I met George Schaeffer or Schaffer in August 1976 in Panajachel Guatemala. He was a very odd character, he told me that he'd been a successful psychiatrist, I believe in Vienna but had given it all up to apprentice himself to a blind beggar in Guatemala; we didn't get into any details, I don't know how long that lasted but when I met him I was never sure who I was talking to, there always seemed to be more than one person and he never answered a question directly. If he was from Vienna he didn't speak with an accent, in fact his voice was totally without accent, it was impossible to detect whether he was Austrian, English or American from his voice.
We were walking down what almost seemed like an English country lane except it was about 100° and everything was covered in tropical flowers. I was with my friend Jennifer, a psychiatric nurse from Guyana who was living in Southern California: we had taken a vacation together, travelling by bus and train through Mexico and Guatemala. Panajachel is due west of the capital, Guatemala City and about 20 miles from the Pan American Highway which is how we'd arrived there the day before on a bus from Oaxaca Mexico. It's a beautiful area on the north shore of Lake Atitlan which is about 25 miles in diameter and is surrounded by active volcanoes.
As we walked down the country lane I saw ahead a sign on a post which said 'gallery', it pointed to an unusual large house that stood back from the road. It was unusual in that it looked architecturally designed rather than the typical concrete block or adobe structures. We entered and there was a well dressed young man seated at a desk, he welcomed us and gave a short description of the current works on display.
I was immediately intrigued by the art on the walls, it was all by the same person, it was signed by a woman and was very stylised; almost everything there contained very Mayan looking faces but they were often three dimensional. The artist had built up areas of the canvases prior to painting so that a nose for example would stand away from the face and this concept was carried throughout, it was present in most pieces but not just with the faces. Another feature was that there were pieces of Guatemalan Indian fabric embedded into the paint, the figure could have a real fabric huipile rather than a painted one. The paintings were extremely complex, there were dozens of details filling every canvas but what caught my attention throughout was that many had another common concept, they were symmetrical: left and right, up and down, black and white, positive and negative etc. We spent a good hour or more looking at everything in detail but throughout I'd noticed through the windows that there was a large garden and at the far end there were several more buildings; all of the buildings were painted in the same manner as the artwork on the walls.
I commented on this to the young man and asked if we might go back there and look at those buildings also, 'Of course' he said and he led the way to the outside path. We walked across the garden and suddenly noticed that there was a stream running through it, a small one about 6ft wide but there was a plank bridge so we crossed over. As we neared the first building I noticed that the concepts in the paintings were now life size, all the walls were covered with murals that were similar to the paintings, plus there were several sculptural structures that were also painted. Everything was a continuation of the art in the gallery, everything was painted.
Out of nowhere a silent figure appeared, he was a middle aged white man in peasant's clothes, he asked if we liked the art. I had so many questions, who was the artist? What was the significance of the symmetry? How long had all this taken/ and many more, he didn't answer any question directly, it was as though he was deaf or didn't understand the language, so that after many minutes of conversation I was none the wiser; he answered everything with obscure parables, he spoke of the 'Generals' implying those in power in Guatemala but went on to refer to General Electric, General Mills, General Motors etc. After listening and trying to ask questions I finally gave up, I wasn't going to get any answers, I still didn't know who the artist was except that he kept speaking of her and himself simultaneously. He gave us a guided tour explaining everything: besides the house there was a two story guest cottage and a Noh theater that he built to put on Noh plays for the Indians, everything was similarly decorated. We were about ready to give up on it and leave when he asked " Would you like to return this evening, we could talk some more, I could explain more and perhaps we could smoke some...., I never got what he was suggesting that we could smoke but given the times I was open to try anything. If I'd only known! So many questions were unanswered, so many fragments of conversation were unfinished and there was so much that was intriguing and interesting that we left it at that and promised that we would return that evening at about 8pm.
