INTERVIEW WITH SID FRISCHER, BANGKOK ARTIST AT LARGE

INTERVIEW WITH SID FRISCHER, BANGKOK ARTIST AT LARGE

                                             

( c ) STEPHEN SHAIKEN 2018

I met Sid Frischer at the meditation group I attend Monday evenings, Little Bangkok Sangha. While Phra Pandit teaches Thai Buddhist meditation, or Theravada, Sid and poet Joe Shakarchi (with permission)  started a Zen Club to teach people about this branch of Buddhism.  (Joe was also  interviewed on this blog, and if you haven’t read it, you can do so as soon as you finish this piece!)  While I have never been moved to replace my Theravada meditation practice with Zen, I was moved to learn more about Sid. Sid is an artist, working in many media, but he  spent years teaching art to children in ways that opened their minds to the wide horizon that incorporates many forms of art. Sid was not just an art teacher; he was an artist teaching art in a creative and expansive way. (There’s a big difference.)   I found his work with comics and puppetry to be especially fascinating.

I found particular enjoyment working with Sid on this interview. He  really opened himself up as a human being, not just as an artist. I am sure that all artists, and indeed everyone else, can identify with the personal and internal struggles of his life. We have all had to deal with conflicts over what work to do, how to reconcile art and the need to survive, where to live, who to share our lives with, and the ultimate question of who we really are. Sid holds back nothing in this interview and it is clear that after countless adventures and changes, he remains an artist and that spirit remains as strong as ever.

Keep checking his art website:  http://mrsidsworldofart.com

and his new Zen website: mrsidsworldofzen.com

Now, on to the interview:

Tell us something about your life before you moved to Thailand.

I was born in New Jersey in 1948 to a Jewish woman from Romania and an assimilated American Jew who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. My family moved to the rough and tumble New York City borough of the Bronx when I was a year old. When I was five, we moved to Los Angeles, and  until age twenty I lived with my family in Venice, California in Los Angeles County. I attended the local community college, studying to be a psychiatric social worker. One summer I took an art class on painters of the Renaissance period. The teacher was the official copier for the Louvre in Paris, making duplicates of the masterpieces the museum owned. My teacher brought the Renaissance artists to life. This course changed my life and I decided to study art and follow in the footsteps of these great painters. This was 1968, when the humanistic movement was in full swing in America and many young people were experimenting with alternative lifestyles and work. I had been painting on my own and loved it so I began studying fine art in college. My education was interrupted when I  was drafted during the the Vietnam War. I promptly enlisted in the U.S. Navy hoping that I would not have to fight in what I saw as a crazy war, but I wound up in Vietnam during the last year of my service. The seven months I spent in Vietnam gave me an appreciation for Asian culture and women. It also sowed the seeds for my interest in Buddhism, which grew much deeper later on in life.

Strangely, unlike most who served in Vietnam, I never made it to Thailand for R&R (rest and relaxation.) This is probably one reason why many years later I decided to visit the Land of Smiles  when I was winding down my career as a teacher in America.

After the War, I embarked upon a spiritual quest and was also disillusioned with life in America. For many years I had thought of  realizing a Zionist dream and living in Israel. I went there to live and study several times. I felt that I had discovered my own spiritual roots in the Zionist dream of a new society based on Judaism. I studied the religion during my trips to Israel and eventually made Aliyah, which literally means to rise up, and is the term used to describe a Jew who immigrates to Israel.

In Israel I met and married my Russian wife, Sonia, and our first child, David, was born there. Our second child was born later after we returned to the U.S.  We had returned to the U.S. so that I could study for a teaching credential. My intention was to then return to Israel but my wife did not see things that way and did not want to return. I felt I had no choice but to remain in America with my family, though it was heartbreaking as Israel remained the land of my dreams. I had to adjust and I did. I earned a BA in Fine Arts and an art teaching credential at California State University, Northridge, in Los Angeles. I moved my family from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where I received a special education teaching credential from San Francisco State University and taught in the public schools for twenty six years. For the first fifteen years I taught special education and then was able to teach art for ten years. I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to find an art teaching position in San Francisco. Art education is not well respected in America and I had all but given up hope of ever teaching it. I used my position to produce art in many mediums including  stained glass, sculpture, comic art, and film. I especially began to work in puppetry, and thought of myself as “the king of puppetry and comic art” in the San Francisco School system, having taught over ten thousand students. At the end of my career I also incorporated  mime work into my classes.

I became a traveling teacher, going to many elementary schools, public and private as well, to teach art. I became a specialist in comic books and puppetry, which was a surprise, as I had never given much thought to these art forms.

Though I was trained as a painter, I never attempted to make any money by painting. I was able to earn something working with frame shops and galleries. I  also worked as an art installer. at the Los Angeles Museum of Art.  I thought about opening my own frame shop but never did.  I had decided early in life that I wanted to have a family and saw the life of an artist as one of financial struggle, poverty and hardship. That was why I never became a full-time practicing artist.

That’s quite an interesting and productive life you lead in San Francisco! What was it that caused you to relocate here to Bangkok?

