Illustration: Quark Magazine / Japan


© 2001 Dave Archer

From a memoir in progress --- All rights reserved

Electric Painting Machines

Introducing: Mr.Bill Wysock

The coils I use for painting in various "reverse glass" techniques, are designed and fabricated by engineering genius, Bill Wysock, at his company: "TESLA TECHNOLOGY," in Monrovia, California.

Les Paul invented the electric guitar. My friend Lee Byrd suggested electric painting to me, loaned me his Tesla coil, and even fabricated the first "lightning brush". Thank you Lee Byrd!

Bill Wysock reengineered my entire studio system, then handed me the dream machine of a lifetime.

Bill has also designed coils for the "Earthquake" and "Jurassic Park" --- Universal Studios Tours in both Hollywood and Florida, and "Walt Disney World" / "Future World Alien Encounter," in Orlando, Florida (ah yes ... Orlando, where every investment in condos I made went belly up, one after another: like Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Donald, in a flaming wading pool).

Bill Wysock's list of Tesla accomplishments rolls like movie credits. His coils have been used for special effects in many films, commercials, massive outdoor shows, and worldwide installations.

In what is probably the single largest Tesla coil in the world today, TESLA TECHNOLOGY'S newest project produces 6.5 million volt arcs over 50 feet in length!

One of Bill's coils, (the "demo-coil" mentioned below) now mine, was originally used for special effects on "Battlestar Galactica," as well as the Steve Martin movie, "Pennies From Heaven," also, "Heartbeeps," the trailer for, "Something Wicked This Way Comes," "The Incredible Hulk," "Out of This World," "Friday the Thirteenth," and "The Entity," staring Barbara Hershey.

Tesla coils are named for their inventor, Nikola Tesla, the cryptic electrical giant from the turn of the century.

Tesla coils produce "high frequency electricity" or: "radio frequency," ("RF" ), and were originally conceived by Tesla for the transmission of electricity without wires.

NIKOLA TESLA 1856 - 1943

Nikola Tesla's scientific Credentials are, of course, impeccable. His worldwide contribution through patents, inventions, and innovations simply astonishing.

He was also downright weird. Aren't they all. There's no getting around it though. According to O'Neil in "Prodigal Genius," Tesla was germ-phobic to the core, yet the actual love of his life was a New York City pigeon. Evidently in fact, Tesla allowed pigeons to land all over him as he fed them seed from his pockets. Yet, also because of germs, he never wore the same shirt collar twice. He also used a large stack of linen napkins when dining in the restaurant of the hotel where he lived, (which he did every night) dropping each napkin to the floor after a single use. Such peculiarities peppered Tesla's life, causing other scientists a good deal of dismay, and no doubt contributing to the main reason his achievements were, "overlooked" in school books.

When his fair pigeon died in his hands, reportedly (also O'Neil) an X-Files light burst from her eyes, and not so very long after that, Tesla himself passed away. And nearly penniless. Rumors are rife of G-Men sacking his room for papers, a less than ignoble end for the man who pretty much gave us the modern world. Especially ignoble, in that after his death, Nikola Tesla was pretty much ignored by historians for decades, while Edison was given whole library shelves of praise.

Tesla invented: "alternating current," far outstripping Edison's insistence in the superiority of "direct current". Indeed, there was a time in America when feuding between the two men was presented as, "The War of the Currents," with newspapers printing ongoing accounts of their rivalry, both men bidding for the hearts and minds of the American people --- each advancing his own electrical delivery system to power the nation.

Edison, whom we thank for sound recording, movies, and much more, insisted most HIGH & MIGHTILY, that his ex-employee's alternating current was much too dangerous for general use, especially in homes, attempting prove his "truth" by electrocuting dogs in a series of publicity stunts, thus spurring the establishment the Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals, thank you. Tesla of course, won the "War" by NOT using Edison's delivery system to fry any furry friends, but especially, by designing and building the world's first commercial alternating current generator, at the base of Niagara Falls --- a monumental achievement.

Also beyond reproach: documentation that Tesla invented radio, even though Guglielmo Marconi is credited in thousands of school books, to this day. Tesla worked for the war effort on such breakthrough ideas as sonar and radio control devices, with little to no credit.

