This story begins in Philadelphia during 1967. The Summer of Love was in full swing, and vibrant countercultural communities were thriving on the 2000 block of Sansom Street and in Powelton Village. Brian Zahn, a local artist and musician, was planning an underground newspaper to publish artwork, poetry, and essays. Zahn was a well-connected maven of the underground arts scene. He would solicit work both from his own cohort in Philly as well as folks from the scene in San Francisco. The title of his publication, Yarrowstalks, was a reference to a divinatory practice drawn from the I Ching and resonant with the nascent interest in Eastern philosophies among his milieu at the time.
Yarrowstalks is remembered as having published the first comix work of 1960s icon R. Crumb, with his Mr. Natural character making its debut in an early issue. The first edition, aside from Crumb, also included LSD guru Timothy Leary and poetry from Philly’s own Ira Einhorn, the infamous and sociopathic “Unicorn Killer,” a prime representative of the sinister side of 1960s subculture a la Charles Manson.
I would never have heard about Yarrowstalks if it wasn’t for the enthusiasm of my friend Alina Josan who is the head of the Art Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia. She loves to show off the archival collections available there. While showing me some rarities from the collection, Yarrowstalks piqued my interest. I quickly became lost in this spectacular time capsule while perusing the advertisements for head shops, cafes, and art galleries, and taking in the work of long-forgotten artists. The early illustrations of Crumb fit right in. What I did not expect was to chance across artwork I recognized from elsewhere, but could not place.
Several full-page spreads featured profoundly strange ink drawings of skeletal dinosaurs, dripping skulls, and humanoid bodies that looked like giant fleas. The work stood out as being a good deal more meticulous, more cerebral and intellectually contorted, than much of the other work in the publication. The drawings also felt timeless and would not look out of place in an underground art magazine printed today. The work in Yarrowstalks mainly drew its inspiration from 1920s Art Nouveau, a style interpretation now ever-connected to 1960s kitsch, with flowing elegant lines and bubbling forms. But these drawings had a different feeling. They were psychedelic, but much more austere. In the contributors list I found the name Arnie Hendrickson listed alongside Leary, Crumb, and Einhorn.
I riffled through my bookshelves trying to remember where I might have previously encountered this strange and visionary work. Then it hit me. One of the same drawings reproduced in the July 1967 issue of Yarrowstalks was featured in the catalog for The End is Near! Visions of Apocalypse Millennium and Utopia, a 1998 exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. It featured mostly self-taught and outsider artist’s interpretations of the end of the world and was timed for the approaching turn of the millennium with all its attendant Y2K fears. There, nestled alongside an essay by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and work by various superstars of the folk art genre, is Arnold Hayden Hendrickson. Five pages are afforded him, featuring a short biography with a portrait photo and seven of his drawings.
The exhibition catalogue states states that “Arnold Hayden Hendrickson began doodling in his spiral-bound notebook during his advanced English literature classes at the University of Pennsylvania in 1957. Eventually, the doodles began to overwhelm the notes, taking on a life of their own.” The biography goes on to chronicle Hendrickson’s humble materials and his childhood where he “hid alone in his bedroom to read and draw.” We learn that he served in the Air Force during the Korean War, having learned Mandarin in a military language school, and that he studied literature at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Delaware, and San Francisco State University. “Most of his adult life was spent as a typist in the Physics Department of Temple University. He is now retired and lives in San Francisco. He has written a novel called The Restroom.”
There is no mention of Hendrickson’s inclusion in Yarrowstalks nor his connection to the 1960s countercultural scene in Philly. Trying to find anything about him on the internet returned very few results, Hendrickson had been largely lost to the sands of time. A Google search turned up just five results. Two were online genealogy sites and three were for a volume titled “The Doodle Book.” One copy was available on Amazon for $19.95. Another copy was listed as being held by a library in Canberra City, Australia. I ordered a copy and eagerly awaited its arrival.
The Doodle Book was every bit the revelation I hoped it would be. Aside from including reproductions of hundreds of Hendrickson’s drawings, printed in a way that looked like they’d been run through a mimeograph machine, it included a lengthier essay than what was offered in the exhibition catalog. It was written by artist Sandy White, one of Hendrickson’s close friends. Also included were excerpts of reviews of his work from group exhibitions at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1973 and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1981. Philip Linhares, director of exhibitions at the San Francisco Art Institute wrote that “Arnold Hendrickson’s drawings are equal in power to Crumb’s in their meticulously drawn depictions of a Kafkaesque world of animal-humans, living appliances, exquisite tortures, and intricately woven vines and webs which engulf all else. Although he has been drawing for nearly 10 years, this is the first exhibition of Hendrickson’s work, and the response to them by other artists and visitors has been overwhelming.”