Sometime before my retirement I came to Thailand for a vacation. I met someone and decided to return here and live with them. Probably my long-simmering interest in Asia had to be realized. I had been studying Zen in America and the idea of living in a Buddhist nation-though not a Zen nation-appealed to me. 

But the main reason I moved to Thailand was something utterly unexpected: I developed an interest in transgender women, and I saw Thailand as “the land of ladyboys” and I wanted to explore my newly discovered obsession. I had separated from my wife, largely for this reason, so upon retirement I left my family (as Gaugin had done) to pursue what I believed to be my bliss, as I had done when I moved to Israel years before. By the time I moved here, my children were grown, I could afford to live here on my pension money and I could practice Buddhism and explore Southeast Asia. I was following “my bliss” as Joseph Campbell advised us to do.

I never expected to separate from my wife because I did love her and I felt we had a good marriage together. We both loved our children very much and helped each other throughout our married life. Our spirituality was an important part of our lives together. I was as surprised as anyone when we separated. I was not sure if I was doing the right thing but I was pushed forward by my obsession with transgender women. I had to discover my real feelings and was going to find out one way or the other. My mind remained Buddhist and its wholesome approach to life was my way.

You have a wide range of interests in art and have worked in several mediums. How would you describe your art today?

I stopped painting when I came to Thailand. I had earned a BA in Fine Arts and had experimented in paining large multiple configured canvases in acrylic, usually spiritual themes. I found this very satisfying but in Thailand found other pursuits.

I have continued working with puppets and have produced some videos which can be found on You Tube or on my website, mrsidsworldofart.com   I cannot say for certain  how much time I will actually spend on this puppetry project right now as I’m otherwise engaged.

Presently it is my writing which I’m most involved in. I have written several small-style comic books which I hope to combine in one large volume. I am also becoming more interested in my political cartoon work, and may pursue getting a collection published. On top of this, I am working on a book which combines fiction and non-fiction and addresses my interests in Buddhism, gender, science and physics. Perhaps my written work will eventually be available on Amazon.

I have never thought of myself as an activist but through my art I can express my thoughts and hopes for this world. I feel that as a retired person in Thailand I finally have the chance to be the kind of artist I really want to be.

How has living in Thailand impacted your art?

It has definitely affected my art. I am working on books and comics which I hope to publish on line, something I never thought of doing in America.

I am also teaching Zen Buddhism, and with another local artist, poet Joe Shakarchi, have started a Zen Club and am teaching Zen Buddhism to interested people. Actually I consider my teaching Zen to be the most important part of my life right now. Teaching Zen and reflecting on it so much has impacted the art and writing that I do produce. It has opened my mind to the possibility of using the internet to distribute my puppetry and writing.

I am now retired and approaching my seventieth year. Living in Thailand allows to focus on maintaining a healthier life, with exercise, Buddhist studies and travel.

You have spoken at length about your interests and current activities in Buddhism. Can you give us a bit more of your history with Buddhism before and after moving to Thailand?

In America I studied largely by reading books by various teachers and studying with some. Of course the Buddha is the most important teacher. Suzuki Roshi, who founded the San Francisco Zen Center, where I studied and attended dharma talks for many years, has been a great inspiration and my most important teacher to date. I have been heavily influenced by the Japanese founder of Soto Zen, Dogen, by the Vietnamese Zen monk, writer and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and by the American Zen teacher, writer and poet Norman Fischer. I am open to learning from other traditions besides Zen, and I studied Theravada Buddhism for six years in the Nagara Thai Temple in San Francisco. That experience was influential in helping me decide to move here.

I have just started a website dedicated to teaching Zen  at : mrsidsworldofzen.com

Is there anything you miss about life in the U.S.A.?

I miss my family, especially my two children.

I miss living in an English-speaking culture. I miss American food. I miss some American sports as well, especially basketball. I miss the high level all areas of life, from urban development to the urban lifestyle and the cleanliness. I miss the medical insurance and the doctors I had in America. I now realize the good things about America and love them more. There are so many things I miss that I could not name them all.

I cannot predict the future and say for certain I will remain in Thailand or return to America.  All I can say is that I am here right now, with my bliss-seeking mind and my passions.

If you could meet any three artists in history, who would they be?

Vincent Van Gough. I know his story well and his struggle really moves me on a personal level.

Pablo Picasso, because he was such a dynamic character and so full of life. He was a Zorba the Greek of artists.

Ai Weiwei because I admire his activist art, his fearlessness and his unusual creativity.

Any parting words?

My art and my study of artists has been and continues to be one of life’s greatest joys. I’m glad I followed my bliss to be an artist. It has given me untold moments of happiness and joy, and a direction and meaning in life that I so appreciate.  I am not through yet. The artist in me is still stirring the artistic pot. Hopefully the best is yet to come. Long live art and beauty! It gives meaning to this world and immensely enriches our lives and offers us hope. Think of what this world would be like without artists!

On another note, my search for ladyboys and my fantasies have ended. My interest has returned to traditional women. However, I am left with a profound appreciation of all gender types.

Check out Sid Frischer’s  art work at: mrsidsworldofart.com

Check out his Zen teachings at: mrsidsworldofzen.com

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