A Glimpse Into The Heart Of Richard Whittaker

Posted by Bela Shah on Nov 28, 2011
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I always thought it was sort of strange that Black Friday, the heaviest shopping day of the year in the United States, comes right after a national holiday that is meant for gratitude and sharing. So it couldn’t have been more perfect to have Richard Whittaker as our Forest Call guest speaker on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and Black Friday.   Richard is the founder and visionary for the magazine, works & conversations, and in 2007, he made the decision to move it from a paid subscription based model to a gift-economy based model.  works & conversations, a work of art in itself, beautifully captures the elusive experiences and reflections of artists and social change makers.
      When I first discovered the magazine and read several of the online interviews, I felt as if I was invited to read passages from the personal journals of extraordinary people.  Richard has that special gift that allows people to open their hearts and share from deep within.  However, this time on the Forest Call, a few of us from around the country (and Ahmedabad) had the unique opportunity to listen to Richard’s reflections and ask him about his personal journey.    

How It All Started
Recently during a gathering of friends, a woman that Richard reconnected with after 20 years remarked, “Richard, it seems that you’ve lived a charmed life!” After giving it some thought, Richard agreed, “Yes, I think I have.” 
     Like many of us, Richard has experienced his share of trials and tribulations.  But he described how he has been led by the search for meaning. Taking the path less traveled, he chose to avoid a job or career that did not lead toward this deeper purpose.  However, his decision also entailed living an unconventional life, one that at times made him feel like an outsider.  He pursued several different interests that might have appeared disjointed at the time, but in 1990, all the random dots magically connected to create the vision of works & conversations.
     While Richard took only a few art courses as a university student, he found himself always gravitating toward artists. "And I pursued art on my own," he told us. "I'd always had one foot in the creative world, but couldn't quite call myself an artist, officially." Fast forwarding several years, he found himself in group of painters. During one of their monthly meetings, he commented that they needed an edge in the competitive world of artists struggling for recognition. "We should start an art magazine," he said. “Why don’t you start one?” One of the others said. "The next day, I did," he said. It was as if some kind of hidden collection of forces suddenly came together.
     And as the magazine began evolving, for the first time, he felt like he had found a vocation. “I wanted the magazine to be a venue for what I wasn't finding in other art publications. I wanted it to be a place where the same kind of deep experiences I was having could be represented in an authentic way through other artists. And it's a joy finding the treasures that are often overlooked by other publications. So in that way, I feel it has been a charmed life.” 
     So what was it like to start a magazine from scratch? Believe it or not, there was no business plan other than to take it one day at a time.  The idea was that it would grow through the human connections that organically spread from person to person. Richard admitted that the initial stages of launching the magazine were filled with fear and doubt.  However, although the light that had inspired the idea flickered from time to time, it never went out. 
     As the months went by, the universe supported Richard’s efforts in different ways.  After a while, he knew he had found something that fit him and fit everything that had come before. All of the other things he'd done for 40-plus years turned out to have a useful function.
    works & conversations has attracted important subscribers, ranging from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, SFMOMA and the Kandinsky Library at the Pompidou Center in Paris to Harvard, Stanford and Columbia Universities, RISD, the Hirsch LIbrary and the Chicago Institute of Art and several others. And Richard has interviewed a full range of artists and other creative individuals from the unknown to the well known.    
     Meeting Nipun and ServiceSpace (formerly CharityFocus) In 2007, another magical milestone unfolded in his life. It came about through Paul Van Slambrouck who had just retired as Editor and Chief of the Christian Science Monitor and who offered to help him with the magazine. As the two got to know each other, Richard heard many stories about Paul's friend, Nipun Mehta. It wasn't long before Richard wanted to meet him in person!  Paul arranged it, and a few days later and fifteen minutes into their lunch at a local taqueria, Nipun leaned over, looked Richard in the eyes, and asked, “Richard, how can I serve you?” 
     Taken aback, Richard laughed and gave the standard response, “Thank you. No one has asked me that before, but I don't know, really.”  But Nipun persisted, “I’m serious Richard. "What do you want?" At this point, Nipun is looking right at Richard and it’s totally unexpected! 
     “I felt ambushed by this amazing young man and I knew I had to give him an honest answer." He described his hopes for the magazine.
     "What you're  doing is a gift and you should be giving it away," Nipun replied. "And If you’re willing to give this magazine away, I can help you.” 
     Richard trusts his intuition. "I knew I'd be an idiot if I let the moment pass," he said. And just like his spontaneous decision to launch a magazine out of thin air, he said, "Okay."
    The two met for coffee the next day to discuss how a gift-economy based magazine would work. And that day marked the beginning of Richard’s life-changing relationship with Nipun and the ServiceSpace posse.

