Becoming the Student, #20: Graham Higgs

imageProfessor Graham Higgs Gloriously Lit. Digital painting, dimensions variable, 2014. Click to view LARGE.

In this post, I want Professor Higgs to speak for himself. If you have a few minutes, please read the story below. If you give the narrative time to work, I’m certain that you will sense both the great truths and the gentle spirit that animate Graham’s life.

~

The Cry of the Spirit Leaving

By Graham Higgs. Posted here by permission of the author.

It was one of those blazing hot, dry days at noon in a small village in Southern Africa, where I lived as a child. Not a soul was stirring. The sky shimmered with heat, and the only sound was the empty shush of a dry breeze against the screen on the porch, where I lay on my back, shirtless against the cool concrete floor.

I watched a fly circling in slow motion and finally settling on the floor a few feet from my head. My cheek felt cool against the floor as I watched the fly brushing its wing with one of its six legs.

Suddenly, from a distance in the back yard, I heard a man’s cry, “Nyoka! Nyoka!”

This was truly startling. “Nyoka! Nyoka!” the cry rang out.

In the Swahili language, the word “Nyoka” means snake, but not just any snake. It means dangerous snake. The odd thing about this was that snakes were very rarely seen in the heat of mid-day. I heard the cry again, and I heard the back screen door slam as my father left the house. I jumped up and left the porch at the front of the house and ran around back to see what was going on. When I reached the back yard I could see my dad crossing the field behind the house toward the garden. In the middle of the field, a tall, barefooted man wearing only khaki shorts and carrying a long stick was standing and pointing in the direction of the garden.

My father reached him and stopped. They slowly advanced, and then I saw the big old king cobra that they were watching. It was slowly moving toward the garden. They followed it, and it became aware of them, suddenly rising up high off the ground and displaying its broad, golden neck with two hypnotic dark eye-shaped spots.

My father and the garden man froze. The snake dropped back to the ground and began to move more quickly toward a large pile of brush near the end of the field. Several other men arrived and all began to pursue the snake, which continued toward the brush pile and then disappeared inside. The men surrounded the huge pile of brush. With long sticks they poked into the pile, jumping back, afraid the reptile would attack. King cobras are known to be aggressive when provoked.

While all this commotion was going on, many of the villagers began to come to see what was going on and stood in the shade of the tall eucalyptus trees that lined the field. Women and girls stood and watched while curious boys ran with sticks and threw stones at the pile. Mothers called out at them and tried to get them to be careful. The men stood and watched and pondered what to do next. The day was very hot and dry, and some of the men receded to the shade of the trees. A sentry of 4 or 5 men stood guard around the brush pile watching for any sign of the snake. The crowd of onlookers swelled to include just about everyone in the village. Some of the boys kicked a soccer ball around in the dust, and a dry breeze lifted the fine dust into swirls around their ankles. Sweat ran down the cheeks of the men watching the huge pile of brush.

One of the men walked over to my father, who was standing with me in the shade. I heard him say, “Baba, we could set the brush on fire. That would surely drive the Nyoka out so we can kill it.” No sooner had he suggested this than a man came running from the village fire with a burning stick, and the brush pile was soon a blaze of heat and crackling light. Visible waves of heat radiated away from and above the fire in visible auroras. The intensity drove almost everyone away and back toward the trees and the shade. Even in the shade you could feel the heat of the fire across the field. The fire cracked and popped, but no snake appeared. An hour went by, and no snake had come from the now smoldering fire. People began to mumble, and some began to return to their huts in the village. Women took their children and said they had food to prepare.

About this time, a quiet whistling sound began to be heard coming from the pile of ash. The whistling became louder, and everyone in the near vicinity could hear it. It became louder still and began to sound like a woman crying in a high-pitched tone. Now the sound could be heard throughout the village, and it became an ear-splitting scream. People looked at each other, terrified. The Nyoka was crying! What could this mean?

One wise, elderly woman said that she believed that the men had tried to kill an ancestor spirit. “What Nyoka ever comes out into the heat of the day?” she asked. “It is a sign” she said, “a sign that we did not heed. In our rush to kill this Nyoka, we may have tried to kill an ancestor who was trying to talk with us. See, she does not come from the fire. She waits, and she will certainly take her anger out on us. Just you wait and see.”

This prediction filled the hearts of the villagers with foreboding and fear, and those who had returned to the fire to see what the commotion was fled from the scene, taking their children and mumbling in low, fearful tones. After a few minutes the crying became quieter and slowly died away. A few men stayed with my father and watched the last of the smoldering coals. Then, as the day became long and the sun began to reach the horizon, my father and the other two men began to poke into the ashes with a long stick. At one point near the center of the ash pile, the stick hit a metal object.

With a shovel and a large stick, they found that a sheet of corrugated metal roofing was at the base of the fire. When they turned it over, the Then, as the day became long and the sun began to reach the horizon, my father and the other two men began to poke into the ashes with a long stick. At one point near the center of the ash pile, the stick hit a metal object.

With a shovel and a large stick, they found that a sheet of corrugated metal roofing was at the base of the fire. When they turned it over, they found the king cobra coiled in a circle. Its mouth was open and the fangs exposed. It had been cooked by the fire, roasted under the corrugated roofing. I recall my father thinking for a few minutes after this discovery and then saying to the two men, “It is now clear to me what has happened here. As the snake cooked, it began to boil, and the moisture in the snake steamed out of its mouth and past the fangs, which created a whistling and crying sound, much like a penny whistle does.” The men looked puzzled.

