subtler pursuits. The entire aesthetics is the only charming entity in human life. Had there been no aesthetics, human life would have been like a desert. A slight touch of aesthetics in this anxiety-ridden life of human beings is just like an oasis in a desert. For their survival, human beings have to make constant efforts, not only in body, but also in mind and spirit. And the seed of escaping the monotony of existence has to be kept embedded in their constant onward march itself. Without that, life becomes unbearable. The subtler pulsations of humanity, by the means to keep human life enlivened with this aesthetic flow. Those subtler pulsations contain within them literature, art, and the various sweeter and sweeter humanistic and spiritual expressions. You should revive all these subtler expressions of humanity, and let all those aesthetic expressions be goaded unto the supreme loving entity.”
This article was transcribed from a talk by Acharya Ravi given on 6/20/21. Transcription by Alex Stockum, editing by Michele Renee.
If you’re interested in exploring what it means to serve humanity with art, join our Art Learning Community! More info here.