Book Reviews

Revealed Patterns Alex Bigney’s Talking to Tesla

Towards the end of his new book, Talking to Tesla: An Artist’s Dream Journal, Alex Bigny writes: “Imagine me, the consummate dreamer, a painter, encountering a great scientist somewhere in the ethers — to be told that I would carry on his work. I had expected by now that I would have learned a lot more about electricity, but my initial expectations have changed or have been replaced a hundred times.”

In 2004 Alex Bigney, a professor of art at Utah Valley University, was visited in his dreams by Nikola Tesla, a largely forgotten scientist best known for his work with electricity. Bigney kept a detailed journal of his experiences and the reflections they inspired, and this 400 page volume lays out a year of his dream journal.

Like Dante’s Virgil, Tesla guides Bigney through an otherworldly experience that serves as a metaphysical journey into the universal and the personal, more about patterns and meaning than about electricity. The startling and imaginative premise for Talking to Tesla might put off the more firmly grounded reader. But Bigney’s account is not an end of times warning, or the preface for the beginnings of a new religion of electricity. There is no climactic revelation for the world. The book is a thoughtful examination of the life well-lived, inspired by extraordinary events. At one point Bigney even asks himself, “Could this be coming from me?” He provides his own response: “If so — is it any less wonderful? I always conclude , while still preferring to believe in the miraculous nature of my dream mentor and our deepening relationship.” For Bigney, to deny the dreams would be like denying the act of painting, which he calls “an act of faith.”

Tesla’s visitations are the framework for a much larger, more far-reaching work. “Because I am human, it is my nature to see patterns, to make associations, viewing things in relationship to other things, until a basis for understanding becomes a working theory,” Bigney writes. Bigney’s dreams are the grisaille upon which the artist builds up layers of color by delving into his own personal history, examining his artistic theory and practice and reflecting on the Old World masters who inspire him and from whom he appropriates willingly.

Throughout the book Bigney describes in detail the material as well as the spiritual process that goes into creating his work. “Paintings happen,” Bigney writes, “somewhere between the irregularity of thought and emotion, and the regularity of routine; in the interaction between the matters of my life, and a sequence of material events in the studio — a painting is the revealed pattern of my relationship with paint under various conditions during any given period of time, much like the intervals of a line measuring what at first seems chaotic.”

The materials in his studio become matters for reflection. “I love paints and the secrets they contain,” he writes. He provides detailed and insightful etymologies of the pigments artists have used over the centuries. “I’m just beginning to understand how much the practice of painting has shaped me — my passionate attention to old pictures made of bones and poison, cow pee, precious stones and insects, perhaps a bit of someone’s arm or leg . . .”

His own life, from his childhood years in New England, to his adult days spent in the studio or exploring the empty desert vibrate against the larger, universal themes explored with Tesla.

He also examines in detail and with affection the many works and museums he has become familiar with in his repeated trips to Italy.

More often than not, artists’ ventures into the literary world are a disappointment. Thankfully, Bigney, whose mother was a poet, writes with ease and in a clear prose that is only muddied when the difficult concepts encountered in his dreams are not easily translated. At times, Bigney could have used a stricter editorial hand. The artist’s interests and passions are repeated from one chapter to the next and in doing so lose their vigor.

Talking to Tesla is a reflective book, equally valuable for the artist wanting to explore their own process and the art lover interested in the worlds that inhabit every brushstroke on the surfaces they admire.

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