One of the men was horrified. “Oh, no, Baba, this is not the case. This sound was the cry of the ancestor spirit leaving the snake. We have certainly offended one of our ancestors, and this is a very grave thing to have happened.”

He quickly left the field and returned to his family. That night as the village gathered to eat together and drink beer and tell stories around the communal fire, the talk was about whether to consult the Nganga (witch doctor) to see how they could make reparations to the ancestor. They believed that they had ignored a natural sign. They believed they had violated an ancestor, and they would be punished. My father tried to explain that this might not be the case, but the villagers would have nothing of it. They had their animistic beliefs that kept them in balance with nature. It was an evening of low talking and fearful discussion. Many retired to their huts earlier than usual. Only a few of the older men, including my father, sat and talked late into the night.

Early the next morning a 3-week-old infant died mysteriously while she slept. It was then the people knew that they had indeed angered an ancestor. The Nganga and a spirit medium and herbalist would need to be called to perform a ceremony to placate the ancestor. Women were asked to prepare extra beer, and the herbalist retreated to his hut on the outskirts of the village and pulled out his stock of hallucinogenic herbs and tinctures. Men sat around the village fire and talked while the women served beer and food and in their own groups ate and sang and danced. A couple of drummers and mbira (thumb-piano) players worked themselves into a chanting rhythm and flow that began to persuade those who participated to sway and bob with the beat. The Nganga mixed a tincture and filled a pipe that he lit and passed around the group of men, and the tincture was swallowed by the spirit medium, a man who normally was a very odd fellow, said to possess special powers of vision and the ability to talk with the ancestors.

The spirit medium fell into a trance and passed out on the ground under the watchful eye of the Nganga, who bathed his face with cool water. The chanting and singing became more communal, and some men began to get up and dance. The women, including my mother, joined in the chanting and clapping of hands, and pretty soon, everyone was singing mournful and yet energetic songs of placation. Late into the night, the spirit medium began to speak, and the Nganga called for silence.

The spirit medium spoke in a language that no one but the Nganga understood. After listening to the strange sounds coming from the spirit medium, the Nganga conferred with the village chief, who called for a moment of reflection. Then he spoke about what the ancestor had advised. He said that tomorrow we must kill a goat and 7 chickens and prepare a feast in honor of the ancestor. In addition, we must begin to respect each other and to watch out for the children of others as well as we watch out for our own children.

We must work more regularly in the peanut fields, as the crops are almost ready, and we must always treat strangers with caution but respect. After a list of these sorts of things, some directed specifically at a few members of the community, the ancestor related that life would return to normal. Within a few days, the community had come together with a new commitment to work productively and live in peace as the ancestors intended.

~

I broke some of my rules while working on Graham’s portrait. I really wanted it to live up to the power of his story and the quality of his deep, quiet mind… so I spent a lot more than 2 or 4 or 6 hours on it. While drawing him in his office at Columbia College, I had the advantage of seeing him silhouetted against a bright spring scene, the intense near-white greens illuminating his head as if with a halo. I worked this portrait back and fourth in Sketchbook Pro and Art Rage v3, with some editing and shifting in Afterlight, for several months. I used both the Adonit Jot Touch 4 and the fiftythree Pencil to do the work. I’m thankful for the conversations I’ve had with Graham and I hope to have more in the future.

VINCENT

Andrew Vincent was one of my favorite students. He has a quiet presence, a quirky sense of humor, and the uniqueness that comes from arriving in middle America from somewhere else. In his case, it was South Africa. His father, a scientist and professor at Mizzou, brought his family to the US in time for Andrew to start 3rd grade. In many ways he retains a beneficial sort of otherness in spite of having lived much of his life here in Missouri.

Andrew made some amazing work for me in my Color Drawing classes, work that I have shown to several semesters of students. Here are a few of his pieces:

DSC07844Andrew Vincent, Spilled Milk, Oil Pastel on Paper, 15 by 30 inches. Drawn from an image created in Autodesk 3Ds Max. 2011.

DSC07025Andrew Vincent, Study After Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. Oil pastel on paper. 30 by 22 inches. 2011.

VincentA-Grid1-S11Andrew Vincent, Grid Study #1, Chalk Pastel on paper. 24 by 18 inches. 2011.

Also a gifted digital artist, Andrew has worked with Autodesk’s 3Ds Max for a while. Here is a render he created for a recent project:

10677326_10152670991425049_971583360_oAndrew Vincent, Naivety. Autodesk 3Ds Max. 1920 x 1080 PPI. Output dimensions variable. 2013.

~

Andrew has taken the opportunity to move to Auburn, AL to work at the Jule Collins Smith Museum as a preparator. He’s aiming to enroll at Auburn sometime in the near future. The guy is on his way to an awesome future. I’m thankful I got to know him in my classes and in the time after he graduated… and I’m certainly looking forward to witnessing what he gets up to in his ongoing education and career. Here’s a portrait I created of him when he visited my office/studio before he left town:

VincentVINCENT, digital drawing created in ArtRage and Sketchbook Pro on an iPad. 2048 x 1536 PPI. Output dimensions variable, 2014.