Both Tesla and Edison were nothing less than geniuses, yet, utterly different in the way they worked. Edison achieved light bulb incandescence of filament in a vacuum after literally ten's of thousands of fiber experiments. Tesla invented both florescent, and neon lights after actually "seeing" the completed schematics, in a vision, floating in the air in front of him, then building them with little to no experimentation. Edison plodded and sweat, to great effect. Tesla soared like an eagle of visionary electro magnetic principles. In retrospect, they "stand apart together" really, as a sort of Lewis and Clarke of modern times.

Having used my Bill Wysock, Tesla painting machine for decades, I stake my claim as the first in the world on that score. And I think Tesla would have enjoyed the paintings I make using his invention. How lucky I feel then, that my machines are built and maintained by one of Tesla's true successors.

Fiery sparks
crackle from a
metal tube held
by Bill Wysock.
He sits on a
metal disk linked
by a cable to
a 1.5-million-volt
Tesla coil.

I watched a TV documentary once, decades ago, featuring an experiment involving newly hatched chicks. I don't remember which sort of chicks, whether they were desert quail, or chickens, but when the shadow of a hawk was passed over them, they ran for cover, and, when the shadow of a dove was passed over, they completely ignored it.

At the time, this struck me as perhaps the clearest illustration I had ever seen of instinct. Of DNA actually "reading" survival shapes.

ARCHING electricity is like that in a way. At least, it is definitely one of our "human hawk shadows".

No doubt about it.

Forked lightning!

Life and death in a singular, almost insane ... YES!

Babies and animals almost always hate the sound of arching electricity. That's for sure. Janie, my Rhodesian Ridgeback barely tolerated it. She didn't mind it so much at first, but as she aged, I could tell she didn't like it.  She endured it, barely. Some adults hate it too. They leave the studio as soon as I trigger the coil. It's just not for them. Nothing wrong there. Most people though, even when viscerally repelled, are also, simultaneously "pulled" toward the delicious visionary spectacle --- as if human eyeballs simply cannot ever see enough of it, yet ancient lightning DNA is screaming, "RUN!". 

We want more, and MORE!

Throw the switch and this ripping genie leaps from a copper lamp, as mysterious as any Hubble photo, yet mere inches away, dancing and boiling the air into ozone. For me, as an artist, this experience is Nikola Tesla's acme achievement, this pristine singularity of freely arching electricity. There is no other experience like it anywhere on earth really, other than actual lightning.


Never have I tired of gazing into the wonder of it all. When those arcs are in the air --- the world simply stops for me. 

It's like Gorgon Medusa as ten thousand striking cobras!

Ozone ecstasy!

In 1970, my first year of high voltage painting, a hundred times I "bolted" awake from nightmares, sitting up thinking, "my freaking vanity is going to kill me ..."

Over the years then, each time Bill's coils grew larger and more powerful, the nightmares returned for awhile.

My children grew up playing in my various painting studios. When my daughter River was 6 or 7 she wrote me this Haiku:

tree standing alone
then lightening strikes it down
dead, forever and ever

Pause, for sure.

Once I hit the switch for one of my best friends, Tony Marston, who had never seen my indoor lightning before. When the arcs leaped into the air Tony yelled, "Wow! Look at that!," and pointed.

"Don't point!" ... oops.

Hoyt Axton at his house in Tahoe playing with his
"Frankenstein machine" as he called it. A gift from
myself and Bill Wysock. I'd known Hoyt from North
Beach in the 60's when I was doorman at his first
pro-performance at the "Fox & Hound" in San
Francisco's North Beach. Bill Wysock knew him
from having been Chief Engineer at Custom
Fidelity Co. in Hollywood, and actually
recording Hoyt back in 1973. Only one
degree of separation.

The good news is,"RF" has very little amperage, so, rather than traveling through the interior of Tony's physical nervous system, ahem, my friend experienced the saving grace of one million volts mostly flowing over the surface of his skin in what scientists and electrical engineers term, "skin effect".

As I remember, Tony called it something else.

Sorry guy. The good news is, Tony's still speaking to me.

Fatal shock from RF electricity is rare. It depends on the power, and the physical shape of the person being shocked of course, but sudden death is usually not the problem. Chances of Tony becoming a Gary Larson cartoon were slim, still, he got stung like a scorpion.