Interesting Ways of the Universe 
All of this seems quite amazing.  But could it have been as easy as it seems from the outside?  On the call, Sam and Bill asked Richard, “In the time that you have been working on the magazine, did you ever reach a certain point where you thought, I can’t do it anymore or this is not so interesting to me? Or did you ever question your vision of the magazine?  How do you know that what you’re doing is still meaningful and that you’ve accomplished what you’ve set out to do with the magazine?”
     Richard compared his experience with the magazine to a sine wave with all of the ups and downs. “Many times I’ve been discouraged and wondered, why am I doing this? Is this just some kind of ego trip or my own folly? Or is this something I should persist in?
     "It’s been a roller coaster ride from the beginning. I would be exhilarated after interviewing an artist who beautifully articulated the kinds of things the magazine was started to give voice to. I would be feeling "People have to hear this! This is the real stuff!"
     But then people wouldn’t read the magazine or renew their subscriptions, and there wouldn’t be enough money coming in. (It’s never made me a dime.) But then I'd have this hopeful speculation... you know Richard, maybe God doesn’t wasn’t you to get too successful because then your head would swell up too much! And then, just when I was about ready to throw in the towel, something really good would happen.”
     About 8 months ago, Richard hit another low point on the roller coaster.  To keep the magazine going, he knew he would have to reach into his bank account again and it just didn’t seem fair that after so many years, it still couldn’t pay for itself.  But in that moment, he received a voicemail from the Kalliopeia Foundation.  “Hey Richard, we want to give you some money!” 
     So it’s been like that all along with the ups and downs, but over the course of his journey, Richard believes that his vision has become more focused and his purpose confirmed by the kinds of responses he gets. 
     “What I’m doing is not pop culture and I know that it’s not something that hundreds of thousands of people are going to get excited about. But I’m inspired by what I’m able to do.  When I see somebody who is doing something that really moves me and when I’m able to get them into the magazine—and usually it’s a little known person—that keeps this going. The other part is the responses from readers. I consistently receive incredibly heartfelt responses and these are like pure gold. People often write that, “I have never run into a magazine like this.  Please keep doing what you’re doing, this has saved my life."  
    One woman told me she was going to commit suicide and accidentally finding the magazine saved her life.  When you hear stuff like that, that does it.”

The Art of Listening
Being able to spark these kinds of deep awakenings within people is simply an amazing gift that Richard has. As Kanchan noted on the call, interviewing is closely related to the art of listening.  She asked him, “What does this mean to you, the art of listening?”
     In fact, one of the random dots that aligned to create works & conversations was Richard’s MA in clinical psychology, which involved rigorous training in the art of listening. 
     Richard described to us how active listening involves your whole body and all of your feelings.  “In an interview, when you’re sitting with someone and they’re talking to you, you try to be in touch with all of yourself. You might start feeling tense or have an impulse to say something or an affectionate feeling arises or odd ideas will start coming to you suddenly. Anything can happen. But in that moment, you watch your body, you watch your emotions, and you try to watch the tensions in your body while you’re also listening to the thread of words. 
     You have to simultaneously keep track of what’s being said and what is going on inside of you because the latter is a form of information that can be used to understand what is being shared by the person who is talking.  
     “We’re complicated beings and there is much more to us than our thoughts.  We’re very much a head brain culture and often we’re cut off from the feelings and the sensations in our bodies.  But when we’re just in our thoughts, when we’re just connected to the words, we’re missing out on all of the other modalities of our being.
     Unconsciously we're always receiving all kinds of information. If we're consciously able to tune in to more of the channels within us, including what's happening in our sensations, then we will be able to be much more present to the person across from us and more able to respond to the content in a deeper way.  So in that sense, doing interviews for the magazine is always a real adventure.”