I’ve always enjoyed my conversations with Andrew, and they have always been far-ranging. We have discussed, faith, meaning, culture, humor, analog and digital drawing/painting tools and concepts, and so much more. I have the feeling we’ll have the chance for more conversation and mutual encouragement going forward.

One of the best parts of my job as an educator is getting to see my students go on to become colleagues and truly function as fellow artists. Keep going forward, Vincent!

In Which I Recount Ten (Well, Fourteen [...Fifteen]) Texts Of Some Importance To My Life

There are a number of my friends posting their versions of this list to Facebook these days. Lists such as these always fail in some way. Of course, I also fail at writing them. It’s so easy to come off either pretentious or flippant (or both). I prefer to share my true, deeply-held likes and dislikes in direct conversation. Preferably along with good bourbon or a nice beer.

But I decided to go ahead and try this one. I think that I’m in a stage of my life where my motivations and interests are shifting (yet again), and in times such as these it’s good to take stock and see what remains influential. And so I’ll add my own ten-plus to the never-ending generator that is human activity on the internet. I will present a main list – with commentary – in no particular order.

The criterion I used to gather this collection was simple: did the book initiate some transformation in me, either immediately or upon reflection? I read quite a lot, but I wanted to be careful to choose only the works that have really stuck with me. That’s why there are all sorts of different types of book here (I have intentionally left out the expressly Art and Art Theory books that have been important to me, as there are so many). There are comics, theology, grand adventure, memoir, philosophy, and most of those arenas all mixed together. I’m surprised (and pleased) how many of them I actually experienced in very early childhood. I know there are some big names and obvious choices… that’s just how it is. This selection is not meant to be exhaustive or exceptional in any universal sense; I know there are better and, perhaps, more notable pieces of writing. For each I’ve included there are many more that could have been present. These are just pieces of writing that I know have shaped my life. I felt like sharing them. Enjoy.

~

SPACE, TIME, and INCARNATION by Thomas F Torrance

Thomas F Torrance took on an enormous task in this slim text. Published in 1969, Torrance wrote the book in an attempt to explain Divine interaction in space and time in the light of contemporary scientific developments in theoretical physics and cosmology. Rather than allowing theology a trump card to get out of any exchange with science, Torrance drives deep into the epistemological questions that arise when one seriously examines spatial and temporal ideas involved in theological conceptions. I discovered the book in an old, disused inn library in 2001, and went on to fill my copy with outbursts of marginalia. It remains dear to me.

THE ANNOTATED LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov (Annotations by Alfred Appel Jr.)

From its tip-of-the-tongue beginning to its devastating denouement, Lolita is one of those books lauded as a masterwork generation after generation that actually lives up to the hype. Alfred Appel’s annotations of the history and meaning behind Nabokov’s astounding and astute prose helped provide access to me as a Nabokov neophyte. The next Nabokov novels I read – Invitation to a Beheading, King, Queen, Knave, and Glory – were all immensely enhanced by the background The Annotated Lolita provided. “I shall be dumped where the weed decays, and the rest is rust and stardust.” (Page 257)

text-mobydickThe Leg and The Whale – Illustration for Moby Dick. Created in Paper with Pencil. 2014.

MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

In Summer 2013 I completed my third journey through this book. Each time it has become more subtle and significant to me. I know that Moby Dick is popular, and that it is popularly unread. This is unfortunate. Its dense passages offer much to submissive, receptive readers. The pugnaciousness, humor, and visual presence of this book make it one I know I’ll keep returning to over and over throughout my life. I even love the endless chapters on Cetology.

EPISTLE to the ROMANS by Saint Paul

Romans is, perhaps, the ultimate biblical text… maybe even more than the gospels themselves. It integrates the disparately organized theological concepts of the early Christian writers into an organized legalese. Though it contains many key chapters (One, Five, and Eight in particular) it is Chapter Five that has, for me, held an intensely disruptive power. Hundreds of readings and years of study have done nothing to dissipate its existential shock.

text-romansDirt and Blood – Illustration for Romans. Created in Paper with Pencil. 2014.

THE LIFE HISTORY of the UNITED STATES (Volumes 1, 2, and 3 of 12) by Henry Graff and Time/LIFE

As a young boy I loved to dive into these books. They were among my first exposure to “fine” art, not to mention the wild and wooly early history of America. I especially enjoyed the first three volumes of this set and, after a while, never really looked beyond them. They were extremely key to my life-long interests. The reproductions they contained of colonial era political cartoons have never left my mind’s eye.

ADA, or ARDOR: A FAMILY CHRONICLE by Vladimir Nabokov

Passionate, sweeping, and strange, Ada is a killer of a novel. Deeper and more powerful than its more famous sister (Lolita), Ada is one of the few books that have stopped me in my tracks. I mean this quite literally. On several occasions – my mind obsessed with the story – I pulled my car over (during my commute to and from school) to continue reading. It is a crushing emotional journey, one that forces consideration of not only the motivations of protagonists Van and Ada but also those that rumble within the reader. This book happened to be the first book my wife (then my girlfriend) and I read in tandem, sharing our thoughts and insights as we read.

