Berthold Haas

 

Like most of us, I started out as a child. My earliest memories are of the scent of the forest,

bright red mushrooms, dotted with white specks, which I picked off the ground from under fir

needles. The sound of wind blowing through the tree tops, moss under my feet, and the moles I

collected off their small hills during springtime, when the plains of the Danube flooded with the

water of snow melt.  Images of ammunition and grenades, pieces of fuselage or a broken

propeller, eerily sticking up from the ground in the Black Forest, from French or German

airplanes that had fallen from the sky during the very recent WWII, and of bombed-out cities

that looked like rotten teeth gliding by as I looked out the window of the train that took me to

my grandparents in Bremerhaven. School in the 50’s was a joyless, dreadful grind, and I did

whatever I could to escape into made-up realities in which the natural world of caves, ferns,

lichen covered castle ruins, mysterious bottomless springs and secret underground bunkers

seamlessly overlapped with the many stories my grandfather read to me before I could read

them myself.  Art raised me as much as did nature. My father gave me pen and pencil at a very

early age. I still remember one of my earliest drawings of my mother sitting on the john. Later

as a boy, I got to travel with my father, a painter and sculptor, to his jobs throughout Southern

Germany, climb up scaffolds to help him scrape out a “sgraffito” on the wall of a church, mix

some of the paints for his wall paintings, sit with him in the magnificent baroque churches (of

which there are many in the South of Germany) and listen to his tales about the meaning of the

churning ceiling frescoes showing saints being sucked upward into an ecstatic vortex of

heavenly bliss, or the subtleties of foreshortening on sculpted altar figures depicting martyrs

who’s intestines were violently extracted by heathens. In summers my family (6 kids plus a

grandma with a volcanic temperament) regularly drove to Carrara, Italy, in a rickety station

wagon. There, my dad went to work on some of his commissioned sculptural pieces and took

me along to assist him, suffering noise, dust and heat while my siblings got to frolic on the

sandy beaches of the Mediterranean and eat bomboloni. At the time I grumbled about the

assignment but later recognized what a privilege it had been to get to work on as glorious (and

difficult) a material as the white Carrara marble and learn from my father a sculptor’s tricks of

the trade. In this, our world, music was ever present: all my siblings played an instrument; I

played the violin and, with my mother at her Schiedmayer grand, we frequently performed

tunes for friends and ourselves as the occasion demanded. The music was all classical of course.

I had no inkling that any other kind of music existed until a friend of mine, who had been an

exchange student in Columbus, Ohio, handed me an LP that he had brought back with him from the

states. Pet Sounds was the LP’s name and I remember that, as I was listening to it for the very

first time, my whole existence, everything I thought I knew and had depended upon, turned

into mush. A new, magnificently caleidoscopic reality inundated and thoroughly intoxicated my

being. I had blown a fuse, was dazed for days and couldn’t get enough of the beautiful poison

which had triggered this experience. When my cultural cocoon burst open, a fierce curiosity

and hunger for everything new took a hold of me and I began a journey of intense discovery in

which I devoured anything I could get my hands on: pop art, op art, performance, minimalist,

kinetic art, skipped school to visit museums in Zürich, Basel, Stuttgart, the Documenta in Kassel

and once, during vacation, thumbed a trip to Picasso’s home in Mougins, France, convinced

that he would recognize a great fellow artist and therefore be eager to receive me. I did make it

there and, squatting behind a bush, ended up catching a glimpse of the great master as he

came thru the gate of his estate in a chauffeured black Bentley, and vanished.

After I managed to graduate from high school, I went to Berlin and enrolled at the Academy of

fine Arts. At that time, West Berlin was completely within communist Germany,

surrounded by the infamous wall and at the center of the Cold War. It also was a cultural

hothouse, a surreal, manic-depressive city , full of radicals, hippies, artists, musicians,

spiritualists, Hare Krishnas, Turks, cops, spies, drug dealers, war widows, students and German

Shepherds. At school, I painted in a happy frenzy, went to rock concerts and on

demonstrations against the Vietnam war, was once asked by Joseph Beuys to take part in one

of his performances in which I had the distinct pleasure of getting to pick up, with my bare

hands, the warm droppings of a horse he had on stage. Most importantly though, I fell madly in

love with my beautiful future wife who had made it all the way from sweltering Texas to foggy

Berlin in order to study voice and sing at the opera. We took an apartment and moved in

together. 16 flights up. No elevator. For heat, you had to carry coal upstairs. There were

bulletholes in the living room walls, remnants from the war, the wind blowing thru them and

making an eerie kind of music. Right below our kitchen window we could see the wall

separating the city. Trip wires, mine fields, death zone, armed guards with sniffing dogs. At

night, we saw flares go up, saw people trying to make it over the wall. Shots were fired.

Sometimes, the guards carried bodies away.

Berlin was a dark, cold place in winter. Emily left Germany for an engagement, first at the Santa

Fe opera, then at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. I joined her in 1975, we got married

and our sons were born. I opened a studio, painted, taught a painting course at Otis/Parsons in

downtown LA, occasionally got hired to draw political cartoons for the LA Times, LA Weekly and

the now defunct New West Magazine, installed skylights in Ladera Heights, security systems for

a greasy haired preacher in Compton who’s bedroom sported, on neon pink shag carpet, a

huge heart shaped bed with a tiger throw, and above the headboard a swaying velvet painting

of a Venetian gondola, worked as an independent contractor for a scientist who led the Mars

imaging project at JPL in Pasadena and a diminutive young wall street broker in Malibu who

always carried a Glock19 under her armpit and was followed at all times by a 280 lb body guard

who lived on the property in a tiny airstream filled with dozens of apricot hued teddy bears..

After the birth of our first son, Emily began writing screenplays and soon started producing her

own sitcom shows. Lukas, then 5 years old, frequently accompanied her on stage and

proclaimed that acting was for him. Shortly thereafter he was plucked from his kindergarten

and cast in a movie called Testament. That’s when our lives became a hyperactive blur of travel

and work which hardly slowed down after our twins, Nikolai and Simon were born 8 years later.

We eventually recognized that the professional pressures paired with living in this intense city

made it very difficult to raise children in a sane way. So we decided to move to Austin, Texas,

Emily’s home town. I rented another studio downtown, in an old building belonging to the

Masonic Order, resumed painting and designed and built furniture. Often, Simon and Niki

would come to work with me. Whenever they didn’t make a hellish racket rattling on my office

chairs with high speed up and down the old hallway or shooting glass marbles across its tiled

surface, I would give them brushes, pencil, paper and Fimo clay. Simon already then showed

great interest in my designs but decided to do me one better by drawing an exquisite series of

chairs, benches, lamps on vellum that put my own to shame. Niki meanwhile developed wild

clay cartoon characters he called honeymunchers and peddled them to the local toy store. In

Austin I had access to some magnificent limestone which I harvested and turned into grottos,

fountains and fireplaces. Soon my company supplied hand sculpted limestone fireplaces,

fountains and refined architectural elements to building projects throughout the region.

Whenever it was possible during their high school years, I encouraged Niki and Simon to work

alongside my crew and, in time, they became fluent in carving and handling stone. With delight

I still think of the magnificent 40ft long limestone fountain Niki singlehandedly carved in less

than a week for the AT&T conference center that is now part of the University of Texas at

Austin. At that time the twins had already established themselves in Los Angeles and invited me

to work with them on one of their major projects. What was intended to be a temporary stint

turned into a long term engagement and, after closing my business in Austin, my wive and I

moved to Los Angeles and I joined the Haas Brothers as a member of their creative team.