We take electric lights for granted, there were none in that town, there was no electricity, the only light we saw as we walked that evening were either dim candles or paraffin lamps in houses along the road; there was no moon so it was literally pitch black. And the blackness intensified as we turned at the 'gallery' sign, we could vaguely see the house but had no idea where the path leading to the back was but we finally found it and headed towards the rear of the garden. I re-discovered the stream when I stepped into it but that was OK, it was only about a foot or so deep. We arrived at the door of the building and knocked, it seemed like an eternity before it opened but when it did there was our host, he welcomed us in but he was in the middle of a deep but very quiet and private conversation with another man, he asked us to wait in the kitchen. There was a bench running along one wall, there were two tiny candles, the type used in churches, I think they're called votive candles; they flickered and provided absolutely minimal light. On the wall opposite ran a full length shelf at about 6ft height and along the entire length were life sized gruesome masks, dozens of them, they were barely perceptible in the dim flickering light but you were very conscious of their presence, it was a very eerie place.
After a while we heard the man in the next room taking his leave and George appeared in the doorway, he sat down and said "Perhaps you'll join me, I enjoy smoking this mixture, it's what the Mayan's have smoked for hundreds of years, it clears the mind and allows insights into other realms", he handed me a lit pipe and I took a deep hit and passed it to Jennifer. It was nothing like the Mexican weed that we were used to in California, I can't describe it more than to say that it hit instantly and was very strong and it almost immediately started images swirling in my mind, the sort of thing that one usually associates with LSD or Psylocybin mushrooms. A couple more hits were taken and then he said "We should go to the music room, it will be more comfortable there", whereupon he led us down a corridor and opened a door for us. That room was also lit with only two tiny candles though it was quite large, they were placed on the floor in front of a triptych screen that was painted with a variety of intriguing but very gruesome images. We sat cross legged on the floor, the door was immediately to my left, I could hear George shuffling around behind me moving things. My psychedelic visual light show continued as I looked back and saw in the very dim light George moving what appeared to be a good sized piece of a tree stump with what looked like cymbals fastened to it. At that moment George came towards me and closed the door and as he did I was absolutely positive that I saw him turn the key in the lock and drop the key in his pocket! Regardless of everything going on around us the only thing that I could deal with was that; why had he locked the door? I obsessed over it, I could think of nothing else even as this white devil faced gruesome image on the screen before kept drawing my eyes constantly, I tried to look away but it was always there drawing me back and I couldn't not think about the key and my personal light show wasn't helping.
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George had returned to the tree stump and I saw him begin a very quiet rhythmic pattern on the cymbals, he appeared to have what sounded like a long horsehair brush that he was swishing across the various toned cymbals and a soft xylophone mallet. He began a very quiet almost inaudible chant that started to rise and fall with the swishing cymbals, chant is the wrong word, it was more like a sermon, but delivered very low key and quietly and punctuated with long periods of the swishing and rhythmic drumming.He developed a hypnotic pattern of sound that rose and fell and changed tempo and after what seemed like at least an hour I started anticipating a break in the proceedings where we might 'make our escape', but 'twas not to be, he went on and on and all the time the key was the only thing I could think of. There was another element in this performance that was very disconcerting, I knew where he was standing, I could turn and see him and hear him but throughout the performance suddenly there was another sound from a different part of the room, it was a single very clear 'ping' on a cymbal, and then minutes later another from a totally different place, and on and on.
It wasn't 'til the next day that I discovered the source of these sounds, he'd fastened containers of water at the ceiling with a wick hanging over the side which acted to syphon a single drop every several minutes that fell onto a cymbal directly below, it was purely random. In that dark room the effect was very unsettling since it suddenly seemed as though we were not alone and it compounded the unease that the key was causing. Finally as he reached a slow quiet section that came to an almost stop, I stood up and said "George, that was wonderful, really inspiring, but we should be going". I could see that he was disappointed but he came over to us and thanked us for coming etc and walked to the door and opened it, I watched him very closely but didn't see him use the key, in that light it was difficult and his body blocked the view. As we made our departure he suggested that we might like to return the next day so I asked if I could photograph the house and the art, he was more than delighted so we said we'd return in the afternoon.
I knew that it would be impossible in daylight to create the effect of those images in candlelight but I wanted to at least document them. He gave us a free hand to photograph anything and everything and though he never said it nor anything close I knew that he was very proud of everything there and he wanted others to share it. The first place I went to was the music room, I wanted to see the tree stump and that's exactly what it was but he'd made deep sawcuts into it in several places and wedged in various sized cymbals. And then I looked at the door, THERE WAS NO KEYHOLE IN IT! My mind had played halucinagenic tricks on me. I went methodically through the house and gardens and photographed everything and when we were ready to leave he handed me two cassettes which contained the sounds of the prior evening and asked if I would do him a favor. Would I have a second set of photographs made and deliver them to Krishnamurti, who lived in Ojai California, close to where we lived, I said I would and I did so.
