I just received the latest edition of The Shoestring, a quaint little newsletter on yellow paper from Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), the organization in Warwick, N.Y., founded by the late Dr. Frederick Franck. Franck wrote the classic book The Zen of Seeing in 1973, about how drawing and seeing is a discipline by which the world can be rediscovered, a way of experiencing Zen.
What could be more important, on this shortest day of the year, than to relearn how to see? To open our eyes and experience the beauty in this world. And so, this holiday season, I am going to reread this wonderful path to meditation.
Dr. Franck left this world in 2006, just three years shy of his 100th birthday. In 2001, I was very fortunate to be able to interview this great wise man — he wasn’t giving out many interviews at that stage of life, feeling he had more important work to fulfill.
To describe Dr. Frederick Franck – doctor, dentist, illustrator, painter, sculptor, teacher, author of 29 books, philosopher, playwright and humanitarian – as a Renaissance man doesn’t even begin to do him justice.
“His books, icons, drawings and paintings capture wisdom and playfulness, anguish and hope for the world and all that lives in it, glimpses of that which matters – all emerging from the clear vision, probing mind and compassionate spirit of a man whose life has been a living out of seeing that which is real,” writes Jane Nowakowski, associate professor-librarian at Westminster Choir College of Rider University.
“In this 20th century, to stop rushing around, to sit quietly on the grass, to switch off the world and come back to the earth, to allow the eye to see a willow, a bush, a cloud, a leaf, is an unforgettable experience,” writes Dr. Franck in The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation. The book was drawn and handwritten in 1973.
“Millions of people, unseeing, joyless, bluster through life in their half sleep, hitting, kicking and killing what they have barely perceived. They have never learned to see, or they have forgotten that man has eyes to see, to experience.”
In My Eye is in Love with the World, he writes, “My eye is in love with its own perception of life…Through my eye I relate to the world around me… drawing…is not just a technique, it is a total response. Drawing, while born from awareness, leads to an even greater awareness which involves me totally…”
From what experience was such thinking born? He recounts how, as a boy, he escaped his mother’s watchful gaze, crossed a brook to a meadow and lay down in tall grass, very still. As a bumblebee buzzed over head he saw, from the corner of an eye, it land on a purple flower that almost touched his face. The bee started to suck, and at that moment, the flower disappeared, the bee disappeared, he felt himself disappear, and all that remained was an awareness of light. He completely lost track of time until the flower re-entered his vision, the bee long gone.
“All that remained was an all-encompassing bliss,” he writes. “I must have touched the untouchable. I must have been as close to reality as I would ever get… The artist within had been awakened.”
In The Awakened Eye (1979) he writes, “To the awakened eye no thing remains a mere thing. It reveals itself to be, instead of an object, an event in the timeless abyss of time, an event of unfathomable meaning… I become an empty vessel, filled by what the eye sees.”
In Pacem in Terris: a love story (Codhill Press, 2000), he tells how, in second grade, he watched a leather-capped pilot in goggles drop a bomb from a German biplane over the school yard. It landed close to where he stood but failed to explode.
Discovering himself to be “allergic to war and violence,” he survived demons from Hitler to Stalin and Mao, but had the good fortune to live in the same century as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., among others, as well as the three men he counts as the most significant influences in his life: Albert Schweitzer, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952; Pope John XXIII; and Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki.
Dr. Franck grew up on an “agnostic island in the fiercely Catholic ocean.” His father said, “If you live a decent life, you don’t have to fear, God or no God, the hereafter – if any.” Dr. Franck did not inherit the agnostic temperament, but came to absorb the “ubiquitous symbols of the Catholic culture of my childhood” – cast-iron crucifixes and sky-blue Madonnas in white shrines on the Belgian border. These helped to answer his childhood questions: “Why did my pet rooster die?” “Where is he now?” This first intimation at meaning, he writes, made him “a self-styled Catholic, a totally free, unaffiliated one.”
He concluded: “Art is the tool that brings me in total touch with the innermost workings of my life, inside and around myself.” Dr. Franck entered medical school at 17, but his idols were artists – “the shabby poet, the emaciated pianist who survived on Prokofiev, and above all the painters.”
He skipped classes and crashed courses in art, Buddhism, Taoism and Sufism to discover “what really matters… was translucent in the Upanishads, in Meister Eckhart, in Rumi, Dionysius, Rama Krishna and Chuang Tzu.” Dr. Franck began reading the Zen writings of D.T. Suzuki and later wrote to him, asking “What is Zen?”
“Zen is what makes you ask the question,” the master replied.
Dr. Franck pursued dentistry to give him the time to think, draw, paint and write “for that is what I was obviously born to do.” During World War II, he served with the Dutch-East Indies government in Australia, drawing kangaroos, eucalyptus trees and painted landscapes. He returned to American and set up an oral surgery practice in New York City, working two to three days at his “economic anchor” and spending the rest of his time drawing, painting and writing.