GHOST in the SHELL by Masamune Shirow

The best of Masamune Shirow is on display in this, his magnum opus effort. In it he leaps beyond the dregs of manga cyberpunk and erotica to grasp higher ground. He asks huge questions: what is life, consciousness, and person-hood? Sociopolitical wrangling, heavy weaponry, and seamy underground characters collide in a richly imagined post-apocalyptic world on the rebound. His central character, Major Motoko Kusanagi, transcends her sex appeal to deliver existential queries that rock attentive readers. Unfortunately, Ghost in the Shell, along with earlier projects Appleseed and Orion, were Shirow’s only truly deep works. It’s too bad that he has never again turned his considerable artistic skill toward more redeeming themes.

THE ALPHABET VERSUS the GODDESS: THE CONFLICT BETWEEN WORD and IMAGE by Leonard Shlain

Though only a very cursory survey of the historical struggles contained within its pages, this book served as a major jumping off point for me to explore a variety of issues that have altered the course of my life as an artist and educator. Some of my greatest joys in teaching have come from discussions born of this text.

DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY by Douglas Adams

Over the years, Douglas Adams‘ two Dirk Gently novels (the one above and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul) have become my favorites among his various writings. In Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas weaves a tale of trans-historical curiosity, tying together his trademark humor, dual love of Bach and computers, the politics of vanity publishing, and just where exactly Coleridge came up with his vision of Kubla Khan‘s pleasure dome. The book is an epic, joyful trip. It finds ways to explain the strange, ridiculous nature of history so that the reader can laugh and weep with the realization. Adams was a genius.

PILGRIM at TINKER CREEK by Annie Dillard

No dilettante to Thoreau, Dillard finds a way to make her words – written as a 27 year old – take on majestic and epoch-encompassing power. Perhaps I was prepared to love it by my readings of theology and some of the American Transcendentalists, but Pilgrim at Tinker Creek does feel like a singular expression. I love her 20th century version of perception and awareness. A huge influence.

text-jabberwockyThe Jub-Jub Bird – Illustration for The Annotated Alice. Created in Paper with Pencil. 2014.

THE ANNOTATED ALICE: ALICE’S ADVENTURES in WONDERLAND and THROUGH the LOOKING GLASS by Lewis Carroll

This book has stayed with me since early childhood. It was my first inkling that something else may be going on under the surface subject matter of a story. The layering of concepts beyond the directly obvious – logic, mathematics, socio-political and theological suggestions – created a backbone to this text making it live far beyond its Victorian and children’s genre roots. If you visit my classroom you may hear me break into a dramatic recitation of The Jabberwocky for my undergraduates from time to time…

SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS GOES ‘BOINK’ by Bill Watterson

Calvin and Hobbes. Childhood and Imagination. Dreams and Awareness. Play and Learning. What else do I need to say?

INTERPRETATION and OVERINTERPRETATION by Umberto Eco and Richard Rorty

A roiling debate between Eco and Rorty forms the basis of this text and underpins so much of my own thoughts on how meaning is shaped. I routinely share it with my own graduate students in the spirit it was shared with me – with excitement and engagement. I was originally exposed to both Eco and Rorty by my fellow MFA grads at Indiana University. Fellow grad Matthew Choberka stimulated many of us in the program, and pushed our dialogue beyond the common complaints. Kudos to him.

SKETCHES IN CRUDE OIL: SOME ACCIDENTS and INCIDENTS of the PETROLEUM DEVELOPMENT in ALL PARTS of the GLOBE, CHAPTER XVII: SOME NITRO-GLYCERINE in THIS (Pages 383-406) by John J McLaurin

This chapter of a book published in 1898 loomed large in my imagination as an 8 year old in Grove City, PA. My then step-father George was studying at Grove City College under Austrian School economist Hans Sennholz. The college served as my initial exposure to academia and was a central catalyst in my intellectual imagination. I was allowed to roam the grounds and halls of Grove City; I’m certain that it provided the push that eventually led me to my current vocation as an educator. Sketches in Crude Oil was a book that George had been looking at and he read from the nitroglycerine chapter many times. The stories of wagons exploded into nothingness, men blown to atoms, flesh and bones thrown hundreds of yards, and single drops of the explosive hit with hammers have stuck with me for 30 years. That library, those books, and the pages of this volume permeated my conception of history, education, and life for the better.

text-bigbangThe Big Bang – Illustration for The Elegant Universe. Created in Paper with Pencil. 2014.

THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE by Brian Greene

Another popular science survey, but a good one. Reading Brian Greene‘s book, though certainly secular, was one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve had. His description of the various phase transitions taking place in the first millionths of a second after the Big Bang became nothing short of a transcendent sight to my inner eye. Making enormously complex ideas understandable is Greene’s business, and this book addresses many of those issues in direct, accessible language. Good stuff.