Something as insignificant as the cassettes were also part of the image; the cases were decorated totally, inside and out in the same manner as the paintings plus they have appliqués of fabric and printed images from the paintings applied to the surfaces, each one has a piece of an Indian belt approx 15" long that terminates with threads that have beads, coins and bells! The cassettes themselves are similarly decorated. I can't imagine how long it took to create these, it must have been hours. It would have been pointless to ask George any questions about Krishnamurti but I had a vague idea of who he was but now I discover that there's a large piece about him at Wiki, not so with George Schaeffer, I've searched everywhere fully expecting to find a link but without avail. As we left him he told me that there was a book that was published in Europe the dealt exclusively with the art; when I returned to the University where I worked I had the library run a national search and sure enough, it did exist, they requested an inter-library loan and I had it a week later. It didn't help, all of the work was credited to the woman who's name was in the gallery and who's name unfortunately, 30 years after the fact continues to escape me. My search continues.
Over the past many years I've thought about this incident and about George specifically many times but I haven't been able to figure out what he was about and what it was that drove him. He had obviously devoted his life totally at that period to everything that I've described, the gallery, the house, all the paintings and sculpture: his entire lifestyle seemed to be to one end but I still can't explain what that was. The images were extremely significant, they all related to Mayan history in one manner or another but also included fragments of Hindu and other Indian religions. As I've stated many had themes of positive and negative in many forms, plus there were lots of images that can only be described as grotesque. Had he gone to such enormous trouble and expense on the off chance that a couple of tourists like us would wander in off the street, and if so for what purpose? He didn't communicate with us in the slightest even though I was genuinely very interested and tried throughout to conduct a conversation and to understand what it was all about.
This painting is in many ways typical; regarding the bilateral symmetry start in the lower left corner, there's the recurring wheel and above are two Buddha like figures with halos, one white, one black. Look immediately to the right and in the center there's a nose and a pair of lips with two circular images representing eyes, above the eyes is a representation of wavy hair but in the center there's another Buddha figure with another halo, this time he's in a mouth with pointed teeth. Above the mouth is another nose but this one is divided down the center, half black, half white and on either side there's a series of contrasting faces, white against black and black against white, above the nose two more eyes with another mouth with teeth above them and another Buddha figure surrounded by what could be flames. Below the eyes on either side are what look like intestines, two on each side symmetrical in shape and color; the two top ones have the letters d g d g d g d g running along their length and immediately outside those elements are two serpents, red on the right and green on the left each with a contrasting colored head protruding from the mouth. Below the serpent's mouths are two scenes which are physically symmetrical but are totally different, on the right is a tranquil residential scene whilst on the left, a crowded cityscape. What any of this signifies I have no idea but I'm impressed with the effort and the creative imagination and what amazes me above all else is the volume of work, this painting is only one of hundreds.
This is an example of the other style that was prevelent, all the faces, the mountains and the corn are all three dimensional, all of the pieces of fabric are typical Guatemalan Indian textiles. This has none of the Hindu elements nor any of the grotesque images, these faces are traditional Mayan. The difference between this and the foregoing is obvious, perhaps there were two artists.
I wrote all of the foregoing very quickly and on impulse, what amazes me were all the details that flooded back and how I could remember it all so very clearly, in contrast I tried to remember other details of that trip including where we stayed and ate and any other activities in Panajachel but I could remember none. When I'd finished it, ie, reached the end of the above paragraph, I felt that it needed more, it needed something to resolve the story. I Googled 'George Schaeffer' and got a 'not found' message, I couldn't quite believe that he'd disappeared without a trace, that there existed no mention of him anywhere, I tried again this time deleting the 'e' in his name, no difference. And all the while I tried to remember the woman's name that was on the paintings but that wouldn't come either and neither would the title of the book that he'd mentioned. I was stuck! It looked like that's how the story would end but I kept trying, I spent hours doing internet searches and sending emails to current artists living in Panajachel requesting help from anyone who knew him or knew of him, again without success. And then one day I was using the phone book to look up 'Sullivan' and as I flipped the pages an ad caught my eye, it was in a large bold font and the name was 'Schafer' and at that instant I asked myself "Could that be how he spelled it?". I googled it and got an instant response, numerous mentions! One stood out, Wikipedia, it had a full page biography that included much of what I knew but also lots of details that I didn't and it tied up lots of loose ends.
