Many years ago, when I was a girl and had just fallen in love with the boy I was going to marry, I fell asleep one night and dreamed that I was approaching a strange silo-shaped building. Before it, a frail gray man stood smiling. Behind him, on steps that spiraled into the building, bigger-than-life figurative sculptures were mounted, one after the other. Intrigued, I picked one up and found it light as a feather. I asked the old man if he knew whose sculptures these were. He answered, “they’re yours, if you want to claim them.”
Patricia’s Knop’s recounting of this dream epiphany, rich in allusive depth and metaphor, was a guide into her future life as an artist.
As a young woman she was fired with the boundless energy that comes from a source beyond us, a gift that we grasp and ride in its wake– if we are lucky. If not, if we are too cautious, it abandons us, not to be seen again except as companion to its next acolyte. I asked Pat about her early impulses and how she found her “voice” as an artist, whether she ever felt she was going to become a “hot” artist:
When I was just beginning to create things, I don’t think I had any concept of what was “hot.” I didn’t deliberately veer away from what was going on. I simply had no idea of what was going on. The work was always my own vision because I had very little else to draw inspiration from. Growing up, we had one old print of poppies on the wall. I don’t recall any other examples of art. There were no art books, no conversations about art, and no interest in it. We also didn’t own a television set, so there was very little exposure to what was going on. Later, as I became more aware, I was drawn to the more emotional work of the past century. By definition I would call myself a Romantic… and an “Outsider.”
Pat Knop and her husband, Zalman King, actor/writer/director, seemed to be able to hold fast to this energy, passing it between them, never letting it go. Pat shared a large downtown artist’s studio with Jerry Rothman. There she was able to forge her ever-growing sculptural figures in clay, which traveled to galleries and private collections.
She was trained only in the singularity of her vision, “unschooled” in academic circles: as she says, an “outsider” artist.
Pat’s other art has been writing, so with the birth of daughters Chloe and Gillian and the growing success of Zalman’s career as a movie actor and director , Knop veered back into writing with new enthusiasm. Soon her screenplays were being produced: The Passover Plot with Zalman, then Silence of The North, and Siesta.
After Pat and Zalman wrote 9 and 1/2 Weeks, their careers took a turn into a series of stylish erotic films including Delta of Venus and the television series Red Shoe Diaries, which Zalman produced and directed. Given the choice between sex and violence as subject matter, Pat says they chose sex, a life-affirming theme consistent with her sculpture. Although Pat continued making her art during this time, it was at a slower pace, and for the past 30 years this work remained mostly unseen.
Pat’s art filled the rooms and the garden of their Santa Monica home a few blocks from the beach. Their careers bloomed; their daughters grew into young women.
Pat met French film director Agnès Varda in Paris while writing a film called Lady Oscar for Varda’s husband, director Jacques Demy. Varda’s pixyish energy paralleled Pat’s own and through the years Varda has remained her close friend. You see Pat and Zalman briefly in a box frame at 00:56 in the trailer to the documentary The Beaches of Agnes, the movie Varda made of her life in film and art,
In the 80s, Pat and Zalman joined with Carol and me, Haskell Wexler, Paul Golding and a small group of other 60s idealists in buying a section of high desert land above Kern County’s Kelso Valley. We built a cabin on a high hill overlooking the land, a refuge from the vicissitudes of power groveling in the canyons of the movie studios. But we had little time to find solace in that transcendent wilderness.
Zalman and Pat turned their home into their own refuge. In addition to it being a gallery of Pat’s sculpture and painting, they found and saved other art, much of it made anonymously, art on the verge of being destroyed. Abandoned stained glass windows glowed anew in their home. Wooden angels from Central American churches were rescued from becoming fire kindling. They bought a wooden carousel and the animal figures became companions to the menagerie of human sculptures that were filling their home.
Pat collected and revealed her neighbors’ dreams in a series of surreal paintings called “The Dreams Of The Women Of Alta Avenue:” one women holding an exposed heart, another a zip-lock baggie.
Pat reflects with humor on the sheer size and weight of her clay sculptures—pieces more than thirty years old, as well as the new ones, so large they may not be readily fired in existing kilns—perhaps forcing a change of art medium to bronze castings.