In 1955, while on a boat trip to Europe, he wrote Open Wide, Please, a self-mocking “autodental biography” written by Dr. Frank Fredericks, illustrated by Frederick Franck.
The manuscript was messy, and he decided to dictate it to a typist at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, while discussing his impending exhibition. It was a hot, hot day, and after a few hours dictating in the typist’s sweltering attic, he suggested a drive to the beach to cool off. But once there, a thunderstorm erupted, and they sat in the parked car and fell in love. Claske would become his inspiration, wife and lifelong companion.
“Almost half a century later, we still walk hand in hand,” he writes. “She is an amazing woman; without her, I cannot imagine who I would be,” he says from his home in Warwick, N.Y. “She has an enormous capacity to see, although she does not draw. She is an intense and compassionate perceiver. She points things out to me while we sit in our 1984 Volvo and I draw.”
From 1958 to 1961, with Claske working at his side, he established and worked in an oral surgery clinic at Albert Schweitzer’s hospital in Lambarene, Gabon, Africa. He became known there as “the tooth doctor who draws.” His book, My Days with Albert Schweitzer, published in 1959, was lauded by The New York Times as “the best book on Schweitzer to date.”
“I came to see Albert Schweitzer not as the saint he never pretended to be, but all the more as a pioneer, a prophet… in missionary work that did not consist of sermonizing and was not measured by the number of converts made. It was mission as a total commitment to the alleviation of suffering… He was a pioneer in ecumenism.”
Shortly after his work in Africa, Dr. Franck flew to Rome and recorded in hundreds of drawings the four sessions of the Vatican Council. In 1963, Dr. Franck received the Medal of His Pontificate in appreciation of the drawings.
“Pope John XXIII was not only a pope but a prophet of human solidarity,” says Dr. Franck. “He went beyond being Catholic, he was a genius of the heart.”
In the winter of 1957, while hiking with Claske in Warwick, N.Y., the couple came upon the ruins of McCann’s Hotel, covered with snow on the banks of the Wawayanda River, “and it seduced us.” Several years later, they bought the property, and when they consulted a contractor about renovating it, the contractor’s first suggestion was: Tear it down. The couple searched and searched for another contractor until they found a Dutch windmill builder who agreed to do whatever they asked and helped restore the structure that remains their home today.
“We did not landscape it,” says Dr. Franck. “We thought God’s landscape was good enough.”
Across from the house was a garbage dump the couple bought for $800 to protect it from developers. But in winter, when the poison ivy covering it died back, the 18th century mill made from hand-formed fieldstone emerged. “It was pre-American, resembling medieval priories in Provence and hermitages in Tuscany I had often drawn. The partly collapsed Romanesque archway was a miraculous gift.”
They hauled 1,200 wheelbarrows of junk out of it to create Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), a transreligious sanctuary open to the public and dedicated to Dr. Schweitzer, Suzuki and Pope John. “It is built on my conviction that in every human being there is a spark that makes us human.”
Pacem in Terris would become a huge sculpture of wood, stone and earth, a sculpture one could walk into, sit down in; a sacred space that would speak to the core of the human heart. As Dr. Franck was building and sculpting, he felt a close kinship with the cathedral builders, the masons, woodcarvers, icon-makers of ages past, even with the bison painters of Lascaux 30,000 years ago. “Art is not a luxury! Art arises from one’s depths or it is not art but kitsch! Art for me is and was my digging tool for meaning, for truth,” he writes. Pacem has been used for Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist and Shinto services.
A good friend who was first oboist of the Metropolitan Opera discovered the sanctuary’s acoustics and suggested it for concerts, poetry readings and play readings.
“I didn’t want anyone to preach here,” he says. “Music would be the language to express this spiritual connection. Music is not entertainment, but nourishment. Our concerts are not intended to charm people, but we always have a full house.”
The five-acre property is a sculpture garden of Dr. Franck’s work. Dr. Franck refers to the 50 pieces in steel, wood and stone as “icons.” Pacem represents Dr. Franck’s first foray into the world of sculpture. “I felt I needed these icons – and they came. They are not designed. Design implies it is done with the left side of the brain, it is calculated and thought out. I don’t do that. Each icon was something that came up.”
There is, for example, “Hiroshima – the Unkillable Human,” a black steel shadow of a human seen through a black steel cutout of another human. “It came about on my return from Hiroshima where, burned into a concrete wall, I saw the shadow of a fellow human evaporated the moment the Bomb struck. Through the empty negative – mere flames of steel – one sees the human rising like a phoenix from its ashes.”
Not surprisingly, Claske and Dr. Franck are vegetarians – “If you have chickens, you can never eat them” – and the property includes a circular organic garden. “The whole place is an oasis of sanity and tranquillity in an insane world,” he says. “Life is our religious practice. Seeing is my discipline.
“If seeing/drawing is indeed a way… I don’t pretend it to be the way, but since it is my way it might also be yours. I don’t know where I am on this way and no critic can tell me. The stations are unmarked: I only trust that I am still on it.”