The primary coil and the transformer however, are lethal. It is highly recommended by Tesla coilers worldwide, to always adjust HOT coils using one hand only, thus guarding against closing a circuit through your: "brilliance," so to speak.

© 2002 River Nelson / A discharge
from Bill's #7 coil (producing arc's
up to 9' in length. Double exposure
photograph. I'm not really into
eating one and a half million volts.

I was stung many times, and truly clobbered twice by full discharges from my big coil.

Let's put it this way, there simply CANNOT be a third big clobber, okay.

The first bad one was during the taping a touring Japanese television show called: "How Much For The World".


That day, the RF energy was causing "snow" in the picture on their one hundred thousand dollar video camera. At one point the director asked permission to use a carpenter's hand-saw hanging on the studio wall, then climb up on my roof, and actually put a hole there, for a "shooting port".

I declined.

The crew then drove to a local glass shop and purchased a large mirror, the idea being to rig it near the coil, then move the camera into the alley, and shoot back through a gap in the door via telephoto lens, of course, into the angled mirror. This was all happening well past the end of a long day for me. Still, I wanted my guests to be happy.

Brimming with irritated hubris, I hit the switch, and the arcs hit the mirror, then hit me smack in my humility.

It was awful.

Still, the next one was worse.

THAT sucker came when I was posing for some black and white photos by a local news photographer. He was a nice guy, shooting for an article I thought might be good for stimulating interest in local collectors. After all, George Lucas' movie ranch was only four miles up the road. Maybe Mr. Lucas would see the article and think, "hey, isn't Dave that cool glass painter we used in, "Howard The Duck?"

Anyway, the photographer was making double exposures, holding his camera lens open in the dark as I stood to one side firing off the coil for a second or two. Then I would power-down, strut in, and hold a pose as if working, while he flashed me into the picture. Around the tenth shot I accidentally failed to power-down, then "strutted" myself right onto the foot-switch in my clown shoes and took a million volt arc in my clown chest.

And to heck with "skin effect," this hurt. On a "Masochism Tango" scale, of say: drinking a cup of boiling water, to passing out with your foot in a campfire, something like that.

I mean, I felt fingers of fire rip through my ribs and hit my heart.


What saved me was the same thing that "saved," Tony: that is, a giant amphibian double-leg contraction that, "hopped," our sorry butt's back into the wall, just like in Dr. Frankenstein's biology class.

I met Bill Wysock in the 70's, after years on the road, --- in fact, after I'd won the "Iron Mass Award," for high achievement under duress, selling my own work from a canvas chair in the street for way too long.

When I saw the park in Monrovia where I was supposed to "do it all again," I thought: "I will die here and Bozo-the-Coroner will tag my toe with a poodle balloon and sell my shrunken corpse for a ten-in-one gaff".

That's what I thought. I remember exactly those words.

The park, reeking of insect spray and fertilizer --- was flat with only a few trees, more like a soccer field. My show space was on the street, inundated with excellent  LA exhaust. You know smog is bad when actual grit crunches in your teeth. People who live in L.A., don't realize this, because they don't go outside long enough to crunch grit. They stay indoors, or in their car, or go back indoors again, we all know that. And they don't stop at art shows much, either. They drive by them, real fast.

On the plus side, a fine friend had accompanied me for the ride, the now late Roberta Jenkins, and we intended to have fun, no matter what. And we did have fun, that's for sure. From being on the road for years however, I had developed a sense of utter doom about making any money at certain set ups, and this was definitely one of them. I had to squelch every instinct to kangaroo out of there, and just keep smiling. Roberta and I had known each other for years, sharing a similar sense of survival humor. So, with her "doomsday-can-be-fun attitude," buoying me up, I unloaded and set up. If Roberta hadn't been there, I would have driven all the way back home, broke, unhappy, plus, I would have missed the opportunity of an "electric painting" lifetime, which was of course, meeting Bill Wysock who lived a few blocks away.

Thank you Roberta Jenkins!