~

TEXTS (I have recently read) WHICH MAY EVENTUALLY WORM THEIR WAY ONTO THIS LIST…

CLOUD ATLAS by David Mitchell

BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN by David Foster Wallace

BLOOD MERIDIAN: OR the EVENING REDNESS in the WEST by Cormac McCarthy

THE DUNWICH HORROR by H.P. Lovecraft

ABSENCE OF MIND: THE DISPELLING of INWARDNESS FROM the MODERN MYTH of the SELF by Marilynne Robinson

AN ETHICS FOR TODAY: FINDING COMMON GROUND BETWEEN PHILOSOPHY and RELIGION by Richard Rorty

PARADOX IN CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY: AN ANALYSIS of its PRESENCE, CHARACTER, and EPISTEMIC STATUS by James Anderson

THE POETICS OF SPACE and THE POETICS OF REVERIE by Gaston Bachelard

~

BOOKS WHICH HAVE BEEN INFLUENTIAL BY DEFAULT (And thus require no comment)

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA by C.S. Lewis

THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS by Kenneth Grahame

THE PSALMS

PROVERBS

The Books of THORNTON BURGESS

The Books of LAURA INGALLS WILDER

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

~

Thanks to Jill for tagging me in this one:)

Becoming The Student, #18: The PhD (Dr. Aja Holmes at Wakonse)

I was blessed to be able to attend the Wakonse Conference on College Teaching earlier this year (thanks, Deborah!) and while there I got to meet so many amazing people. One of them was Aja Holmes. As part of the cohort I was in, she set a tone of inclusion, concern, and thoughtfulness. She was welcoming, passionate, always engaging, and always ready with an encouraging word. It makes perfect sense that she’s found her niche as a Residence Life director working with Undergraduates. While at Wakonse, we got to share in the joy of her being appointed to a position at California State University-Sacramento. I’ve held onto this portrait of her since May, but since today is her birthday, it’s time to post it! Read below to find out more about this awesome individual!

photoThe PhD (Aja Holmes at Wakonse), gouache on paper, 10 by 16 inches. 2014.

 ~

You just earned your PhD. What drew you do your field and what was your educational trajectory?

“As a kid I always loved school. I would play school with my little brother – my first student. He would complain and ask our mom, ‘Why does Aja always want to play school? Didn’t she just come home from school?’ But he would go along with it if I promised to let him try wrestling moves on me (learning to compromise – HAHA!).

I also knew that I wanted to be a doctor, but when I saw blood for the first time it did not agree with me. I knew that I would have to take another route to becoming a doctor. While being involved as an undergraduate student leader someone told me about the work of Student Affairs and that I could live out the rest of my life on a college campus; I said SIGN ME UP! I loved everything about being on a college campus. So after undergrad I stayed on at Illinois State University for my Master’s Degree in College Student Personnel.

Back then I did not know for sure if I was going to get my PhD, but I knew that after my Master’s Degree I should get some significant work experience before going back for a doctorate. I did just that: worked at two universities in the area of ResLife. In 2009, I applied to doctoral programs in Higher Education Leadership and was accepted into Iowa State University. I had heard of Iowa State and I knew that if I wanted to finish I needed to be close to my family. Luckily Dad was a six-hour drive to Chicago and Mom was a three-hour drive to St. Paul, Minnesota. To be in the middle of my family really strengthened my support system.

People often ask ‘what is your ultimate goal in life?’ They ask even more since I earned my PhD. Ultimately, I would like to become a university president. I also want to teach in a higher education program that prepares student affairs professionals.”

You have such a warm and engaging personality. How you do maintain your passionate, hopeful, and excited outlook? 

“I am often asked why am I so happy all the time. I have had to really think about it and truly understand what makes me happy. I decided a while back to take control of my happiness. To rely on others to make you happy relinquishes control on your outlook in life. So I make sure that I have a say in what makes me happy, and things that do not – I rid my life of them. My passion stems from experiences that have occurred in my life that had some effect on my life. Being a multiracial woman oftentimes lends me to have different experiences than most. Whether it’s issues such as the Voting Rights Act being challenged, unarmed African Americans being killed by the police, the DREAM Act, or other situations that involve people of underrepresented groups, I have a passion to act. I take to heart quotes and sayings such as, ‘to whom much is given, much is required’ and, ‘service is what we pay for living’.”

When we spoke at Wakonse, you told me about the important impact your Dad made on your life. Can you name a couple key lessons he provided?

“I was raised in a single parent household. Unlike the norm, it was my father who raised me. He has been one of my biggest supporters and cheerleaders. Since I was in the 3rd grade, my father cared for for my brother and I. He has taught me so much in life, from how to mingle and get to know people you just met, to how to be a woman of Color in a white-male-dominated society, to how to use humor to break the ice. He told me to keep pushing and don’t let what other people think get in the way of my hopes and dreams. I saw his struggles of being a parent while trying to own a business, and of being a parent to a teenage daughter coming of age. He sought out advice from his sisters and other lady friends in his life. But my father had to step up when needed. I will forever be in awe of what he did.”

 10287004_10152438914589534_3993202260772184824_oMe working on Aja’s portrait while we chatted together.

You’re now at California State University-Sacramento working as the Senior Director for Housing and Residential Life. What inspired you to focus your career toward working with students in ResLife situations?

“I love everything about living in the residence halls! I lived in the halls all four of my undergraduate years. Working in ResLife has allowed me to get to know that part of the university from the inside and out. I get to interact with the students in a way that no other Student Affairs person does: while they are in their PJs at home. I get to see them grow into young citizens. Since my research is on supervision, and a large part of Residence Life is supervision, I am able to see how my research can evolve and help prepare student affairs professionals to be the best they can be in this area.”

What do you think is one of the most important issues university students are tackling in 2014?

“One of the most important issues facing students today is the appreciation of differences. I use the word difference in the total meaning of the word: everything that is different. Students are too desensitized to even recognize when something is racist, homophobic, or sexist, etc. Students on our campuses have a unique makeup. They have been using computers their whole life and technology is their way of life; that is all that they know. Interacting with people who are different from them is hindered because of the technology. Technology made the world smaller but actually talking to another human being is a hurdle for them… hence their lack of the appreciation of differences.”