My own taste in art runs toward the extremes of either Old Masters or 20th century modernism, Cubism to Abstract Expressionism to 21st century Neo-Figurativism. The great works of the late 19th century Symbolists and Art Nouveau often seem too self-important for my taste, the Arts and Crafts revisionists trying to hold back the rising waters of what it feared would be an unstoppable nihilist tide of (in the Wittgenstein sense) “mechanical” art. Perhaps, in light of the last hundred year’s art history these Craftsman-esque revanchists were at least partly right. I asked Pat whether she felt connected to the spiritual themes of this 19th century artisanal work:
As I look back now, I do see a comparison with the French Symbolists because the work has always been deeply personal… and for the last 40 years, has delved into the mysterious territory of dreams. Probably, the art that has intrigued me the most, however, has been the colonial religious work of Mexico and South America. I love that it’s usually never signed, that it comes from a devoted heart, and that it speaks of legends and intricate stories that have been built through the centuries. I also love “outsider art” for the same reason. This work is rarely done by schooled artists. They do what they do because of a need to create and because the act of creation gives them great pleasure.
Zalman and Pat’s home is filled with this anonymous and outsider art. One thing that I find so seductive about Pat Knop’s art, different as it is from my own more astringent taste, is her delight in the small pleasures of a daily-lived life, and of how she expresses it on canvas and in clay. Her paintings today are linked arm in arm with her sculptures of forty years ago—and linked as well to the spirit of her recently deceased husband, Zalman. For Pat, it is these small things, the sometimes-overlooked details all around us, as well as the people that inhabit our daily lives that we all too often take for granted.
I asked her about Zalman’s death and how her work has evolved since:
In the last 30 years, I’ve written and co-written a hundred and some screenplays. During that time, I was always creating something and I hardly noticed the difference between words on paper and the more physical art of sculpting and painting. When Zalman departed for an “extended location in Heaven”, I realized that life is truly fleeting and I needed something tangible to hold onto. Recently, I’ve gone back to work on a sculpture I had started when Zalman first got sick. It had fallen twice in the building process and I had it covered up in the backyard. Now, I’m into it once again. Originally, it was conceived as the Lady of the Lake and had to do with the rebirth of Lake Michigan. Now, it’s something else. It gets bigger and bigger… and more and more personal. Now, it has to do with another kind of rebirth: my own. It’s an expression of grief and at the same time of strength. It’s a means of expressing something that in a million years I wouldn’t be able to put into words
Knop also paints people whose lives are more remote from the patterns of her own life, but who have compelling stories to reveal, whether it be the orphaned young man who tattoos fidelity to a non-existent family over his entire upper body,
Or a tattooed young woman in a pale shift whose brooding eyes presage her leap from a balcony shortly after the painting was completed.
The great costume designer Theadora Van Runkle posed for a poly-chromed sculpture titled simply “Theadora” that fuses the themes of Pat’s painting with those of her sculpture, as if a painting of Van Runkle had grown from the wall and out into three-dimensional space.
Pat’s paintings are often thickly textured in a sculptural relief called “impasto.” I asked her about this:
Yes. Yes. Yes… My work in clay, which has always been the easiest art for me, very much plays over into my paintings… if I’m lucky. Also, I’m sure my love for elaborate frames, has to do with my love for sculpture.
Finally, though, many of Pat’s deepest emotions are embodied in the intense physicality of molding clay. One of the most personal is titled “Thanksgiving,” and she has cast it in bronze. She says it is the piece closest to her heart; Zalman posed for it hanging from the home’s rafters.
If my reflections on the vision of this dedicated artist seem too speculative in their attempt to illustrate her life, there is a film made by her and Zalman that offers, I think, compelling witness to the strength of their shared life; it’s narrated by both. The physical and psychic connections between them are palpable, their voices blending like the call and response of an ecclesiastical anthem. The film is a poetic reverie on love and life, but it also a journey with Zalman’s camera through the actual rooms and corridors of their light-drenched, magical home, into the jungle of eclectic sculptures and paintings inhabiting their own “Garden of Delights.
Next: George Steinmetz and his flying lawn chair