This was a show not only of painters, sculptors, potters and printmakers. I could see plenty of glass animal blowers, tinkle chime stringers, Raggedy doll stuffers, macramé yuppies, and wooden puzzle folk with furry little feet. Not that I'm better than them, it's just that the show was billed as an: Art Show, ahem ... but, you know what I mean. I usually didn't care much what anybody showed in the street. I couldn't, because most of the road shows I was doing had fewer and fewer actual painters, draftspersons, sculptors showing up. When I started doing shows in 1970, it was with artists mostly. Ten years later, the good ones were all in galleries.

Photo: Nichol Bengivino / S.F. Examiner
Pre-Wysock: Pictured using Lee Byrd's
big de Young Museum coil in San Rafael
studio. Note "high tech" broomstick
"Lightning Brush" and methol alcohol fire.

In fact, this situation of degenerating street "festivals" actually worked in my favor at this show, with the local paper giving me the main write-up with a good sized photograph of me in the studio, painting with electric arcs.

Bill Wysock's wife, Lynn, saw the story and delivered it to Bill in his double-car mad-scientist's-garage, where he'd been chewing true grit while building Tesla coils in a quiet neighborhood for decades.

L.A. is like that.

One of Wysock's machines was so big it flashed twenty foot arcs into his swimming pool. The neighbors were fairly cool about it, asking only that Bill not do it on Super Bowl Sunday so it wouldn't interfere with their television reception.

Bill told Lynn he would go with her to meet me on one condition: that she promise not to drag him around the rest of the art show looking at pinto bean mosaic's of cactus plants, or those little felt penguins with doll's eyes used for covering extra t-paper rolls on the back of the toilet.

Anyway, Bill liked my work and later that night at his kitchen table, sketched a plan for the machine I still use today. Over the years, I have learned that Bill Wysock is a true craftsman, famous in several fields including, aerospace, Tesla engineering, and the movie industry. Anything the man undertakes to build is honed to admirable engineering perfection.

I mean every machine screw is micron fine.

The man is obsessed too, which is always good. Any engineering problem will stop him in his tracks. For instance, once in San Francisco, walking along together we came upon a vacant lot where a heavy equipment operator was using a huge pile-driver to pound some very long, reinforced concrete posts into the ground. The current post seemed to be head-butting an obstruction deep in earth. Bill hung there, intrigued to see if the pile-driver could smash through the obstruction. One horrific blow after another: "ka-boom! ... ka-boom!" ... Wysock gripping chain link, transfixed, fascinated by this gigantic iron hammer pounding, pounding, and, which had started making me nuts half a block away, before we even got there. See, (Post) Traumatic to my chicken heels, I wanted out of there fast, so I began displaying the sort of chimpanzee "shrug behavior," Jane Goodall would have noted as: "... go now Bill ... banana coffee now ... yes?"

At one point I remember my friend turning toward me, smiling passionately, (with something utterly mad in his eyes, I kid you not) --- then cupping his hands around his mouth Bill Wysock bellowed into my ear: "RAW PHYSICS IN ACTION!".

You didn't have to be there. You could have heard him in Sausalito.

Another occasion, Bill was visiting my place in San Rafael to maintain the coils when I offered him a choice of sightseeing around San Francisco: the Zoo, the Aquarium, Pier 39, dinner at the Cliff House, a tour of Alcatraz, or the Modern Art Museum, a night out to Beach Blanket Babylon, even the topless joints of North Beach.

The man requested I drive him to the site of the enormous television tower on Twin Peaks where he walked around, craning his neck in a pose to rival Marcel Marceau doing a whirling Dervish. I wish I'd had a video camera with me that day. I mean, I couldn't have imagined it unless I had witnessed it myself, seen it with my own two eyes, but Bill Wysock entered what can only be described as a state of: "enlightened engineering ecstasy". And stayed that way for a very long time. I never saw a happier man.

The next day at the airport, just before he boarded, my friend looked deeply into my eyes while shaking my hand like a lumberjack and said, "David, thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking me to see Sutro Tower".

I think Bill wants to shoot four hundred foot arcs off the top someday.

I paint with two different Wysock coils in my studio.

The large one produces nine foot arcs from the tip of an insulated rod hanging over the glass, which is raised from the floor by heavy duty insulators, not unlike an "industrial" table --- something you'd see for sale in an interior design catalog for eighteen hundred bucks, (see lead photo). The rod is six feet long, and since the arcs can be as long as nine feet, for safety, I hold a ground wire in my hands, gripping it to the handle of the rod.