Evolving As a Person
Along this adventure, Richard has evolved into an incredible human being.  Audrey was inspired to know more about this inner transformation: “How has this process changed you?  How have you changed from before the magazine existed or even in the past few years?”
     Richard's response, and his understanding of how he has developed in his humility as well as his self confidence resonated with many of us on the call. While producing the magazine there was a certain amount of anxiety about some of the things that he had to do, various challenges came along, and often things were scary for him. 
     “When I interviewed James Turrell, I thought, who am I to be asking for this man's time? I didn’t have any credentials or even an MFA.  At the time, I did have some big ideas about myself along with its opposite, a lot of self-doubt.  It was sort of an exaggerated case on both ends. Those poles are moving closer to each other and I’m not nearly as arrogant or nearly as scared as I used to be. I'm more able to feel grateful for the gifts of others and more able to recognize my own gifts. I feel more balanced inside.” 
     Do you attribute these changes to works & conversations?” (Kanchan)
     "Yes. That has been part of it. You know, there are these stories about meeting and slaying the dragon and all of us face all kinds of dragons. They don’t have to be big monsters. They can just be little monsters that scare the pants off of us. For instance, about 25 years ago, I was standing in line waiting for the checker at the grocery store with the tabloids staring at me.  I used to look at those things with a supercilious attitude that I was above all that. I had my degree and tabloids were very low-brow.  But one day while waiting in line, I began looking at myself more closely: “You know what, you’re afraid to pick one up and read it because you think you’re so great and you're afraid of what others will think. But you tell yourself you’re interested in the truth. The truth is, you'd like to pick one up. But you’re letting your fear run. By then, I knew I had to reach over and pick one of those tabloid papers up while I was standing there in line. Otherwise I was a total fraud. It's funny how much resistance there was to doing that. Inwardly I was so worried about what other people would think. So I finally reached out and pulled one off the sheolf. Of course, it was an amazing moment to see that no one cared whether I was reading a tabloid or not.  And I'd carried all these fantasies and fears around in my head. But in that moment there was a victory over that tiny dragon.  
     There are all kinds of things like that in the world and some of them really are dangerous.  But there are a lot of things we’re afraid of that aren’t dangerous at all, but our fears stop us. 
     The magazine has given me plenty of chances to encounter my fears, but fears could exist anywhere in life.  We all need to search for the courage to face these unnecessary fears that could run our lives if we let them.

What Does it Mean to Serve?
Leah’s question before she boarded her plane seemed an ideal way to end our short time with Richard.
     “I was curious to find out what kind of questions you’re living with now with respect to the magazine and the future of it?”
     Even though works & conversations is a gift-based magazine, Richard continues to examine his understanding of service. Much of this has been influenced by his connections with Nipun and with the ServiceSpace community.    
     “I never used to think about the question of service, but in the last few years I have been.  There's always a mixture of motives and desires and non-desires. But I do feel that what I find and publish in the magazine is something that needs to be shared even though I’m not absolutely certain in myself of how to sort out the difference between personal satisfaction and service. Maybe it's not an either or. In fact, giving is a joy. But then when someone praises you, what do you do with that?  It's not totally clear.  But it’s more than just the magazine.  It’s also In what ways can one serve?  What is it that one has to give?"
     But Richard, you have already given us so much.  
     In ending the call, we were all overcome by Richard’s humbleness and honesty.  As Sam so eloquently stated, it is Richard’s deep and honest engagement with the world that allows him to create and share such beautiful conversations with us. 
     Thank you Richard for being who you are…for being a wonderful work (of art yourself) & (for gifting us this lovely) conversation =).        

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Comments (4)

  • Chris wrote ...

    Great writeup Bella! And it's hard to acknowledge so much heartfelt and ripple-some effort of w&c, etc in one sentence, but in the spirit of Meister Eckhart: thank you. :)

  • Pancho wrote ...

    :-)

    It is incredible how this profile writeups describe greatly the interviewed person as well as the interviewer.
    ONEderful job sister Bella! :-) To collectively interview hermano Ricardo is a perfect way to honor his work and heart. You have a pretty powerful skill to articulate the beauty of people sister. Please keep using it.

    And you, hermano Ricardo, you are just a Love Monster! ;-)

    In radical love,
    Pancho

  • Somik Raha wrote ...

    Richard is my hero!!

  • Viral wrote ...

    thank you bela for shining your poetic light on richard, and to ricardo himself for the decades of beautiful heartistry!