I think you’re into tabletop gaming – at least you were running the show at Wakonse! What’s your favorite board game?

“My favorite board game is really any one that my nieces and nephew are playing. Every holiday season we play board games and I am able to see them learn the process of waiting their turn, reading directions, compromising among each other, and displaying good sportpersonship. It is much more interactive than video games. They are such a joy to be around and I love everything there is to being an Aunt. I will play board games with them for hours and hours!”

~

Thanks for sitting for me, Aja! Your portrait will be on the way soon!

The Chrysanthemum Powder (A Portrait of CaiQun)

I’ve been working on a portrait of CaiQun for over 6 months now. The resulting image is, perhaps, actually more of a self-portrait-via-still-life. The significance of the chrysanthemum powder is huge: it was CaiQun’s last daily material connection to China for many months after she came home with us. The first two years of her life she drank the warm beverage before mid-morning naps. We quickly learned her routine and, informed by the orphanage, purchased many bags of the powder to bring back to the US with us. I saved the last bag we used. It has, like so many other seemingly inconsequential objects, become a part of my studio environment. As I observed it over the weeks and months after China, it transformed into a kind of icon.

Since I tend to be an observational, perceptual painter, I like to keep items I might paint near me as stimulation and inspiration. I placed the bag into one of my paint boxes. There it sat, situated among paint and brushes and sketches for quite a long time, until one day it grabbed my attention with force. The addition of a few other elements – bottles, a sketchbook I’d used in China, a sketch of festival lanterns – and the stage was set.

Chrysanthemum2014The Chrysanthemum Powder (A Portrait of CaiQun), Oil on panel, 16 by 16 inches. 2014. Click to super-enlarge it.

Anyway, I really love this painting.

It goes up in an exhibition next week. If you’re in the mid Missouri area I hope you’ll stop by to see it, another piece I made, and the work of a number of other artists from Mizzou and China. Here’s some info about the show:

East-West Dialogues: Paintings by Chinese Visiting Scholars & Their Hosting Art Professors

Participating Artists:

Zhonghua Gao, Min Li, Rujing Sun*, Ruiqin Wang, Matt Ballou, William Hawk, Mark Langeneckert, Lampo Leong

Show: August 4-15, 2014
Reception: Tuesday, August 5, 2014, 4-6pm

Craft Studio Gallery, University of Missouri-Columbia
518 Hitt Street, N12 Memorial Union, Columbia, MO 65211, USA
http://craftstudio.missouri.edu/gallery/
573-882-2889
Gallery Hours: Mon-Thurs 9am-6pm, Fri 9am-4pm, Sat 12-5pm

Exhibition organized by the Office of the Vice Provost for International Programs, The MU Confucius Institute, and the MU Department of Art.

*Rujing spent a great deal of time with me in my Color Drawing classes during the Spring of 2014. She’s a wonderful artist and was a pleasure to have in my classrooms.

Becoming The Student, #15: Mar Cus

One of the most significant relationships of my adult life has been with a former student and current colleague, Marcus Miers. Right now he’s finishing up his MFA at The University of Wisconsin at Madison, but he undertook his BFA at The University of Missouri. Marcus was among the most interesting, confusing, and outstanding students I’ve had at Mizzou. He is, so far, the only student I’ve had as an undergraduate who came back to work in the classroom with me as an assistant in the very classes in which he distinguished himself.

The semester where he worked with me as an assistant to my Color Drawing courses remains a highlight of my teaching experience. As fun as that was, however, his participation in Color Drawing as a student was more transformative to me. He consistently challenged the premise of each project. He pushed me to go beyond my standard explanations. He devoted significant time and intellectual effort to grasp as much as possible in the classroom.

At one point during his second tour of duty in Color Drawing (this time in Intermediate Color Drawing), Marcus turned away from the assignment I gave. We had been working from the model for weeks, and his work was large, energetic, and chromatically intense. Yet one day, out of the blue, he simply set up his easel outside the parachute I’d hung as a barrier to block general views of the model. I had learned to trust him, though I found it somewhat cheeky of him to ignore just about every aspect of the project I’d just assigned. I sat back and watched as the beginnings of what would – eventually – become the foundation of his MFA work began to gestate right before me.

Forgoing the figure, Marcus turned instead to direct perceptual effects. He would not turn back. Light and color, intensely dense and saturated, were the basis of his rigorous investigations. The work (here’s an example) became smaller and, oddly, more spectral. It hovered over the counter-intuitive field of non-focus that forms the basis of all representation. He was seeing through depiction toward an intensity of hue and luminosity that is basically felt rather than taught. It makes perfect sense that he would soon become passionate about Josef Albers (and in particular Albers’ notion of halation). I learned more through witnessing that single aesthetic and educational maneuver than I had in my previous years of teaching combined.

~

MarCusPortraitMar Cus (High Waters and Duct Tape)

Charcoal and Pastel on Paper, 30 by 20 inches. 2014.

~

Below I’m posting three contemplations on Marcus that I made prior to the portrait above. They were created after a photo I took of Marcus at the Milwaukee Art Museum last year.

2014-04-04 19.30.15

The Sublimity of the Duct Tape Painter (Portrait of Marcus Miers with Tears)

Dimensions variable, 2014. Created in Sketchbook Pro and Artrage with alterations in Afterlight. April, 2014.