In a brief review of the Art Institute exhibition the reporter singled out Hendrickson as the only artist meriting specific description, although the writer botched Hendrickson’s last name. “Of the 25 artists represented, the most remarkable, it seems to me, is Arnie Henderson [sic], who does fantastic and indescribable things with a ball point pen on ordinary notebook paper. He has 34 drawings in the show. He is hard to describe because there is no one quite like him anywhere.”
Writing in 1981, Rolando Castellon, then curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, was also entranced by Hendrickson’s work. “These scenes are both frightening and absurd. Hendrickson’s drawings elicit shock based on the strange, the erotic, and the ordinary. Hendrickson is not restructuring reality, he is shaping an expressionistic and idiomatic world of his own.”
White’s Doodle Book introduction includes details such as Hendrickson’s literary influences which ranged from a love of Middle English poetry, William Blake, and Franz Kafka. White, in a passage which affords both a window into a different era and a sense of the engaging allure of Hendrickson’s work, writes, “In the spring of 1973, along with 23 other artists, Arnold exhibited at the San Francisco Art Institute Drawing Invitational. He was pleased to note that more cigarette butts were put out on the floor in front of his wall of 32 doodles than in front of any of the other walls.”
Through some inventive internet sleuthing–Sandy White is a pretty common name–and a very enthusiastic letter bordering on frenzy I was elated to discover I had found the correct person. White graciously shared her memories, impressions, and previously unknown details of Hendrickson, whom she described as a dear, close friend.
“He grew up in Lansdowne and attended the University of Delaware and the University of Pennsylvania. He was married in San Francisco for a brief time and left no children,” said White. “We had all left Philly in two Volkswagen buses and headed west in the late 1960s.”
White mentioned that another mutual friend, Mike Witter, was the person who published The Doodle Book under the Lexicos Press imprint, noting that “he was disappointed that it didn’t prove to be a best seller.” While the introduction to The Doodle Book mentions that Hendrickson’s novel, The Restroom, and a collection of his short stories were published by Lexicos, this seems not to have been the case. “Mike never liked Arnold’s writing and thought it was bordering on ‘sick.’ He did not want to waste any money on investing in publishing it,” she said. White was given the writings with the idea that she would edit them, but the project never moved forward. “I have a brown paper bag somewhere with Arnold’s writing in it and have no idea where it is.” Aside from being Hendrickson’s editor, she was also his liaison to the art world.
White explained that Hendrickson suffered from Marfan syndrome, an incurable genetic condition affecting the body’s connective tissue. The severity varies, but the condition often leads to physical characteristics such as unusually long limbs, narrow skull, and a grayish cast to the skin, which are all traits noticeable in photographs of him.
White’s description of Hendrickson’s personality is of someone whose shyness belied a rich and unique intellectual life. She also noted his struggles with alcohol, mentioning his liver failure and that “he drank himself to death.”
White described Yarrowstalks and their circle of friends. “There were four of us. Arnold, Mike, a fellow named Don Childs, and myself. Don and Mike worked at the University of Pennsylvania bookstore. The three fellows gathered together and drank rotgut wine and beer. We talked and joked and that cosmic laughter was key. We all lived in Powelton Village.”
I needed to find Mike Witter and hoped that he still had a few pieces of Hendrickson original work or some unknown stash of large-scale drawings. After scouring the internet I found that he maintained a booth under the auspices of Frisco Books at a bookstore in California. During a call with Witter he told me he thought Hendrickson was a genius, opining that the artist worked his way into the military by dint of his I.Q. score and gift for language, quickly mastering Mandarin and then wiling away the war on an island monitoring radio broadcasts–and drinking.
Witter said he didn’t own any of Hendrickson’s artwork. The singular instance of the artist creating any large scale work came in the form of a large mural drawn with a magic marker on the wall of Hendrickson and Witter’s Powelton Village apartment. The artist completed a massive drawing of an axe-wielding dinosaur, so impressive, said Witter, that passerby would gather outside of the window to gawk, wondering if it was related in any way to the dental school across the street. When it came time for them to move, after too many noise complaints, the mural was painted over to collect the security deposit. Like a sign from the universe, the mural reappeared one day. “It’s back! I painted over it, but it’s back!” exclaimed Hendrickson in a panicked phone call to his roommate. Worried he was having a break from reality, Witter later realized the marker simply couldn’t be painted over with standard house paint.
Hendrickson’s presence in Philadelphia and the underground art world has mostly vanished since his death in 1998 at the age of 65, but the surviving examples of his work are compelling and remain as poignant as ever. Only 500 or so copies of The Doodle Book were produced, each one printed and bound by hand. Simply bumping into Hendrickson’s work by chance like I did is rare, but perhaps this article will lead others down a path to his visionary creations.