Paints are slurried on the glass, then hit with arcs, which can be flashed on by the use of a foot switch, or by an assistant standing some distance away. I prefer an assistant because it is hard locate the foot switch in the dark wearing giant rubber boots, and even harder to "feel" the right angle, and pressure, to set off a fine, safe, burst of working arcs.

Using the other of Bill's coils, my actual body becomes the path to ground. With a metal rod held tightly in my hands, I reach out toward the wet paint on the glass. The glass lies flat atop the coil, while the high voltage arcs are attracted through the paint to my body.

"Skin effect" plays a major role with this machine. High frequency electricity flows invisibly over the skin to the floor, thus to ground, while I remain relatively safe. That is, standing on an insulated platform, or wearing insulated boots.

I do feel the power in my arms, shoulders and neck. After years of working with high voltage in this way, I required months of weekly massage sessions called "trigger point" therapy to release cramped muscles.

The painting boots I like best are massive rubber boots normally used in Antarctica to keep feet from freezing into bricks, with cube-trays for toes. I found them in the window of an antique store in downtown San Anselmo, California: 5 bucks a cube, and bought them on the spot. When the shop owner heard my story, she agreed to sell them on the condition that she be allowed to keep them in her window for one additional month, explaining that the boots were simply the best "window draw" she'd ever found for bringing people into her store. I agreed, if I could try them on then and there, then wear them around on the street for a little fun. She agreed, if she could hide in her doorway and watch me.

So, that day, I took myself an R. Crumb, "Keep On Truckin'," stroll for sure. This was pure surrealism in action, better by far than say: racing around the melted clock-tree on burning giraffes. Because, you see, downtown San Anselmo, California, is the actual HUB of the New Age Wheel, (Berkeley, Bolinas, and Big Sur, mere spokes, believe me), a town where people are so gullible they actually wondered if I was Big Foot himself, descended from Mt. Tam, there to apply for a handicap permit.

See, if I wore the same boots in New Orleans, people would have said, "Damn boy, you better buy two breakfasts, one for each of those". But in San Anselmo people all take the latest designer medication. Believe me, this was great. In Marin County no one would act anything less than P/C, that is: psychotically condescending. So, while I deadpanned and watched their reflections in shop windows, Marinites tugged each other's sleeves, whispering, and pointing me out, ever so ... surreptitiously, and I could SEE it! Yes, they were wondering if perhaps, I were some unfortunate funky-foot, born that way. I'm not kidding. Seriously, they did.

Mother says staring is impolite.

One little kid pointed and yelled, "Mommie, what's wrong with his feet!" Mommie offered a sickly smile, and yanked the little bugger away fast.

One night at an opening of my paintings, before I was using the rubber shoes, I was wearing leather electrician's boots thinking they would be perfect --- made as they were for actual electrical work --- plus, they looked cool. Well, I thought they looked cool. When my assistant fired up the coil then, in front of a large audience, the tip of every one of around thirty or forty  nails in the soles sent arcs directly into the tender souls of my feet, producing an instant impression of Michael Flately being hung by the neck until dead.

Another time, when I still had hair, I was setting up the coil in a gallery when I noted a light fixture dangling from the ceiling near my machine. I should have noted it better. I remember walking around it, checking its distance, and although sort of on the close side, it seemed, "just" far enough away to cause no problem with grounding.

Later that same evening --- and producing considerable levity (not to mention gagging) in the audience --- the light fixture itself, being a closer path to ground than my feet, actually sucked electric sparks off the top of my scalp, and out through my hair with the crackle and sizzle of eggs on a griddle.

"It's okay folks, just a little sparking," I managed to wheeze between tries.

Ah yes ... the romantic reek of a great painter''s hair on fire.

At another painting demo, wearing a pair of Ferrigamo's to die for, I almost did. Whenever the stiletto toes of those stomp rockets came anywhere near the edge of that insulated platform, an arc flew off the tip of my big toe and through the rocket shoe, WHAP!, into the carpeted concrete five inches below.

It was awful!

I'm off to paint, but first let me thank Lee Byrd and Bill Wysock from the bottom of my crooked little heart for changing my life forever and, for so much joy, laughter, hard work, engineering sweat, friendship and downright fun! Thank YOU!

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