 

2014-04-04 22.22.42The Apotheosis of Mar Cus (Portrait of Marcus Miers with a Rocket)

Dimensions variable, 2014. Created in Sketchbook Pro and Artrage with alterations in Afterlight. April, 2014.

1977309_10104000276785119_1550973951_nThe Artist is Absent (Marcus Missing From the Milwaukee Art Museum)

Digital painting, Dimensions variable. Created in Sketchbook Pro and Artrage with alterations in Afterlight. April, 2014.

I am so thankful that Marcus has participated in my life over the years. We have shown work together (more than once). We have traveled together. Next year I will curate an exhibition of his work at Imago Gallery and Cultural Center in Columbia, MO. Knowing Marcus (and his brother Sam) has been so rewarding, so educational, so important. I’m just grateful to get to celebrate him and share the images above with everyone.

On top of it all, it’s his birthday today. So happy birthday, sir. Thank you for your friendship and encouragement.

~

To close, here’s a little throwback:

DSC06563Marcus working on one of the last figure drawings he made in Color Drawing. October, 2010.

~

Becoming The Student, #14: JJ

I’ve been teaching at The University of Missouri for seven years. In that time I’ve served on many graduate thesis committees and developed a number of great, long-lasting relationships with grads. But it wasn’t until Jane Jun arrived three years ago that I was a “Main Advisor” or “Head of Committee”. The opportunity to work closely with Jane for those years was a huge benefit to me. As Jane progressed through the program she made huge changes in her work and found ways to grow that were both necessary and surprising. She rose to meet difficult challenges when she really needed to. Her thesis work – which dealt with female Asian identity, diaspora/immigration, stereotypes, societal (and personal) expectations, as well as the ways portraiture and self-portraiture have been transformed in recent years – was illuminating and meaningful. Her thesis writing was excellent and was important for me, as the father of an adopted daughter from China, to spend time thinking and dialoguing about on so many levels. It was a privilege to be up close and see all of her work come together.

enchanter-whatgradclassisJJ and me at Shakespeare’s way back in her first year of grad school.

Now JJ is heading back to South Korea to begin her post-grad school life. I have to admit that the annual exodus of grads is hard for me. So much mental and emotional energy goes into working with my students, so much hope and desire for them to do well. Add to that my sentimental nature and you can probably imagine my mindset each May.

2014-05-18 23.02.38JJ and me at our last Shakespeare’s hangout last month. We point off into the heights of a glorious future.

In creating my Becoming the Student portrait of JJ, I wanted to maintain my method – a short session from observation, with only minor changes after the fact – while at the same time celebrating her achievement. I’m glad she agreed to pose in her cap and was willing to maintain a calm – if a tad pensive and sad – expression. If you know anything about her work (click here if not), you know that the seriousness of her pose and quietude of her face here are nothing like what you’d normally see in an image of her.

JJportraitJJ, MFA. Oil on panel, 8 inches in diameter, 2014.

I’ll sure miss her shouting “SIRRRRRR!” when she sees me.

I already do.

Inspiration: Students

I started this blog five years and two days ago, and one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about it is sharing the work of my students. I never try to over-sell it. Most of my students are not Art majors. Many of them have had very little art-making experience before they take my classes. Yet they always make transformational movements, always end up showing themselves things they never imagined doing. I want to share a few of my Spring 2014 students’ works and words below. They were inspirational to me this semester. All images and words shared with permission.

photo 1Tayler Newcomer, Undeclared Major. Self Portrait Study, 14 by 11 inches, Graphite.

“Everything changed when I walked in this classroom at the beginning of this semester. This class has changed the way I thought of drawing, and even my perspective on life. I found myself more focused and calm when I drew instead of anxious and judged. It helped to bring back this hope and urge to draw that I used to have when I was a little kid and I’m not sure if I can even fully explain what that means to me. What I’ve taken from this class is honestly a little more uncertainty, but I know that’s not a bad thing… I just had thought to myself that I could never be an artist or a musician or a writer. Yet I still draw, still play music, and I still write on that novel I’m almost sure I’ll never finish. I want to go out and appreciate this wonderful gift of life that has been bestowed upon us.” – Tayler Newcomer.
imageTayler Newcomer, Undeclared Major. Self Portrait Study, 18 by 24 inches, Graphite.
~
2014-05-03 16.00.51Emily Crane, Graphic Design Major, Softball. Master Copy after LeRoy Neiman, 24 by 18 inches, Pastel.
“I want to see things through others’ eyes and be open to change! In the rest of my life I want to keep trying to be slow to anger and quick to love, and care as Jesus would. I pray my life will be a light for people in one way or another!” – Emily Crane.
2014-05-03 15.55.14Emily Crane, Graphic Design Major, Softball. Self Portrait Off Third Base, from a M, 24 by 18 inches, Pastel.
~
image[1]Blessing Ikoro, Psychology Major. Self Portrait Study, 14 by 11 inches, Colored Pencil.
“If it were not for a sense of the whole I would not be me when I draw my self portraits. I would not be such a pronounced image within the scene that I draw; it is the universe itself that helps pronounce my image. The drawing then has a sense of the whole as well.” – Blessing Ikoro.
image[2]Blessing Ikoro, Psychology Major. Study of Busts of Caesar and Apollo, 24 by 18 inches, Charcoal.
~
2014-05-03 16.00.58Amanda Bradley, Art Major. Master Copy after Dutch Master, 24 by 18 inches, Colored Pencil.
~
2014-05-03 16.00.38Shayna Painter, Business Administration Major. Master Copy after Kupka, 18 by 18 inches, Colored Pencil.
~
“The way you see something and the way you experience it are so different. The visual aspect of anything isn’t more important than what you learned from it or now it made you feel.” – Hunter Whitt, Elementary Education Major.
~
These young women were just a few of the outstanding students I had this semester. Here’s hoping they continue on with the art impulse.