During all of this more fragments came to me, one was his telling me the story of how he'd been held by the nazis and each day asked the question "Do you want to die now or later?" and in the Wiki piece it states "As a young man during World War II, Shafer was part of the Danish resistance and later a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. He was sentenced to death but the sentence was not carried out." The bio also reveals that he worked in Germany post WW2 as a journalist and in this capacity "his job allowed him to meet or correspond with such notables as Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, Albert Hoffman and Lama Anagarika Govinda. He not only interviewed Dr. Carl Jung but was Jung's personal psychiatrist for a period of time. The phrase, "So fast the light so slow the matter follows behind" was written in a letter to his life-long friend Albert Einstein and, according to Schafer, was reflected in Einstein's writings on relativity."
It goes on to relate his initial exposure to psychedelic drugs whilst working with Dr Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who synthesized LSD "While working with Dr. Hoffman and experimenting with synthetic mescaline, Schafer recalled a traumatic event in his early life and this recollection eventually led to his various philosophical writings, in particular to his book "Im Reiche des Mescal", and to the visionary art he was known for in his later years."
"Im Reiche des Mescal" is an adult fairy tale based on Central American Indian folklore it was translated into English as "In the Kingdom of Mescal": I've just found and bought a copy. It's the story of the kind of journey described by Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception, which is where I got my title for this piece, it's about how the man who goes through the door in the wall never comes back the same. It's the story of a boy who longs to get behind the appearance of things. A magic drink given to him by a medicine man sends him on a wonderful journey to a place where "the tongue forms no more words," into the depths of himself and to the heights of sheer wonder at the brilliance of the absolute.
It all sounds familiar.
During the post war period in Germany he met and married a German woman of Guatemalan descent who went by the adopted name of Nan Cuz (sometimes misspelled as "Cruz"), who was working as an assistant photographer at Die Welt. They moved to
Guatemala in 1973. They created an art center in Panajachel and Schafer further developed his distinctive artistic style. He always claimed that the paintings in "Im Reiche des Mescal" were by his own hand but signed "Nan Cuz" in an effort to enhance their "ethnic" authenticity, which explains my confusion and suggestion that there were possibly two artists; I never met nor heard of Nan Cuz from him.
He separated from Nan Cuz in 1978 and they divorced. Nan Cuz continued to paint and is well respected today. In 1979 he met Sherry Munson of the Munson Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico who he called "Mani". They were married in 1979 and in 1989 Georg, Mani and their 3 children moved to America settling in Chatham, Massachusetts, where she had family. Eighteen months after settling in their new home he suffered his first heart attack; he suffered a second and final heart attack, January 11, 1991 just 2 weeks after the birth of a son he named after Lama Govinda.
Georg Shäfer, Anglicized as "Georg Schafer" and "Georg Schaefer" a.k.a. Oma Ziegenfuss, Oma Ling Pa and (occasionally) Georg Shepherd, was born in Leinfelde, Germany on March 25th. 1926. He died on Jan. 11th. 1991 in Chatham, Mass. USA.
Aliases: Nan Cuz-Schäfer, sometimes known as Nan Cruz.
Professions: Painter; Illustrator; Photographer
Editor's note: Nan Cuz is an internationally famous Guatemalan artist and she has an interesting artist's house in Panajachel.
The following are all the illustrations from the book "In the Kingdom of Mescal"
List of Posts
- BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS AT THE ROXY; 1976
- R.I.P. HUMPH.
- THE BATHS AT ALMALONGA
- NINA SIMONE AT MONTREUX, 1976
- TAJ MAHAL AT THE WATTS FESTIVAL
- THE KNIFE: TRAVELS IN JAMAICA
- THE KEY TO THE DOORS OF PERCEPTION
- OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR
- MY OLD MAN, GOD BLESS HIM.
- TRAVELS IN GUATEMALA
- NINA SIMONE
- JAMAICA'S NATIONAL GALLERY
- ADVENTURES IN A FOREIGN LAND.
- Link to Photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/goneforeign