Banality

I’ve had a number of what could be termed crises of faith over the last few years. Given that my life isn’t particularly compartmentalized, arenas slide over and influence one another. This can be for good or ill: A car needing to get fixed shows up on my choice of palette. The sickly child informs my lesson plans. A poorly executed drawing demonstration syncs up with indigestion.

One of the difficulties I have found in teaching the fundamentals of drawing and painting (something I’ve been doing for nearly a decade) is that I have become more and more detached from the epic expansiveness of potential meaning I once saw so easily in everything.

If that seems counter-intuitive, you’re right. On the one hand, I’m opening up this huge world for students and advocating for its meaning-making properties. Sometimes I do a good job at this; sometimes it clicks. On the other hand, however, often I have to break things down so far that they become divested of their mystery. This is probably because I’m not the best teacher – nor the best student – I could be.

But it is also that, amidst the urgency of schedules and diapers and curricula and learning goals and policy committees and trying to eat right and falling off ladders and mowing the lawn and hoping I’m a good dad, the horizon of my universe has shrunk. I can no longer connect to the mysteries. When I look in their direction they seem blank – I seem blank. I look at pictures that used to inspire me and fire me up… I can feel the echoes of what I felt 10 or 20 years ago, yet they seem vague, hollow, incomplete, impotent, and affected attempts. I painfully sense the depths to which I once could swim, but realize I no longer try those fathoms. The shallows, it seems, are the extent of my aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual submersion these days.

All of the hard-fought attempts I’ve made as an artist and writer seem to, generally, make little or no connection to others. This is not a statement meant to engender pity toward me. I’m not begging for praise. I simply recognize that the average viewer/reader receives perhaps 10% of the passion, reflection, or depth I intended. I am thankful for that 10% of understanding. I’m thankful for every picture I’ve had the honor to show or sell and grateful for every piece of writing I’ve had the privilege to publish into the world. Yet I feel that I can no longer put so much time or energy into these things. It’s not that I don’t want to do it, it’s that I don’t have the depth anymore. Those corridors are closed off. I have shrunk. The extent of my vision has stalled. The infinite chiaroscuro of the universe has fled from me.

I’m not writing this to garner sympathy. I’m just trying to be honest. I think this is part of the life of an artist. Perhaps this too shall pass. I only know that my ability to believe in the value of plumbing the depths is all but gone, and I’m almost not even sad about it. What happens when you no longer feel tethered to what used to be your deepest motivation?

So much of what happened in the best work I’ve made over the last 20 years can be chalked up to faith. I can see passages of paintings and drawings where I had faith, where I had belief in the work. What happened in them was beyond technique and ability, beyond solid ideas or philosophical underpinning. The best ones went far beyond my knowing how to make them. When you lose that faith, how can you ever see or do those things again?

I know I am lucky. I get to teach, get to make paintings and drawings and prints. I get to show my work. But in doing all of that I can see how things atrophy and become stilted. The raging river stagnates. Will I be making tame pictures of flowers in 20 years? I hope not. Yet I feel a domestication growing. When one has a creative itch to scratch but no longer has emotional, spiritual, or intellectual access to the deep things of life the result is often the height of banality.

So artists, pundits, and mass-shooters proliferate. Another day, another war, another hundred thousand more orphans. Google knows what Star Trek-themed trinket I’m most likely to buy (and I actually consider buying it). I remember less and less of the awkward dreams of the 20-year-old me while the 40-year-old me who can no longer run with his kids comes more and more into focus. Perhaps it’s all an episode that would pass with a couple more hours of sleep each night, or with actually cutting red meat out of my diet. Or perhaps it’s just how things are, and I’ll have to figure out how to reach those old depths again after another decade and a second wind.

#montanniversary

A year ago today I got to participate in one of the most amazing events of my life – I officiated the wedding of two of my former students, Amanda and Keith. They are awesome. The wedding was incredible. I was just honored to be involved (and get to quote some Hafez, too!).

8917217604_3b7ac9c6fd_oHere I am preparing for the ceremony. Photo by Keith Montgomery, June 1, 2013.

One of the gifts the new couple gave me was an awesome sculpture made of graphite, created by Batle Studios in San Francisco (click there to see the objects – they’re beautiful). To honor them on their anniversary, I decided to draw a small picture with the sculpture itself. Though not quite as easy to use as a standard pencil, my graphite shell was perfect for the task. I drew a small china plate with a chunk of bread on it – a tableau I had seen at the wedding (Keith and Amanda shared Eucharist together during their wedding).

2014-03-02 20.26.07Here I am beginning the drawing, back on March 3, 2014. Below is the final product:

keith-main

Congratulations on your first anniversary, Amanda and Keith! Thank you for all that you are!

~